By Christopher Proudlove©
There was a time when the antiques trade with the United States was one-way: everything from valuable fine art and antiques to container loads of junk that was unwanted here at home were exiting our shores on a daily basis.
To some extent that remains true today. As the supply of works of art of the highest calibre continues to dwindle and eventually run out, it is only the very rich who can afford the very best. On the whole, those people tend to be in America, and to a lesser but growing extent, the Far East and Asia.
But at our level of collecting — the kind of stuff you and I can afford to buy — something very interesting is happening. It may be the strength of the pound against the dollar. It may be, simply, that more and more people are travelling to the States for holidays and when they get there, like us, they cannot resist bringing back a collectable souvenir of the visit.
Of course, the ubiquitous internet-based auction sales have also played a part. Now it’s easy to buy a collectable from a fellow collectable on the other side of the world — all available at the click of a computer mouse.
Whatever the reason, it has not escaped our notice that collectors’ fairs and car boot sales these days each have their share of American hometown kitsch that is increasingly finding its way into true blue British collections.
So it was that we discovered Fenton Art Glass — not too difficult considering both new and old examples are on sale virtually everywhere. We were on holiday in California and found our first purchase, a pretty yellow glass nightlight, in antiques fair we happened upon. The light, which produces a lovely warm glow when lit, still sits in our bedroom.
It was a start of not only a love of old nightlights, but also an appreciation of the products of the largest handmade coloured glass manufacturer in United States. This week Fenton celebrated its centennial, which in US terms makes the company positively venerable!
The Fenton Art Glass Company was founded in 1905 by Frank L. Fenton and his brother John W. Fenton in an old glass factory building in Martins Ferry, Ohio.
They began by painting decorations on glass blanks made by other glass manufacturers, but soon, being unable to get the glass of the type and quality they needed, they decided to produce their own. The first glass from the new Fenton factory in Williamstown, West Virginia, was produced on January 2, 1907.
Frank Fenton’s desire to develop new and unusual colours helped to keep the business in the forefront of the handmade art glass industry. During the years from 1905 to the 1920s, the factory’s designs were heavily influenced by the artists at Tiffany and Steuben.
In late 1907, Fenton introduced “iridescent” glass, which they called Iridill because it had an iridised metallic finish. This was produced by adding various metallic salts which were burnt on to the glass during firing. Now it is known as “Carnival” glass, which remains a popular collectable today.
The effect was a rainbow-like finish which copied the Favrile glass made by Louis Comfort Tiffany in his New York works in the 1880s. Tiffany glass was hand-blown and expensive, but Fenton’s copies were machine-made and mass-produced.
The most common iridescent orange colour was achieved by spraying clear glass with selenium while it was still hot. Slightly less common pieces are found in dark purple, bluey green, white and the rare red, all of which were obtained from the same spray on glass of varying colours. In all Fenton alone produced more than 125 patterns.
During the 1930s and 40s, the twin setbacks of the Depression and Second World War shortages, saw Fenton weathering the storm by producing practical items, such as tableware, mixing bowls for Dormeyer to go with electric mixers and hobnail perfume bottles for Wrisley, two major contracts which saved the company from failing when many others went bankrupt.
However, Fenton continued working on developing a wide array of new colours and in spite of other glass companies closing at a rapid rate, and the death of the top three members of the Fenton management team, new blood in the shape of Frank M. and Wilmer C. “Bill” Fenton led the factory through significant growth for the next 30 years as President and Vice President respectively.
The years following the war were good for Fenton. Little European glass was imported into the US and demand for quality, hand made glass was high. Fenton’s responded by producing opaque coloured pieces in Victorian styles, which are now popular and sought after among today’s collectors.
Another innovative product was the so-called Milk glass, introduced in1952 and subsequently becoming the company’s top-seller. As it sounds, the glass is pure white and resembles porcelain but at a fraction of the cost and millions of pieces were snapped up eagerly.
Interestingly, it is milk glass which caught our imagination on a subsequent visit to Florida. We own a huge moulded jug which we bought for $25 (£13) despite the risk of pushing our baggage allowance over the limit in the process!
Leadership of the company passed on to a third generation in 1986, with Frank M’s son, George W, taking over as President and today nine Fenton family members work together with more than 500 employees to create handmade glass that is loved by collectors across America and increasingly around the world.
The joy of Fenton is the beautiful colours and patterns used in production and the more you see, the more you want to own. Each piece is an artistic creation by skilled glassworkers and decorators, many of whom sign their work for new generations of collectors to seek out and covet.
Among personal favourites are the pieces made in cream-coloured opaque glass shading to light pink. A copy of the earlier so-called Burmese glass produced by Thomas Webb, said to have been christened by Queen Victoria who likened the colours to a Burmese sunset, Fenton introduced the line in the 1970s to great acclaim.
If you’re planning a summer holiday to America, it might be worth including Williamstown, West Virginia, in your itinerary to join Fenton’s five-day grand centennial celebration. It runs from Friday, July 29 to Tuesday, August 2 and thousands of visitors and collectors are expected.
- They will be entertained to a range of special events including:
- Fenton family members giving tours and signing Fenton pieces.
- Join a glassmaking class and learn how it’s done (advance reservations suggested).
- Arts and crafts fair featuring the best artists from West Virginia.
- Free seminars from Fenton master craftsmen showing how the most difficult Fenton creations are made.
- Free seminars about Fenton history with Associate Historian, Jim Measell and new products with Director of Design, Nancy Fenton.
- Free eBay University seminars hosted by members of the eBay team from California on Saturday and Sunday
- And on the Sunday night, July 31one of the greatest Fenton collector auctions ever held.
Just make sure you have a generous baggage allowance!
Pictures show, top: Made by Fenton for Avon Product’s Gallery Originals Collection, this Azure Blue Satin 9″ vase has applied cameo-style decoration, 1984.
Below, left to right: Blue Carnival glass No. 1016 (Banded Drape) pitcher hand-painted floral designed by Frank L. Fenton, circa 1910.
Dancing Ladies Vase: Mandarin Red No. 901 9″ fan vase, circa 1933-34 (mould designed by Frank L. Fenton after a similar Northwood motif).
Burmese Shell Vase: Connoisseur Collection (8808 SB) 7-1/2″ vase with handpainted motif designed by Dianna Barbour, 1985, limited to 950.
Connoisseur Collection 10-1/2″ Favrene vase with hand-painted golden fruit motif and 22k gold bands and accents designed by Martha Reynolds, 1991, limited to 850.
Cranberry 9-1/2″ basket with hand-painted Mary Gregory-style “First Rain” decoration designed by Martha Reynolds, 2000, limited to 2,350.