The Industry & Railways of the South West Black Country
THOMAS WEBB & SONS, Limited,
Dennis Glass Works, Stourbridge.
These works, which were founded by the late Mr. Thomas Webb, about sixty years ago, need no introduction, for the representation which their products have acquired has sounded out in all lands. The fact that the firm secured the only grand prizes awarded for glass at the international exhibitions held in Paris in 1878 and 1889 is testimony in itself to the place their glass has won in competition with glass from other countries, beautiful as much of the latter is. The original works were situated at the Platts.
An engraving of the works appeared in the "Art Union" for April 1846, together with an account of the works and illustrations of some of the ornamental glass therein produced. The writer says: "Mr. Webb devotes his attention chiefly, if not exclusively to the manufacture of flint glass, and it only justice to him to state that in clearness and purity he is confessedly unsurpassed in Europe." Mr. Webb, it may be said to his credit, anticipated much of the factory requirements of latter times, for Mr. Horne, the factory inspector of the period spoken of, describes the perfect state of the works, and the attention paid to the ventilation, the railing off of dangerous machines, etc., remarking that it might stand a model for all similar works. "The engravings of articles made at the works," says the writer referred to, "showed the taste and energy Mr. Webb applied to his beautiful and interesting art"; but we may supplement the remark with the observation that the glass trade since that time has been making most important advances, and this could hardly be better exemplified than in the art glass that enriches the show rooms of the firm, in their present Dennis Glass Works. The business was transferred there about forty years ago, and after trading as private concern under the title of Messrs. Thomas Webb and Sons, up to about fourteen years ago, it was turned into a limited company. The present board includes Mr. Cecil Wedgewood, Mr. Rupert Smith (chairman of the company), Mr. Charles Webb, and Mr. Corngreve Jackson, the latter being the managing director.
The general process of the manufacture of glass are much the same in all glass works, though individual firms may have their differences of detail. Messrs. Thomas Webb and Sons particularly devote themselves to glass of the highest possible artistic excellence, and in some cases single pieces of glass reach a value of several hundred pounds; in one instance as much as £900 has been paid for one article. Some time ago the firm made specially a table service of glass for America which, by the time import duty had been paid on it, had a cost the purchaser £2,000.
The show rooms of the firm contain innumerable articles of beauty. Here the eye is caught by the magnum claret jug, in which the decoration is a design from the celebrated Elgin frieze. The patient work bestowed upon it has had admirable results, and such a piece has a sterling value which runs into three figures. Some of the most expensive pieces of work are the sculpted cameo plaques and vases, which have found so much favour with connoisseurs and others. Among the subject which have been successfully treated are "Anthony and Cleopatra," "Cupid in Disgrace," "Sappho," "Diane and Endymion" and many others of classical origin.
In this work the layers of different coloured glass on a vase or other article to be treated admit of the most charming effects. In some instances as many as seven layers are manipulated, and a whole year may be spent in completing a design. The first subjects worked out in cameo on vases and other articles are often very dainty and attractive, though such works are applicable also to the numberless other things to be seen. The imitation of old ivory in glass, with designs worked out in Japanese style is very happily conceived and executed. Japanese guilt and enamelled vases form another item of production in forms associated with the Far East.
Cut-glass figures largely among the goods the firm produces, and always holds its own in the array of things beautiful that are executed in glass works. Polished rock crystal maybe named among the styles in which delightfully rich effects are produced. The old style of engraving was one in which a dulled appearance was in favour, but in the present day is a strong contrast to this in the bright finish that is in vogue.
It is marvellous that such a brittle material as glass can be made so light in substance as some of it is, and yet afterwards decorated with out fracture. Etched glass is another category under which decorated glass comes. Articles, too, are sometimes gilt, there being a special preparation of the gold used for this purpose. What ever form glass decoration takes maybe found in numerous examples in the interesting show rooms of Messrs. Webb and Sons, and the most recherche productions that the glass trader as an art industry can yield are here met with. Mention should be made of the silver mounted goods which form an item in the production of the works, and candlesticks of all styles and shapes, table decorations, lamp shades of striking design, which indicate the many directions in which the manufacturer of glass takes in the present day.
The advance made in the glass trade as an art industry in the Victorian age suggest that the thought that there will be still further developments of it in the future, not in the artist beauty and intrinsic excellence of the articles manufactured, for perfection seems to have been already reached in these, but in the novelties and novel uses of glass which so accommodating material admits of. Messrs. Webb and Sons have shown, by what they have done in the past, their capabilities for the future developments of the trade. There have been shackles in the glass trade in the past owing to the mistaken policy of the glass makers society, from which the firm have freed themselves, not only to their own advantage, but to the benefit of the trade generally. The attitude which they took up after mature reflection, in the early part of the year 1902 placed them once for all in an independent position as regards the engagement and promotion of workmen and conditions of work, and it is one of those events which marks an era in the glass trade, for other firms have come into line with Messrs. Webb and Sons in the matter referred to. Employers and employed must both benefit by the new departure, and should tend to the greater prosperity of the glass industry.
© Tom Cockeram 1998