three hundred years of collectable glass in one day

The Cambridge Glass Fair


An interview with
steven lewis

Steven Lewis is a regular exhibitor at the Cambridge Glass Fair who specialises in selling Scandinavian, Italian and British glass 1920 - 1980. He has kindly agreed to be interviewed for the website.

Allister Malcom
Steven Lewis

When and how did you become interested in glass ?

I started to look at the qualities of glass while at Art College – my background is in sculpture and video. I made several pieces casting glass into plaster moulds, and also sandblasted designs onto sheets of glass, which were subsequently broken to form shards. This was the first time I had really considered it as a material and was fascinated by its refractive and reflective qualities as well as the fact that it has the ability to be incredibly fluid or sharp and angular. The pieces I made were informed by nature and some used tree bark in the production of the mould. No prizes for guessing that the first piece I bought was a Whitefriars textured piece designed by Geoffrey Baxter. Sadly I was unable to continue using glass during my master's degree as the facilities were not available leaving me with a lot of sketches and ideas which have been unfulfilled to this day- maybe one day I will have the opportunity again.

Helen, my partner, had a small collection of 1950s – 1970s decorative arts including a Whitefriars TV vase and we decided from then in 2002 to run a small business dealing in post war decorative arts and collectables. It evolved on my part into dealing specifically in glass, and extended beyond postwar to Galle, Daum and Loetz among others. Helen is still interested but much of her time is spent curating Video and Computer Art exhibitions in contemporary art galleries internationally, although she has previously worked as Assistant Curator organising Arts and Crafts exhibitions at William Morris Gallery, London. Helen was made FRSA (Fellow of Royal Society of Arts) in 2010 for her contribution to contemporary art.

For me, it has become a serious and inspiring pastime turned passion and I am now concentrating on my business dealing in glass as a full-time pursuit. There is always more to learn and I look forward to developing my knowledge further over the next years.

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

Collect is probably the wrong word, but the house is overflowing with glass on display. Holmegaard Gulvases, Isle of Wight attenuated bottles, Zelezny Brod medical figures, Cenedese, Archimede Seguso, and monumental pieces of Galle.

Helen loves Lalique, but we don’t have very much; she also has a small collection of Scandinavian glass such as Holmegaard, Alsterfors, Riihimaki, Iittala and Skruf.

Do you have collections of anything other than glass ?

Books! One room is devoted to books, but there are fully stacked bookcases all over the house, not forgetting the 20 boxes in the loft that will eventually see the light of day when we make room for more bookcases. We have books on science, arts, fiction and of course my growing collection on antiques and glass. You can find the complete works of JG Ballard alongside Charles Dickens, books on networks, astrophysics and psychology. Our favourites are an 1865 edition of Don Quixote, illustrated by Gustave Dore and our books on Daum and Galle. The recent acquisition of the catalogue raisonne of Lalique, Felix Marcilhac, is very much valued.

Helen and I own a large quantity of postwar ceramics and kitchenware which we use domestically alongside contemporary design. We try to support contemporary makers where we can. Our everyday dinner service is by Kate Mockford who now designs skateboard decks, and we particularly admire the simplicity of Mirka Golden Hann.

Any periods or designers you like?

I like Art Deco, having grown up in a house full of 1930’s furniture, clocks, and sculptures. I blame my parents for planting the auction bug, having spent much of my youth trawling around auctions in their company. Charlie Ross was the first auctioneer I ever saw in action, selling 150-200 lots an hour while entertaining the crowd, a feat I have never seen bettered! The advent of live internet bidding has slowed auction pace to a crawl. The great thing about Art Deco furniture is that with its sleek and modern lines it remains contemporary while having the ability to blend with many periods and styles. I also love the aesthetic movement and especially gothic revival, but our 1930’s house doesn’t really have the high ceilings required for this type of furniture.

