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ALTHOUGH dim and meager, there is evidence that the Romans had engaged in glassmaking in England before their exodus in 407 A.D. It is not unlikely that the old works unearthed at Warrington and Wilderspool were direct outgrowths of some of the ancient Roman factories; up to the Renaissance, however, there was little other glass activity in England. The sixteenth century tankard in the British Museum dated 1586 is one of the earliest pieces of exact dating, though historical records disclose the presence of many glassworkers earlier. Drawings and descriptions of their glass show it to have been fashioned largely after Venetian, which was a less ornate glass in those days.
The Italian glass imported in large quantities continued to compete with its English imitations until the Bohemian cut crystal entered the Island during the seventeenth century. Veering the fashion to heavy cut crystal, this ware blazed a golden path for the glistening English "flint glass."
It was in 1675 that George Ravenscroft, with the assistance of the Italian De Costa, produced "flint glass" by the addition of lead oxide to ordinary glass ingredients. Lead glass has extremely high dispersive powers, and additional luster though it is heavier and less tough than lime glass; but for the subsequent English style of cutting it was ideal.
Early in the eighteenth century glass cutting and engraving made long strides in England due, in part, to the richer and more inviting surface of the new flint glass, and, to some extent, to the influence and patterns of the Bohemian cutting. By 1750 English and Irish Rint had largely displaced Bohemian glass in European markets. From the simple motifs like rose branches, butterflies, moths, mottoes, et cetera, the cutting and engraving advanced by 1800 to the prismatic cuts; convex, raised diamond patterns, and other intricate operations. Quantities of the finest English and Irish flint glass of this time were coming from Stourbridge, Dublin, Bristol, Cork, Belfast, and Waterford, much of which now bears the Waterford label, though this plant opened in 1783, some years after flint glass had actually reached its zenith. Bristol was also noted for its enamelled and colored ware; royal blue, deep cherry red, and beautiful opaque enamelled glass. As a rule it was less expensive than cut glass; therefore it graced many middle class tables. At Nailsea, glass of the Bristol type appeared. It favored colors and Venetian styles in both the utility ware and novelty glass.
When steam took over the task of whirling the cutting discs and grinding wheels, more and deeper cutting naturally followed, adding to brilliancy and prismatic effects.
Soon, however, the cutting became so bizarre as to border on the grotesque, and reaction set in, hastened by Ruskin's caustic writings on the subject.
Whitefriars. This excessive cutting soon gave way to more subdued designs in which the cutting was more in keeping with the form and purpose of the piece. Note worthy along this line is the recent work of Barnaby Powell, of the Whitefriars, Ltd., who lets the cutting wheel take a more natural path across the surface of the glass, thus producing more light and airy designs, and less of the purely geometric. The Whitefriars glassworks was founded in London in 1680 and until 1845 made flint glass almost exclusively. The unusual brilliance of their glass is largely the result of close adherence to basic laws of optics and mathematics in guiding their cutting wheels. Stained glass for windows is fully as important in their work as the making of table and decorative glass.
The Stevens & Williaims firm, established in 1776 under the name of Honeybourne, is among the leading English glassmakers. Their cameo glass was brought to perfection by John Northwood, who first reproduced the Portland Vase in glass (Wedgwood reproduced it in pottery). Among Stevens & Williams' various other methods of decoration are: intaglio, used principally on vases, bowls, et cetera; gilding, and etching often used on stoppered utensils, also on imitation rock crystal. Much of their glass is characterized by an appearance of sturdiness in design and decoration, although infinite delicacy abound in other pieces. Recently Mr. Keith Murray, a London architect, has collaborated on some fresh designs for Stevens & Williams, in which flat cutting has largely displaced the "flashy cutting." Some of this new glass is extremely thin, with delicate flat cutting; other heavier pieces depend on simplicity of facets or restrained engraved designs. Of colored ware produced by Stevens & Williams, that of the delightful buttercup yellow tint is especially noteworthy.