three hundred years of collectable glass in one day

The Cambridge Glass Fair

An interview with
Nigel Benson

Nigel Benson is a well known and knowledgeable glass dealer who has exhibited at Cambridge since the beginning. He specialises in twentieth century British glass with an emphasis on Monart and Powell, and can always be relied upon to provide an interesting and eclectic display.

He is the author of the Miller's Collector's Guide to Glass of the '50s & '60s and was glass consultant for Miller's Collecting Modern Design. He has written many published articles as well as the text for the catalogue 'Art Deco to Post Modernism', an exhibition on cut glass, and has curated several other exhibitions.

If you would like to speak to Nigel at the fair, please click here for further information.

 

Nigel Benson

When and how did you become interested in collecting?

My Dad asked me what I would like as a keep-sake after my grandmother died. I chose a small pale blue and swirled barrel shaped glass vase with gold flecks, which I later found out was a piece of Monart – not such an easy task in those days as there were so few books about glass that included items from the twentieth century, particularly if British. Ten days after I received the vase, I bought my first piece of Monart from a shop in Richmond for £6.50! Those were the days. That would have been about 1975.

I’ve since heard an expression that goes: one’s a mistake, two’s unfortunate and three’s a collection. I wonder what it’s called when you get into the hundreds………..?

What sort of glass do you collect personally, if any?

 My early collecting days were a good grounding to the way I collect now, since as a dealer it’s not good to collect what you’re selling. Unfortunately, I really enjoy much of what I sell, so in order to get over the problem I look for things that are not currently popular, or that I believe have been overlooked.

When I began collecting this was certainly the situation, as much of British twentieth century glass was ignored by both writers and dealers. Some general dealers recognised Monart and Vasart, but their interest pretty well stopped there. Indeed in those days there were a number of specialist decorative arts dealers who tried to promote Monart as a quasi-rival to, or British equivalent of, the popular continental art glass such as Galle, Daum and, to a lesser extent, Schneider – there was direct parallel with Schneider’s art glass since it wasn’t regarded as highly as it is nowadays. I do, however, remember finding John Hutton’s shop in Berkhampstead. He was one traditional glass dealer interested in Monart and Vasart; quite a revelation seeing a whole window full of pieces at the back of his shop.

Collecting ahead of the game can lead to its own problems. For instance, you can fail to identify something important or even back the wrong horse, so that you either miss out, or you’re left with a load of things that nobody else wants to collect! One of my early collecting areas was Glyn Colledge’s stoneware pottery made by Denby. That’s never really taken off, indeed the price range is much the same as it was then, but I still like it as its colourways and the naturalistic subject motifs appeal to me.

I began collecting Isle of Wight glass in about 1977 when I came across it in a specialist craft shop in Ross-on-Wye whilst I was on holiday. They had a group of Pauline Solven’s early work as well. I bought a group of four or five pieces, including at least one piece by Pauline, who I knew had worked with Sam Herman at the Royal College and in setting up The Glasshouse in Covent Garden. The same shop also had a plethora of Waistel Cooper’s work in the basement showroom. I failed to buy any of his pieces – that was a mistake. However, I did go back to the shop about six months later. I took a day off from my year-out job as a landscape architect’s assistant and bought a cheap day return to Gloucester, where I got the bus to Ross. I came back with ten more pieces, three of Pauline’s and seven by Michael Harris, mostly signed, as they had originally come from a trade fair at the NEC. I regard this as a personal collection as it was bought long before I began dealing and I still enjoy those and other pieces bought later.

Although I had already found the odd piece of pre-war Whitefriars glass it was not until I went to see the “Thirties” exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery at the end of 1979 that it was put into some sort of perspective for me. It was there that I also came across Gray-Stan glass for the first time.

What influences your selling?

 A number of things; nowadays it can be the publication of a new book or an exhibition, but the way I collect has always influenced what I sell. I don’t believe it’s easy to enthuse about things you don’t like or are not interested in. When I was in Portobello Road market in the 1980’s (I began dealing in June 1986) I was near Frank Andrews who specialised in Monart and Vasart glass. At the same time Steve Watson, who was in Alfie’s and specialised in Lalique, opened an extra stand specialising in Whitefriars glass mainly from the 30’s through to Baxter.

I was the one who did all types of British glass, including all the obvious, but also Whitefriars textured pieces, King’s Lynn, Wedgwood and Isle of Wight. Sadly, all of the post-war glass stumbled during the recession of the late 80’s. Fortunately, things have changed in recent years.

What motivates your collections?

Collecting for me now is motivated by a wish to find unusual things, to learn about them and draw attention to those overlooked areas of glass collecting. Sometimes I’m beaten to the draw by a book or exhibition, such as with Michael Harris, and the exhibition at King’s Lynn on Czech glass Hi Sklo, Lo Sklo, but no matter - it’s reassuring to know that others believe in the same things.