In terms of glass I am fairly eclectic: it could be anything from 1880-to the present day, and if I like something I will try to buy it. In that way I am a bit of a magpie, which of course is problematic with glass as most of it sparkles! I think if you use your imagination and a little judgment you can make most styles work together.

Rather than concentrating on designers there are specific pieces by various designers I would dearly love to own, some Martin Brothers pieces with sea creatures, a Galle marquetry vase and some Vistosi Pulcini birds. These are just the tip of the iceberg, and however big a house I owned it would always be full of glass and ceramics.

What is the most special / interesting piece that you own ?

Now this is a very tricky one, but probably a bell-shaped vase in sapphire by James Powell & Sons, which is covered in scratches and of virtually no financial value. The simplicity of form is exquisite and when you give it a gentle tap it rings for about two minutes. Of course there is also the huge uranium glass model of a great white shark that weighs about 10lbs and shows the fluidity of movement that helps to make glass such an attractive medium. While I have no idea of the designer or manufacturer, it is a very special piece that needs no tags to enjoy. Then again there’s the very large Galle banjo vase covered with lilies and dragonflies that evokes everything so beautiful about the Art Nouveau period, or the quirkiness of the Antonio Da Ros fish with applied murrines, or the Holmegaard building blocks (a particular favourite of Helen’s and we would really like more if anyone can help there) ….. who am I kidding, they are all special in their own way, and every piece tells a story.

Being a dealer often means that the most special pieces are sold as by and large they tend to be the most expensive, although some of the glass mentioned above bucks that trend. It is however lovely to have the opportunity to handle and display the really expensive pieces that I couldn’t afford to keep before they continue their journey to another home. Ownership somehow feels transient as, if cared for properly, the glass will continue to be enjoyed long after we are gone.

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

No one gave me any specific advice, but the super-computers more commonly known as Danny Walker and Peter Elliot helped me a lot in the early days. Gary and Debbie Phillips have been really helpful for sharing notes, experiences and mulling how good a fair has been over a pint. Without the input of Mike and Hisako Weedon I would never have found the courage to start buying Galle and Mike is greatly missed by all who knew him. Mike and Debby Moir were also important with their encouragement and advice regarding French Art Nouveau glass. In general I think most glass dealers are friendly, approachable and will be willing to offer an opinion and share their passion.

What advice would you give?

Be honest, with yourself, and with clients. Having a photographic memory is a very useful tool, as well. Read lots of books on glass; start with publications that are broad and then narrow your selection based on your taste. Visit exhibitions and galleries, especially if they are related to your specialist area. Buy what you like as it is very hard to talk passionately about items that don’t interest you. Handle as much glass as you can, back your own judgment and be willing to take risks - after all, it is only money.

Which are the best and worst aspects of being a exhibitor ?

In terms of being a dealer the most enjoyable aspect is hunting for new pieces. Helen and I often travel to Europe in the hope of finding interesting pieces of glass, sampling the culture, and taking in the sights. I have reached a stage where I have a sixth sense of whether a piece is interesting without necessarily knowing the manufacturer or designer and I really enjoy post-purchase research, which is a method of greatly enhancing knowledge. The larger European trade fairs are an incredible experience, though don’t always expect a bargain and beware of the numerous fakes on offer at French and Belgian markets. You will however see monumental antiques and collectables that you would need a stately home to even consider: think decommissioned missiles to entire follies stacked on pallets.

When standing at fairs I love unpacking, anticipation of the day, looking at all the wonderful glass other dealers have on display and meeting people who are enthusiastic about glass.

I’m not that motivated by selling although that’s what we’re all there for. I usually rely on the fact that I have a selection of glass that people might want, I never try to talk people into a purchase and if someone is in doubt I usually advise that they don’t buy. I want to know that when someone walks away from my stand they have something that they will enjoy and not regret purchasing when they get home. Ideally I’d like to sell everything that I bring and have a personal teleportation device, so that I could avoid packing up and the three-hour drive home.