three hundred years of collectable glass in one day

The Cambridge Glass Fair

An interview with
Ron Wheeler

Ron & Ann Wheeler have been exhibitors at the Cambridge Glass Fair from the very start and exhibit under the name Artius Glass . They are to be found at many fairs around the country and have a reputation for quality twentieth century and contemporary glass particularly from the Isle of Wight Studio, which is their specialist field, and any work that stems from the influences of Michael Harris. Ron kindly agreed to a Cambridge Glass Fair interview.

Ron and Ann Wheeler with a piece of rare Isle of Wight.
Ron and Ann Wheeler with a piece of rare Isle of Wight

When and where did you become interested in glass?

Glass really became only an extension initially of my almost all-consuming passion for modern/contemporary design. This was awakened by the advent of the 'Festival of Britain' in 1951, when a brave new world was awakening from the years of austerity during, and after, WW11. The sight of some of those designs during a school trip from the Isle of Wight, where I was born and brought up, was awe inspiring to me. From that point on I was just impassioned by any form of contemporary design so long as it was combined with quality, craftsmanship and innovation. Scandinavian clean design seemed to dominate the scene and that naturally involved glass and a mass of household objects, which to me had almost become works of art.

My first real move towards predominantly glass came when I started my business as a freelance marketing and sales agent. I felt there was a gap in the market to introduce quality innovative modern design products to the retail trade from good commercially minded producers who didn't have the wherewithal or time, or expertise come to that, to market their own work effectively. So, on setting about finding some, I quickly came across both Okra Glass and Isle of Wight Glass at trade shows during 1979. I managed to get the agency for Okra and gently worked on Mike and Liz Harris of Isle of Wight Glass, and was appointed a year or so later. As a matter of interest as a result of our long and close association with the Studio we are now their 'officially appointed secondary market specialist' with the sole responsibility to represent them at Retail and Antique & Collectors fairs. At around the same time I became the agent in the West Country for Holmegaard Glass. Midsummer Glass, Langham Glass and the lesser known Pukeberg Glass of Sweden (pronounced, by the way, 'pookyberia'!).

There were one or two others which were not long-lived, but that's business! With Okra and Isle of Wight Glass I have retained a long-term relationship with the exception of short breaks and this is where I have built my greatest knowledge and experience. This is now proving a great asset in the way we sell and promote our business. In particular, I have always burned with great curiosity on the way some finishes are produced and will talk endlessly on that aspect if someone expresses even a hint of showing interest - sometimes even if they don't. As my wife Ann often says, ''they have to buy something just to get away from you"! I do feel it helps to qualify a product in a potential customer's mind if they understand how much skill and expertise has gone into the making.

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

Well - we get the pleasure of finding, handling and talking about all of our glass and are happy to have inspired in others the desire to buy and collect. With the exception of some special pieces of Isle of Wight Glass and Okra all my collection has been sold. We can't take it with us and the kids probably won't want it so...

Do you have collections of anything other than glass?

Very few except some enamels, and Ann has a bit of a passion for Chessell Pottery, which was also one of my agencies. Flies on the car windscreen is the only thing we collect with monotonous regularity but I guess that doesn't count - unless you can call it 'art'.

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

Well - styles and periods - Arts & Crafts and Art Deco. Charles Rennie Mackintosh as a designer. So many light years ahead of his time, it seems incredible that he produced what he did considering all that was accepted as good design at that time. But with glass there are so many 20th century designers who would merit mention, in particular those who initially trained and worked at the London Glasshouse set up by Sam Herman, but mine tend to revolve around those I met and had the honour to represent, such as Per Lutken and Michael Bang at Holmegaard. Ronnie Stennett-Willson when he set up Langham with Paul Miller and of course one of the most delightful of them all, Mike Harris. We all miss him greatly. He was so inspiring in a very, very modest way. I still consider, maybe controversially, that he is the unsung hero and founding father of modern British factory processes of freeblown studio glass. People's awareness of his importance and influences in the scheme of things is changing now, so I am still prepared to defend that statement to the death or at least have a heated debate on the subject! Hence my love of his work and his influence on others. There is a lot more I can say on that subject but will save it until the book comes out next year which is being written by Mark Hill.

What are the best and worst aspects of being an exhibitor/dealer?

Well now - Diplomacy or Controversy - or just the truth as I see it - that is the question? The best? Got to be the joy of meeting old friends and the fun of making new ones - customers and stallholders alike. The anticipation of having a good and commercially satisfying day. Not necessarily quite the same thing. Making friends and influencing people, who go away with perhaps a different point of view or something to think about in what you have said, can still make it a good day. The worst? Sometimes having to listen to people who insist that they know more about your specialist subject than you do. Not something I can suffer easily, I'm afraid. Stallholders who insult the intelligence of the customer by labeling self-evident items as 'Tall green glass vase'. "Oh, really? So glad you informed me of that, I would never have guessed! But who made it and when?" "Don't know but it is nice." "Thanks"! Also worst - early mornings! 5am is the middle of the night to me. 8am is the crack of dawn. Just start your fair an hour later. I need some sleep!

What was the best piece of advice you were given when you started collecting/dealing in glass?

None was given. I just used my love of glass and design as a guide, coupled with instinct.

What advice have you got for someone just beginning to collect glass?

Buy any studio glass you get a feel for. Take advice from any specialist dealer you know. Read as much as you can on your favourite style. Buy broadly across a genre. As time goes by, hone your collection by selling the early pieces that don't interest you any more and reinvest in the things that do. Forget the pension plan and invest in the best you can afford. It'll show you a much better return in both investment value and the sheer joy you get from owning something you love.

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