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The Rembrandt of glass and his cameo contemporaries

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 12, 2014

By John Workman

  • The Polar Vase, designed by Lionel Pearce and carved by George Woodall, 1908-1910

  • Illustrations of Thomas Webb glasswork from the 1878 Paris International Exhibition catalogue

  • The Woodalls' The Attack which sold for £169,250 in May 2013

  • The Woodall Team. From left, William Hill, Tom Farmer, Harry Davis and J.T. Fereday posing with the completed Great Tazza. In the foreground Thomas Woodall, and, far right, George Woodall

  • The Great Tazza, created at Thomas Webb & Sons, Amblecote, by the Woodall Team, c.1889

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THIS is the story of a highly talented and skilled team of engravers and designers who were assembled at the glassworks of Thomas Webb and Sons in Amblecote, Stourbridge, soon after the 1878 International Paris Exhibition had brought the art of cameo glass to the attention of the wider world.

As a result two brothers, Thomas Woodall and, in particular, George Woodall, became legends of this form of craftsmanship.

Last month, a plaque was unveiled at the Thai Dusit restaurant, formerly Luton House, in Kingswinford, to commemorate the life and work of George Woodall, arguably the greatest cameo engraver of the 19th century (see Bugle 1112). The location was chosen because it was where the master cameo engraver had his workshop and where his family lived.

George died in 1925, but his work and reputation was sufficient for the Daily Telegraph, in 1980, to describe him as "The Rembrandt of Glass".

George and his brother Thomas were just two members of a team brought together at the glassworks of Thomas Webb in Amblecote under the art directorship of James M. O'Fallon, but they soon made their mark.

The International Paris Exhibition of 1878 had favourably promoted the cameo glass industry, and on one of the pages of the illustrated catalogue produced for the Exhibition, the following text was used to describe some of the exhibits that Thomas Webb had on display:

"We give other examples of the works of Thomas Webb & Co., Stourbridge. They are singularly beautiful examples of engraved glass, designed with much ability, and with careful and educated skill. Our selections from their numerous 'exhibits' are at present limited – as best suited to our purpose – to Decanters and Water Jugs; but their 'show' comprises a large variety of objects of all classes and orders to which the engraving and cutting of the pure metal can be applied."

Cameo glass is best described as a luxury form of glass art produced by etching and carving through fused layers of differently coloured glass to produce designs, usually with white opaque glass figures and motifs on a dark coloured background, a technique first seen in the art of ancient Rome.

After the Paris Exhibition Thomas Webb and Sons very quickly established a team to perform the cameo carving. The core group became known as the Woodall team, led by Thomas Woodall, who had gone to work at Webb's as a draughtsman in about 1874. He became one of the principal members and soon became head of the company's cameo glass department.

His brother George joined him in 1877 and quickly established himself as the major designer and carver of cameo glass designs. John T. Fereday, who in the end worked at Webb's for about 40 years, executed borders and detailing on plaques and designed and executed a number of vases, while Daniel Pearce and his son Lionel joined Webb's in 1884 and both worked on the Woodall team.

Others members included William Hill, Tom Farmer and Harry Davis. The team generally worked on the multi-layered, multi-coloured, or elaborately designed pieces, with several members working on any given piece. Lionel Pearce is credited with having designed the Polar Vase, which was then carved by George Woodall between 1908 and 1910.

In every team, however, certain players stand out, and the revival of the art of cameo glass in the late 19th century is very much attributed to the Woodall brothers.

Elder brother Thomas was a skilled musician and passionate churchgoer and from an early age played the harmonium, wrote music and conducted choirs and bands. After an education at Wordsley National School and Stourbridge School of Art he became an apprentice at J. & J. Northwood under the tutelage of the famous Black Country glass master John Northwood.

In 1877 he became manager of the Cameo Team at Thomas Webb and under his guidance thousands of pieces of commercial cameo were produced, plus many unique vases and plaques decorated by the Woodall brothers.

But his devotion to local causes combined with an unwillingness to sign his work led to a lack of publicity and his great achievements in glass were largely forgotten.

Younger brother George, on the other hand, was a showman and from an early age developed a sense of flair in everything he did. He followed in his brother's footsteps and finally, as part of the Woodall team, his tireless work refining the production processes for cameo glass brought its reward as he became an international icon at numerous exhibitions where he showcased fabulous pieces of glass sculpture.

Many of the maidens depicted in his work were modelled on his four daughters, Amy, Alice, Connie and Pamela.

Today we are left to admire the work that both Thomas and George Woodall achieved in their lifetime, some of the best cameo glass ever produced. At the auction house of Bonham's, New Bond Street in London, in May 2013, a world record price of £169,250 was paid for a cameo glass plaque entitled The Attack, made in 1896 by Thomas and George Woodall.

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