The National Glass Collectors Fair

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Michael Harris &
The Story of Mdina

By Ron Wheeler

Having been frustrated by the classical and somewhat staid view of glass production in the U. K., Michael Harris, a lecturer in industrial glass design at the Royal College of Art, felt that there must be another way to commercially produce what was, to date, the province of a limited number of mainly Scandinavian artists who had been producing free-formed hot glass for several decades. Michael had been receiving
Mdina Fish Vase by Michael Harris.
An unsigned 'Fish Vase' by Michael Harris (Mdina).
information from America detailing the work of a new wave of glass artists working in much the same way as the massive growth of studio potters did in the early 60s. Two of the most influential of these artists were ceramicist Harvey Littleton and his colleague Dominic Labino. This new way of working with glass fired Michael Harris' enthusiasm and spirit for the possibility of success for a one-man business, and he felt that there was a wonderful opportunity to develop and emulate this movement in the U. K.

Michael's ideas were accepted in principle by the very rigid and staid hierarchy of the Royal College of Art (R.C.A.) and the college even made moves to incorporate some of those American ideas by appointing US glass artist Sam Herman, one of the exponents in this field. Working with, and learning from, Sam was the start of the wonderful free expression of colour and form that became the embryonic designs produced by Michael from that time on. Michael Harris was impatient to adopt and adapt these principles to his own benefit as quickly as possible. This was especially appealing to him as the long and well established Whitefriars Glass appeared to be succeeding using some of those principles under the guidance of one of Michael's peers, Geoffrey Baxter.

It did not go unnoticed by Michael that there had been much publicity by the world press, particularly in the U. K., given to the fact that the British protectorate of Malta was keen to establish security in it's new found independence by building it's commercial strength and stability. The Maltese government felt this could only be achieved by attracting new skills and entrepreneurs from wherever they could. This was the break Michael had been seeking and, apart from the attraction of an exciting opportunity, the idyllic lifestyle of fulfilling his dreams on a wonderful holiday island was an added bonus.

Free-form sculpture by Michael Harris.
A signed example of a
free-formed sculpture
by Michael Harris (Mdina)
So at the end of 1967 Michael Harris and Eric Dobson, an R.C.A. colleague who was similarly fired up and equipped with the necessary marketing experience and the finance, set about taking several tonnes of glassmaking equipment and an old fully loaded Land Rover to Malta. The move to Malta was significantly influenced by the Maltese government's offer of a 10 year tax holiday, which was of course an added incentive. Who could resist!?  So in 1968 and after many bureaucratic disruptions Michael established his glass making studio, Maltese Glass Industries, or Mdina Glass as it became known.  

Now, with a ready made eager buying public in the form of tourists, the studio was an instant success. Michael quickly fulfilled his obligations to the Maltese government by literally taking on any Maltese national with enthusiasm to learn: teaching them to make glass his way, as they would have no previous experience or set way as to how glass should or should not be made. This they took on eagerly with Michael's guiding statement that 'you may like what you do today but - our best work will be done tomorrow'! However Michael's security was short lived and a Nationalist government, headed by Dom Mintoff, was keen to expel any semblance of British influence and, due to the instant success of Mdina Glass, they felt Michael had fulfilled his role. Sadly Michael was subsequently pressured to leave Malta.

Due to the success of his Maltese venture, Michael's influence lived on in his designs and glassmaking skills, which still exist today. Mdina is in fact now run by Joseph Said, who was Michael's very first, and still the most accomplished, of his trainees. On saying that, there was also input from two other very accomplished glassmakers: Vincente and Ettore Boffo (father and son), who were seconded from none other than Whitefriars. They left due to their dissatisfaction of staid and repetitive processes, which epitomised the thinking dominating studio glass production in the long established classical glassmaking world, including the one they had just left. After all, the glass at these studios, whilst embodying a refreshing approach to modern design, was in fact nothing more than a series of easily produced mould-blown and coloured forms. Unlike factory produced glass, Michael Harris' designs were free-formed in the most part, with a free thinking intuitive palette of added colours, which created a colourful canvas in glass according to relatively loose parameters. In truth, at the end, the finished item was a truly unique piece of art glass.

Mdina Tricorn Attenuated Bottle Vase.
A 'Tricorn Attenuated Bottle Vase'' by Michael Harris (Mdina).
Now, in terms of collecting, there are a few aspects to take into account, which can make building a worthwhile collection an interesting, but sometimes frustrating, experience. The first thing to bear in mind is that once Michael Harris had left Mdina, there was little or no more artistic skill input as all the designs, colours and ideas came from his talents as an artist. Mdina Glass was commercially highly successful in all respects, including export sales, and luckily for the studio there was no need of his input to a large extent. This of course is now, and since 1973 in fact, where the new collector has a real problem, as these designs, and in many cases shapes, have been repeated many thousands of times on the basis that 'It sells so why change it'. This is fine, except that by the nature of intrinsic value, you need to know whether an item of glass was made by Michael 35 years ago, or by someone else only last week! So the dilemma is 'how do we find out'? Well there are pointers, most of which would take far too long to go into now. However, my real advice would be to fine tune your knowledge by observation, whilst building experience. You will quickly begin to recognise those items which have been made over and over again and sold in their thousands, as they were readily made and bought by eager tourists and taken home as a 'suitcase souvenir'. So by simply observing you will quickly recognise those items which were rather more special and in some cases unique. In addition of course there are also some iconic shapes which should never be ignored: including, for example, shapes such as his famous 'Fish' vase (Michael never called it an 'Axehead' by the way), the 'Tricorn' vase, The 'Attenuated Bottle' vase, the 'Japanese' vase, the 'Minaret (or Onion) Bottle' vase, the 'Chinese' vase and his wonderful free-formed 'Sculptures'. These are all commanding increasingly high sums, even more so if they are signed by Michael Harris. Michael was always reluctant to sign his work, so the rarity of his signature alone will significantly increase the value of his signed pieces by a factor of five on average. All of these shapes are wonderfully documented in the definitive book by Mark Hill entitled 'Michael Harris: Mdina Glass and Isle of Wight Studio Glass'.

The market place generally and enthusiasts are now recognising Michael's unique contribution to the birth and success of British studio glass, albeit that he had to go to Malta to prove it could be successful. The appreciation of glass by Michael Harris means that prices are rising dramatically, so get in now and build a worthwhile collection. Use the guidance of those dealers who are 'in the know' and you will not only find yourself in possession of a collection of true lasting value, but something to give you pleasure every time you look at it. I had the honour and pleasure of being one of the first two freelance reps working with Michael 25 years ago and typically at the time had no real conception of his lasting influences in the way I do now. With regards to collecting - if only I knew then what I know now!! I suggest you don't make the same mistake!! 

Written By Ron Wheeler -

About the Author

Ron Wheeler (Artius Glass) is an experienced dealer in Studio Glass, specialising in the glass produced by studios associated with Michael Harris. Artius Glass are also appointed secondary market specialists to Isle of Wight Studio Glass.

Ron Wheeler is extremely knowledgeable in his field of expertise and regularly exhibits at the National Glass Collectors Fair.


Please note that the content of this article is the sole intellectual property of the author. No reproduction or reference to the text of this article may be made without the express permission of the author.

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