I enjoy putting together a number of pieces, which builds into a study collection. It is the way I’ve always collected and learnt. For instance, when there was no ready information on Powell if I bought unknown glasses that I thought were possible candidates for the company I put them together with ones that I had researched. That way I began to understand which was right and wrong.

Often this means that I end up with large collections that are far bigger than I ever envisaged possible, but it gives a critical mass and allows me to gain a greater understanding of the subject. Usually this is with a view to writing about and/or creating exhibitions on a subject in order to draw it to the attention of collectors.

Collecting was never supposed to be part of my business strategy, but it seems to have happened almost by accident. Some collections/projects are small and some large, but all were ahead of the general consensus when formed. The large ones have become a tool to promote the subject and to give something back for all that I’ve got from glass, but of course it’s also a great way to create stock for the future.

Nazeing is a good case in point. My first pieces came as mistakes originally bought during my first year of collecting thinking they were Monart. We all make mistakes, but sometimes they are happy ones.

Since then I have formed a collection that concentrates on finding unknown shapes and colourways. For instance I have now recorded one hundred pre-war shapes for the factory, whereas the only available original catalogue shows forty. This has taken years, but many new pieces have come along since the exhibition we held at Lowewood Museum. The secret is always to work from the known to the unknown and never kid yourself that something is what you want it to be. In other words always be critical of your own judgement.

Do you have collections of anything other than glass?

As I’ve mentioned I have more than a passing interest in ceramics, so I bought examples of various makers and designers before I became a dealer in June 1986, including Ruskin, Upchurch, hand-thrown Susie Cooper, Glyn Colledge, Ruscha and Vallauris. I sold my post-war Poole Pottery collection when I was part of the dealing co-operative Freeforms based in Kensington Church Street, but I occasionally add to the ceramics even now; however my real passion is for glass.

Are there any particular styles, periods or designers that inspire you more than any other?

As you may have gathered my taste is fairly catholic. I suppose the common factor is looking for quality, whether through design or in manufacture. The easy guide to this is that if something wasn’t cheap when it was first marketed then it is likely that there would have been something about the manufacturing process that made it so. Being hand made and/or hand finished would certainly influence this.

I like finding skilfully made things; early Powell glass designed by Harry Powell is a real joy and complements my love of the Arts & Crafts era.

What challenges do you see ahead?

Apart from the obvious challenge of converting more people into glass collectors (or should that be obsessives?) I think my personal goal is to carry on researching different aspects of glass with a view to curating more exhibitions and writing.

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process with the Origins of Nazeing at Lowewood Museum and sharing with Jeanette Hayhurst the research and presentation of art cut glass in Art Deco to Post Modernism, and its reprise in July 2006 when Antiques for Everyone invited me to put on the fair's exhibition. I look forward to the fruition of other projects that I have on the stocks and hope they will add to everyone’s knowledge of glass.

Which are the best and worst aspects of being an exhibitor or dealer?

 Probably the most enjoyable thing about dealing is meeting people and sharing one’s enthusiasm for glass. On the whole I think most glass collectors and dealers are thoroughly absorbing people who are willing to share thoughts and information. There are very few areas in life where that occurs.

I hate having to say goodbye to a piece that I have had in my care, and which I would prefer to have stayed on my shelf! However, the mortgage has to be paid …….

I remember having one customer whose first words when he visited me were “How’s the market?”. I honestly don’t know what he expected to have happened in the intervening six weeks, but I really didn’t feel his heart was in it! It’s so much nicer when someone comes in asking about the glass and the investment factor comes a poor second.

What was the best piece of advice that you were given when you started collecting?

 A bargain is not what the general public think of – something bought at £5 worth £500. Actually, the definition is that it should be good value for money - for instance, something bought for £100 and worth £150. A good decorative arts dealer told me that soon after I first began collecting and it has stood me in good stead over the years.

The second, and almost as good, is that cost of collecting should be measured by averaging. That is to say, buy cheaply, but when confronted with rarity or something beautiful – pay the money and average over the whole collection. You always end up on the right side, both initially by averaging and in the long run, more often than not, on the individual item that stretched your pocket.

What advice would you give anyone starting to collect glass?

 It’s important to collect what you like - and don’t expect things to escalate in price over the short term. Average out costs as part of your buying strategy, and factor in the enjoyment of your collection as part of its value and you can’t go far wrong.

If your raison d’etre is investment, look at the long term and make sure it is part of a diversified portfolio.

Do research into whatever you’re collecting, both through good books and in museums, as well as talking to dealers – most are, or were, collectors and they enjoy talking about glass (almost as much as selling!!).

Above all, enjoy.

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