Friday, 15 April 2016

The word on Willie

Until two or three years ago, there used to be a shop on Mansfield Road in Nottingham called Daphne's Handbag. Daphne's (as everyone always called it) was one of the first and finest of the retro junk shops and remains much-missed for the kind of Quixotic bargains you could pick up there. One of my best finds was a Peter Nelson aluminium floor lamp from 1967, which I paid something like £25 for. Another day there was a small crimson glass bowl that struck me as more fifties fantasia than out-and-out kitsch. Anyway, the colour appealed (see above) and I bought it and it still sits behind my as I type. What I didn't know at the time was this: it was the work of the Scottish glass designer and artist, William Wilson. Even when I came to know and like his work, I still had no idea it was by him. But then, it was much the same with Peter Nelson.

In 1837 the Government School of Design was opened at the impressive complex of offices on The Strand in London, the first stage of the long official effort to improve the design standards of British manufactured goods. So far, so functional. Luckily, the radicals had better ideas - and said so - so by the early C20th the teaching of design became linked to working practice. There was also the opportunity for workers in crafts trades like glass-making to gain further education on schools of design and Wilson was one of those who benefitted.

Born in 1905, he was apprenticed the Edinburgh stained glass makers, James Ballantine & Son. Wilson then went on to the College of Art where at least two of the heads of Applied Art had experience in stained glass. John Platt was one while Charles Paine (who may have taught Wilson before he went to Santa Barbara) had worked at Guthries.

Whilst there, Wilson also began to study printmaking. What he managed to do was avoid the kind of academic bane that went on to afflicted Ian Fleming and his own teacher, Adam Bruce Thomson. Nevetheless, Thomson recognised Wilson's talent and through him he gained a Royal Scottish Academy travel scholarship that took him off to all the usual 1930s destinations, with France predictably joining Spain and Italy where Wilson drew heavily on the old tradition of engraving established by Andrea Mantegna. In fact, although many of his finest prints have the fine tone of engraving on copper, almost all the sources have the majority of his prints like Der kleine Soldat (1932) and The harrow down as etchings.

In 1935 he gained further grants and scholarships that enabled him to train in engraving under the redoubtable Robert Austin at the Royal College in London and to study contemporary stained glass making in Germany. Apparently, though he didn't spend all that much time at the R.C.A. At thirty there was probably not so much for him to learn, even from an engraver as good as Austin, and he spent his time with other artists and notably with the young etcher, Edgar  Holloway.                                                            

Shacked up together for a time at Orchard Cottage in Essex, Edinburgh friends like E.S.Lumsden came down to visit and, indeed plans for Edinburgh were being laid and Wilson asked Holloway to return with him and set up a stained-glass studio together. It may partly be because he lacks Wilson's obvious erudition and but also because he strikes me as rather selfish and manipulative, but Holloway is not an artist I am very keen on. Anyway, he refused, so, Wilson went alone, the friendship cooled and the rest is history. Ironically, Holloway remains better known this side of the border, a situation not at all acceptable to Modern Printmakers.
I have deliberately offered a mix-and-match approach to Willie. Wilson, as you will have seen, as all the right strengths - powerful line, superb colour and a profound grasp of tone. The good news is that small examples of Wilson's work in glass like controlled bubble ash-trays are still readily available, at least in Britain. Only this lunch-time I found a posy vase designed by him in a thrift shop (or as we call it here, a charity shop). It was £4. Then later on, a two-tone paperweight in a lot at my local auction-house.

After the war, Wilson was asked to design for the firm of James Powell & Sons at their famous Whitefriars works and so much of it was made, it isn't possible for anything to be all that expensive and any day on British ebay there is work by Wilson or vases designed in the sixties and early seventies together with Harry Dyer. Both the taller vases above are by that partnership and appeared on ebay.                                                                                                                                         

I'm not trying to sell Wilson cheap. The standard of his work for Whitefriars was high though not to all tastes. I remember a friend being given a Wilson/Dyer vase similar to the red one above only blue and found by his cousin in a thrift shop that he didn't like but felt unable to give to me! And, yes, I didn't know it was by Wilson either! But you will see, I am sure, the way the muscularity of the etchings finds its way into the post-war glass, especially the later work with Dyer. The controlled bubble work is earlier and all by Wilson alone and, as I said, has a 1950s whimsicality but has Wilson's tremendous sense of colour, shade and mass. To be honest, I haven't looked in great detail at the stained glass because it's complicated and has been covered to some extent by Sandy from Kirkcudbright on Sandy's Witterings and his related blogs from where I have pinched the image above.
Thanks to Sandy and, not for the first time, I am also indebted to Robert Meyrick's seminal catalogue and essay 'Edgar Holloway and friends'. Published by the University of Wales School of Art in 1999, unlike Wilson glass, I would think it was hard to come by, but there we are, that is a start on Willie Wilson and a long time coming it has been.



  1. Hi, Love the blog, full of interest - I'm also a great admirer of Ian Cheyne. However, are you entirely sure that Willie Wilson (etcher & stained glass artist) and William J. Wilson (designer for James Powell & Sons, Whitefriar's) are the same man. The dates I have for the Whitefriar's designer (from the V&A's website) are (1914-1972). The etchers dates are (1905-1972). I have two etchings by Willie Wilson and three glass pieces I believe were designed by William Wilson, but it never occurred to me they could be the same man. It would be great if they were, but as there is no mention of Willie Wilson designing glass for Whitfriar's either in the Scottish National Galleries book on him, or in a recent exhibition catalogue from The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh (who were Wilson's main art dealer during his lifetime), I have my doubts.

  2. You're quite right to have doubts and thank you for pointing this out. I took a lot of information about Wilson from Robert Meyrick's 'Edgar Holloway and friends' but made an assumption about Whitefriars, which has nothing to do with Robert's book. It's the problem with blogging over a wide field, you can get carried away, and Wilson was never a main interest, even if I like what he was doing.

    I shall amend this post. Bloggers depend on feedback. It's a two-way process. To start with, I can't get my hands on all the books I ought to read and don't have the book and catalogue you mention. I need a day down at the British Library some time soon - all right, a week.

    There used to be similar confusion between the woodcut artist, Eric Slater, and the man of the same name who designed for Shelley. I never thought I might be guilty of such a faux pas myself!

    1. I wish you had been correct, however, I do still like the glass designed by the other William Wilson, and luckily for me I live very near a church with some wonderful stained glass by Willie.

      All best wishes....

  3. You have conflated 2 different artists. The stained glass maker was a watercolourist and etcher. The other was a designer of glass objects.You should look at Rona Moody's article on Willie Wilson published by the British Society of Master Glass Painters.

    1. Thanks for that. I should have known better.