The unexpected death of Ronald Wilkinson breaks a direct link with several centuries of London glassmaking tradition
His grandfather, father and uncles had all worked for the firm of James Powel & Sons at the old Whitefriars glassworks – set between Fleet Street and the Thames, it had been at work continuously for two centuries. In 1923 they transferred to the new Whitefriars, which had been glass works at Wealdstone.
Ronnie began work there in 1940, unofficially and at the age of 12. Never afraid of hard work, he was prepared to do anything in the wartime glass works. He helped his father, William, to take on extra unpleasant overtime jobs, working as a “teaser” (stoking and charging the furnace with coal every 10 minutes), treading the deep mass of clay used to make the furnace pots which held molten glass, or charging the pots with the corrosive mixture of sand, lead oxide and potash – raw materials for the lean glass.
Officially he left school at 14, starting as “boy” in the same “chair” or team as his father. Training was by observation, hands-on experience and stern, demanding encouragement of senior glassmakers. Progress upward through the chair was achieved by passing the selection board of the craft union.
Ron became a “gaffer” (head of a chair) at the record early age of 22. His was the “odd work” chair, specialising in being versatile and quick – he could assess a design, take a number of checking measurements with callipers, and produce a beautiful constructed and balanced piece in just a few minutes.
Ronnie Wilkinson’s glass is in many great collections – including, he was proud to say, that of the Queen – though unsigned as a glass blower’s work always is. He also made curious pieces for film and television requirements and was often filmed.
Whitefriars’ earliest craftsmen continued the tradition of London’s sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Italian glassmakers, few in number but strong in family style. Trained to produce soda glass – which cools quickly and is suited to twiddles and other versatilities – they helped to produce the first English lead glass: limpid, slower working, but able to refract light with a subtle brilliance approaching that of a diamond. From the earliest identifiable pieces it appears that Whitefriars glass incorporated a folk memory of the Italian techniques adapted to lead glass. Wilkinson was a master of this superb craftsmanship, now no longer to be found in commercially produced pieces.
As a shrewd and respected union convenor for the National Union of Flint Glass Makers and Cutters, Wilkinson continued the tradition of the great Joseph Leicester, Whitefriars master glassmaker, union negotiator, and who, in 1886, was one of the first artisans to become an MP.
In October 1980 Whitefriars glassworks closed. As a union convenor Wilkinson had but a few hours notice. The remaining workforce went into shock and most people had to leave the industry.
Wilkinson worked thereafter first as a storeman for the Home office and then at Winsor & Newton. He began doing occasional work for glass-cutters with two ex-Whitefriars gaffers at weekends at The Glasshouse in Long Acre, Covent Garden.
This, the first British glassblowing studio, had been set up some years before by young postgraduate glassmakers and had acquired a reputation for high-quality work. By 1986 Wilkinson was able to work for the glass house full time, and quickly attracted the attention of many college students who were looking for a greater and deeper knowledge of, and skill in, technique. Several were able to work for a year as “boy” to him and broadened the scope of their glass-making – and their language – considerably.
In 1980 the Museum of London had acquired the existing Whitefriars archives of paper, glass and tools and Ron Wilkinson was a great help with the introductory exhibition “Whitefriars, the Unique Glasshouse” put on at the Museum of London from 1987 to 1989. The museum of London also treasures the memories of his visits to explain photographs, glass and equipment in the archives, and particularly his shrewd craftsman’s assessment of eighteenth-century glasses in the Garton Collection.
We had frequently discussed making a film of Ronnie Wilkinson work. This was not to be, but we are grateful that he talked to young glassmakers like Bob Crooks and Fiona Peckham, past students of the West Surrey College of Art and Design, and that tapes of their talks are preserved.
Ronald Joseph Wilkinson, glassmaker, born Forest Gate 9 June 1928, married Pamela Daniels (one son, one daughter), died Wealdstone 21 May 1992.
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