Chandelier makers' proud family history
PUBLISHED: 09:34 23 May 2017
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
Royal Warrant-holding glass restorer and chandelier maker Wilkinson PLC on its proud family history
Most men go to the office to escape the wife and kids. Not David Wilkinson. When he married Mandy, their family of two daughters each from their first marriages doubled overnight and now all four girls, and Mum, work with him in one big upstairs space in Bredgar.
A recipe for disaster? Seemingly not. “I’ve always wanted my family around me, so this is perfect,” smiles David.
But then this is a family business, through and through. Wilkinson’s specialises in English crystal chandeliers from the 18th and 19th centuries, both manufacturing reproductions and restoring some of the world’s finest antique collections.
Established in 1947 by his grandfather Reginald, David, 59, plans to hand the reins on to his eldest daughter Jodie when he retires. Heading up a firm that has notched up 70 years of experience, it is important to him that the highest quality and standards are continued in the decades ahead.
A proud holder of the Royal Warrant By Appointment to Her Majesty The Queen as Glass Restorers, the original F Wilkinson & Co was based in Stourbridge, home of the English glass-cutting industry. Owned by David’s great-uncle Frank, the company produced decorative vases, bowls and glasses using the traditional cutting methods of the period.
Frank, who discovered a commercial method of acid polishing cut glassware using a mixture of hydrofloric and sulphuric acid, died at the young age of 30, the result of acid fumes inhaled during his experiments.
His brother Reginald took up the mantle and R Wilkinson & Son was founded in 1947 in London, with a change of direction to glass repair and restoration.
Growth continued through the 1950s. Reginald retired in 1965 and Frank’s son Arthur steered the business towards the reproduction of 18th and 19th century English chandeliers.
Arthur retired in 1986, knowing the business was in safe hands. His son David had joined him in 1974 at 16; less than 10 years later he bought ownership from his father and two years later acquired the remnants of the Osler & Faraday Ltd lighting company.
With growing demand came the need for a larger space and the factory moved to Catford in 1988. But with the cost of owning property in London ever increasing and David and Mandy both wanting to downsize; by 2010 it felt the right time to relocate the factory and offices to their home county of Kent.
Seven years ago, out looking for sites in the Sittingbourne area, they came to Bredgar and their current home. “We fell in love with the house but on the premises was an ugly swimming pool, which we didn’t want,” says David. “We got listed building consent to turn the site into a business.”
Today the two-storey modern barn that sits so well in its country surroundings has space for a workshop and the lovely offices where we are sitting today. There are 17 cratsmen – glass cutters, metalworkers, chandelier builders and restorers.
With the heart of the business still in making and restoring chandeliers, it’s no surprise to hear that Wilkinson’s looks after seven Royal families, including our own. David met the Queen when they made the chandeliers for Osborne House, the Isle of Wight summer home of Queen Victoria.
Other projects have included work at Spencer House, the Bank of England and, two years ago, making 54 chandeliers for London’s iconic Lanesborough Hotel.
David says: “We are unique – it’s a very small market, very traditional English chandeliers, and not everyone wants them. In the old days, if you had a Georgian house you’d have to have Georgian chandeliers, but nowadays it’s quite acceptable to have very contemporary pieces inside the home. They look fantastic in loft apartments.”
As well as chandeliers they also make and restore crystal furniture and in the workshop is a grand crystal bed originally made for an Indian Maharaja in the late 1800s. It took two years to restore and has just been bought by another Royal family for its collection.
So what makes a glass cutter? “We’re looking for patience – and dexterity, but we train everyone from scratch,” says David. “We have a qualified metalworker and electrician, but most are new to the trade; we prefer it if they haven’t picked up bad habits.”
He is teaching Jodie the drawing side and one of her designs is going into Kent’s splendid Hythe Imperial. He himself never uses CAD, preferring always to work by hand, a typical drawing taking two days to complete.
David has seen many of the world’s greatest chandeliers, from the salt examples in the salt mines of Krakow to the world’s largest chandelier inside the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Oman, so big it has staircases and platforms inside it for maintenance purposes.
But there’s no place like home...
Get in touch
Bexon Court Barn, Hawks Hill Lane, Bredgar, nr Sittingbourne ME9 8HE
01795 830 000, wilkinson-plc.com