W.A.S. Benson is today celebrated as a pioneer of Arts & Crafts lighting design, adept at using the reflective qualities of metal to enhance the light source. He had met William Morris through his friendship with Edward Burne-Jones and was encouraged by him to open a small workshop in Hammersmith, specialising in metalwork. In 1882 he moved to larger premises in Chiswick and in 1887 he opened showrooms on Bond Street. Throughout the 1880s Benson was involved in designing wallpapers and furniture for Morris & Co. and, on Morris’ death in 1896, Benson took over the direction of the company until he retired in 1917.
Harry Powell took over as manager and chief designer of James Powell and Sons in 1875. The firm already had associations with Morris & Co. and the Pre-Raphaelite artists who were commissioned as designers on stained glass projects. Philip Webb’s glass designs for William Morris were made by James Powell & Sons in 1859 and heralded a new direction for the firm which marked them out from other manufacturers.
From the 1860s, 16th and 17th century Venetian glass became very collectable, and Powells began to capitalise on this trend, producing hand-blown domestic glass, which were reinterpreted and adapted to suit the company’s style of simple, elegant forms. Another source of inspiration was ancient Roman glass and ceramics, and examples of both styles can be found in this collection.
Both Powell and Benson were members of the Art Workers Guild which encouraged interdisciplinary skills and so Powell for example became adept at designing metalwork, incorporating it into his products. Benson designed across the disciplines. They promoted their work through The Studio and other publications and through participation in international exhibitions and stood together at The Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901 and The Arts & Crafts Exhibition of 1903. The opaline glass used for the shades on many of Benson’s lights, with several examples in this collection, were developed by the firm from 1862 and perfected by Powell, a chemist by training, by 1877.
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