This summer, several pieces of glass made in North Yorkshire will be heading to Venice, where they’ll go on display at a brand new museum of glass.
The floating city is, of course, the spiritual home of decorative glass. It is, says Stephen Gillies – one half of Rosedale Abbey’s Gillies Jones glass partnership – like sending coals to Newcastle.
The invitation to contribute to the new Vitraria Glass+A Museum is particularly pleasing to Stephen and his wife Kate, who is also his business and artistic partner, coming as it does in the middle of their 20th anniversary celebrations.
Back in 1995, the couple were in their late 20s, and had spent several chaotic years moving around the world. They’d met at Stourbridge College in the late 1980s – Stephen was studying for a BA in Glass Design, Kate for a BA in Fine Art.
Kate, a painter, began to adapt her art to suit the three-dimensional form of Stephen’s work, and the couple embarked on a journey of training and discovery that would take them around the world, including an apprenticeship with internationally-acclaimed glass masters Philip Baldwin and Monica Guggisberg in Switzerland. By the mid 90s, they were ready to fly alone – and Rosedale Abbey was an obvious choice for them to set up shop.
“It was synchronicity, really. Rosedale was home to historic glass works dating back to Elizabethan times, and they worked much as we do – very highly skilled, and labour-intensive,” explains Kate. “We also had family in the area – in fact, Stephen’s brother Dave is currently assisting him – and although Stephen was born in Brighouse, his dad’s originally from Helmsley. It all came together.”
The pair took on a blacksmith’s forge which had been abandoned since the 1960s and transformed it into an idyllic centre of craftsmanship – a hot glass studio, offices and showroom. Over the years, they’ve added to their little empire, including a studio workroom at the back where Kate works to add surface decoration to Stephen’s blown forms.
Their early output was very different to that of today. “We made stemware, or glasses, candlesticks, bowls, decanters – that kind of thing,” says Kate.
Then, 15 years ago, the couple started a family – Ava is now 15, and Finlay is 11.
With a young child and a new baby, and a growing and extremely labour-intensive business, the couple were forced to make some hard decisions.
“We realised we couldn’t raise a family and work at the pace we had been doing, and we had to re-think, re-focus, and make some tough choices. But it’s all worked out well,” says Kate.
The couple decided on a new direction which took them away from the more domestic work that had originally made their name, and towards more high-end, artistic pieces. Today, they focus on three main strands.
There’s their studio collection – small, richly coloured bowls in clean, minimal, often Scandinavian-inspired designs and priced in the low hundreds.
Then there’s the more expensive “uniques” – large one-off pieces in the form of bowls, pebbles or their much-loved “Aesculus” design, inspired by an open horse chestnut pod, each one hand-decorated by Kate using a variety of techniques including “resist”, wheel and drill engraving (see panel). They take hours to make and sell for thousands to collectors worldwide.
And a recent innovation, which has proved hugely popular, is their limited edition seasonal range.
Four times a year, Kate takes inspiration from the countryside around her to produce a bowl based on a seasonal flower. The couple make just 100 – 75 small, 25 large – and they get snapped up quickly by keen collectors.
“So far, we’ve made bowls decorated with sloe berries, harebells, peonies, snowdrops and cherry blossom,” says Kate. “And I’m currently working on a bluebell bowl. The peony bowl sold out within 48 hours of it going on our website!”
Much of Kate’s inspiration comes from the glorious countryside around Rosedale Abbey, one of the gems of the North York Moors National Park. The large unique pieces feature abstract versions of the landscapes, while the limited edition bowls are decorated with the flowers and leaves that Kate spots while out walking with the family’s field spaniel, Ollie.
“A couple of years ago, the National Park stopped strimming the hedgerows around here – they became designated wildlife corridors,” she says.
“It’s had fantastic results – the strimmings used to decompose into the soil and make it very nitrogen-rich, which was an ideal environment for nettles to thrive, but not much else.
“Now, the hedgerows in Rosedale are alive with wildflowers.
“The landscape, and flora and fauna, around here are a constant inspiration. It’s amazing to watch the light chasing across the dale, bringing out details and colours as it moves.
“We try to catch the essence of it in our work – those ‘ooh, look at that!’ moments that make you stop and look.”
If it all sounds impossibly bucolic, Kate is quick to point out that much of Gillies Jones’ success is due to new technology.
“We sell all over the world from our website – I don’t think we could have survived all this time selling just from the studio in Rosedale Abbey,” she says.
And while Stephen’s half of the artistic process would still be recognisable to a glassmaker from half a millennium ago, Kate’s techniques have been transformed by technology.
“Twenty years ago, when we started experimenting with the cameo techniques we use all the time now, I was hand-cutting the resists from heavy-duty masking tape sourced from the automotive industry,” she says.
“Now, I have them digitally cut from a variety of plastics.
“It’s opened up all sorts of possibilities for me – I can do much more detailed drawings and photographs.
“The end result is still unique, though – the resists are all hand-applied to the pieces, so now two are ever the same.”
This year is proving momentous for Gillies Jones in many ways.
As well as the invitation from the Vitraria Glass+A Museum, their limited edition cherry blossom bowl was launched exclusively at London’s luxurious department store Fortnum and Mason during the first ever London Craft Week in May.
They recently appeared on the BBC1 primetime programme Secret Britain, talking with Adam Henson about the history of glassmaking in the area.
And they have three landscape studies in the sixth British Glass Biennale, the UK’s major exhibition of contemporary art and design in glass, in their old stamping ground of Stourbridge until June 28.