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Bristol, like Battersea is one of those magic words to the collector. Everyone wants his opaque glass to be Bristol, and every dealer thus puts the Bristol tag on certain type of opaque white and colored glass, knowing full well that it probably came from Germany, France, or Bohemia or at best Birmingham or Stourbridge and not Bristol. However, much of this glass is decorative and attractive even if it isn't Bristol, but in order to avoid paying Bristol prices for less valuable wares it is well to be able to distinguish the difference between the various types.
Opaque white glass was common to every European country. It was made as early as 1470 in Venice, in Orleans, France, in 1662, and continued being made down into the 19th century. Collectors have been interested in it from the time of Lady Charlotte Schreiber, whose collection is now in Victoria and Albert Museum, down to the present day. This glass is decorated with enamel or oil painting and often with transfer designs. A collector may run the gamut from the rare and expensive Bristol glass vases to the decorative mugs of Bohemia, the quaint "Remember Me" mugs of the 19th century from Yarmouth or Sunderland, or the fluted Victorian vases from Stourbridge or Birmingham.
Fine old opaque white glass was made at Bristol as early as 1745, but their finest glass was made between 1762 and 1787. There were fifteen glasshouses at that time. Deep blue, pale green, and clear glass was also manufac tured, but the opaque white glass made Bristol famous. It was made to imitate fine porcelain and was decorated by the same men who decorated Bristol china. The designs are similar to that on Bristol Delft of an earlier date.
Authorities disagree on the exact appearance of Bristol white glass. That it should have a dense appearance similar to porcelain is positive; whether or not it should have any opalescence is a question. The finest pieces do not have any glow but are creamy white. There are no streaks or marbling. The surface is fine, smooth, and soft in texture, and white Bristol glass is thin although it has the appearance of being thick and heavy. The pontil mark resembles porcelain and is solid white and creamy, not bluish.
The decoration on the finest Bristol pieces is enameled and fired, but some ordinary articles were painted with oil color and were not baked. Bristol opaque white glass is thin and brittle. It was known as enamel glass, and the name referred to the process, not the decoration.
However, the shapes and the type of decoration are the surest means of identifying authentic old Bristol glass. Almost without exception the shapes are those of fine Chinese porcelain. There are vases of ovoid shape, beakers, pear-shaped vases with cylindrical necks, and covered and open inverted baluster-shaped mantle vases. There are bowls, decanters, bottles, and bowls and jugs. Tea caddies are rectangular with beveled angles, round shoulders, and short, circular necks. They have metal tops and are painted with birds and the name of the tea, such as Bohea, Hyson, and Green, in rococo puce-color cartouches. Candlesticks had tapered and writhen ribbed stems and adorned base.
Michael Edkins left records of some of the articles which he painted. They include beakers, canisters, "blue cornicopias," hyacinth glasses, a wineglass with "Pitt and Liberty," "Liberty and No Excise," "cans and milk jugs," and "enamel and blue glass." Edkins painted both white and blue glass, and his records show that he worked for the following firms:1762-1767, Little & Longman 1767-1787, Longman & Vigor 1765, Wm. Dunbar & Company 1775-1787, Vigor and Stevens 1785-1787, Lazarus Jacobs.
Designs on old opaque white Bristol glass are of both Chinese and English inspiration. The Chinese designs include Chinese figures, buildings, rockery and birds and are very similar to those on Chinese porcelain and English china of Chinese inspiration. English-inspired designs include native English birds, such as the goldfinch and bullfinch; sprays or sprigs of such English flowers as tiger lilies, tulips, roses, honeysuckle; and insects and butterflies. Some rare pieces are dated, such as the finger bowl with "J.F. 1757" and the scent bottle with "Mi-Alfer 1781" and a basket of flowers. Brilliant enamel colors were used, including viridian and malachite greens, lemon yellow, light red, ultramarine blue, mauve, and violet. Faces of Chinese figures are outlined in red, and the eyes are black dots. The hands have a characteristic long first finger. The legs, beaks, crests, and tails of birds are in red and the landscape foreground is green with black and brown dots. The rococo frames are often lavender. Gilding is used both alone and together with enamel decoration.
Pieces of Bristol glass are comparatively small. The beakers are usually 6 to 8 inches high, the candlesticks and vases 6 to 9. Plain white or fluted vases are 8 inches high, and tea caddies about 6 inches in height.
At Sotheby's sale in London, November, 1937, a collection of Bristol opaque white glass was sold which included a cream jug with sprigs and sprays of flowers; candlesticks with sprays and bouquets of flowers; a vase with tiger lilies; a plain white mantel garniture consisting of a covered vase and a pair of beakers; a beaker with sprays of tulips, roses, and a butterfly; a vase with roses tied with a blue ribbon, butterflies, insects, honeysuckle, and curled green leaves; and finger bowls decorated in "famille rose" style with sprays of peony flowers and birds.
While Bristol glassware was imported into America in huge quantities in the latter half of the 18th century, there is no mention of white glass and we can well imagine that it was too fragile for shipment.