Looking back, it is only in recent years that I fully appreciate the influence my grandparents had upon my life. On the face of it, they were comparatively straightforward folk who enjoyed a rural life living in an isolated cottage on the fringes of Heytesbury in West Wiltshire with the River Wylye gurgling at the foot of the garden. The tranquillity of the location encouraged a largely self-sufficient existence growing their own produce and fully embracing the ‘make do and mend’ lifestyle that was a matter of necessity in the post Second World War years. Indeed, my Granddad somehow managed to survive the unimaginable horrors of the Changi prisoner of war camp located to the East of Singapore, whilst my Nan served in the WRAF helping keep the home fires burning.
What has this to do with Whitefriars? Well, one of my Nan’s greatest pleasures was to scour the antique shops, junk stalls and flea markets held weekly in Devizes and Salisbury; we would regularly hop on various Hants & Dorset buses excited at the prospect of finding unimaginable treasures. She loved the Whitefriars range of textured bark vases favouring the Tangerine and Kingfisher Blue varieties. Of course, in those days, you could pick up a Finger Vase, Coffin or Pineapple for a matter of pence, but she was frugal in the extreme and always haggled the price down to the bare minimum; even so, upon returning to the cottage, my Granddad would always bemoan any expense despite my Nan’s protestations.
Fast-track forty years and my interest in Whitefriars was rekindled when I found a Ruby Red medium-sized vase at Bath’s monthly vintage market which I bought for a fiver. I was in the midst of redecorating the lounge and in need of some colour to complement the newly acquired cushions from Tao of Cinderella. What followed over the ensuing months was an eBay frenzy resulting in the purchase of almost one hundred pieces ranging in price from a tenner to two hundred pounds. My late Nan was still alive back then and rolled her eyes in horror when I told her the amounts I paid. Three years on and even my most decadent of purchases represent something of a bargain as both prices and interest in Whitefriars has rocketed especially in Japan and the US.
The company dates back to the Seventeenth Century and was acquired by James Powell in 1834 quickly establishing a reputation for quality and innovation throughout the Victorian era. During the Festival of Britain held in 1951, Whitefriars was identified as an example of an outstanding British company but its fortunes were under threat from Scandinavian imports. Enter Geoffrey Baxter. A visionary young designer who introduced the textured range made from bark moulds that quickly found favour with both an international and domestic clientele. Sadly, the momentum was curtailed by Britain’s economic decline in the early seventies and increasing production costs; the factory was duly bulldozed and Baxter himself passed away in 1995.
The ensuing decades prompted a reappraisal of Baxter’s visionary contribution to British glassmaking and prices have risen accordingly. Particularly rare pieces including Banjo Vases & Drunken Bricklayers now fetch multiple thousands on account of their scarcity and even mass-produced editions command three figure sums. I will never sell my collection as I feel it connects my middle-aged self with my Grandparents to whom I owe so much.