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Decorated Imperial Glass
Concurrent with increased manufacture of glass in the Low Countries and South Europe, eighteenth century Russia, expanding her industrial activities, witnessed the founding of the Imperial Glass Works in St. Petersburg under the patronage of Ekaterina II the Great. Before this time, table glass used in the imperial palaces was imported from Nurnberg where it was made to the order of Elisaveta I, predecessor of Catherine the Great.
In the beginning, Dutch, German and Bohemian influence was strongly evident in the products of the Russian factory. Drinking glasses constituted most of the early output, capacious glasses with heavy, knopped stems and wide, domed or conical feet substantial enough to withstand the rough handling to which they were subjected in the exhuberant conviviality of the day.
In addition to the large blown glass goblets engraved with a sovereign's portrait and cipher, the double-headed eagle symbol of the Empire and, almost without exception, the favored grapevine or floral festoons, the Imperial Russian Glass Works adopted the "pokale" or covered cups of foreign origin and in the style of the fine specimens of seventeenth century Antwerp for use as champagne vessels at functions of state. Fitting the appointment to liberal taste, craftsmen fashioned these more than a foot high with bowls that held a quart measure of spirits. One massive covered goblet, made for Catherine the Great in 1767, preserved intact to the present and illustrated here, stands eighteen inches in height and has a capacity of more than a quart and a half. The Empress was said to be able to empty this glass filled with champagne a few times in one evening! One side of the bowl bears the Empress' portrait and monogram "Ell", the other, the imperial eagle and the date. Gold inlay, generously employed, strengthens the principal engraved designs and the connective pattern of scrolling tendrils.
The method of permanent gilding credited to a Spaniard, Don Sigismondo Brun, became an integral part of fine ornamentation. Diamond-point engraving in which eighteenth century Flanders achieved prominence in her trade with England was skilfully practised in Russia. Occasionally, portions of the glass engraved with the eagle motif, battle devices and standards, were accentuated with black enamel.
The general vogue for enameled glass, prevalent throughout the 1700's, increased in Russia and resulted in greater productiveness marked by the versatility and high performance of the native glass. makers. The art of decorating crystal with enameled crest motifs fixed and protected between layers of glass was born and ultimately perfected by an ingenious method unknown today. The process of superimposing and annealing a layer of glass upon the original body to enclose the ornament without impairing it in the slightest degree still confounds the most expert glass artisans. It is said that, in the hands of the masters of the Imperial Glass Works and the famous Nikolsko-Bakhmetiev Factory of Prince Aleksandr Obolensky, where choice items in this manner were also made, only one of every hundred pieces, elaborately prepared, was removed from the furnace in flawless condition, and that the imperfect specimens were destroyed.
Liquor sets in this style predominated, consisting of decanters and glasses in great variety; but coinpotes, bowls and fruit vases were also produced for the Tsars Aleksandr II and Aleksandr III. Of heavy, clear quality, the bowls fluted and the bases in sunburst cutting, these feature medallions displaying the imperial ermine robe surmounted with the Romanov crown and carrying the ciphers of members of the immediate imperial family. On fine gold which best receives and holds the vitrescent substance, the champleve and basse-taille enamel is in brilliant red and white toned with pearl grey. Since the glowing color of enamel is dependent on a perfect blending of its component parts, it is apparent that the most precise skill was employed in this particular as well as in the process of casting and sealing the final layer of glass.
While an explanation of the extremely delicate processes involved in the execution of the Russian crest glasses is not possible, an outline of the treatment of nineteenth century and some of the later glass designated for enamel decoration is of certain interest. The choice of a suitable glass for this manner of ornament was very important and the result of long experience; for too hard a surface resisted the action of the fire and the colors, cast long before it began to liquefy, expanded and chipped, while, if the glass was too soft, it liquefied overmuch and the colors ran. Insofar as is was possible, similar items of a set were attempted at one time so that in the operation of annealing the heat might act with equal effectiveness on all of them. In the early years of glass enameling, before the colors were applied, the surface was roughened slightly with a powdered mixture of iron, copper and enamel scales moistened with water, after which the glass, polished with a cloth, was ready to receive the colors. In later years, this was no longer necessary, for so expertly prepared was the enamel that it adhered to the surface directly.
The enamels, pulverized to a fine grain in an agate mortar, were thoroughly washed in distilled water and dried in warm oak sawdust. When used, the powder was thinned with, a gummous water medium and laid carefully and as thinly as possible on the glass, first with a brush of hog's bristles, then with a flexible brush of fine hair such as gilders use. The glass so decorated was placed gently into the muffle of the furnace heated to a pale, bright red and watched for some hours until the test glass placed with it began to bend and the enameled object shone brightly. Then the fire was extinguished and the glass, allowed to cool gradually, was withdrawn from the furnace and washed and dried with a soft cloth. All these operations were very exacting and demanded of the mechanics and artists alike the utmost dexterity and patience.
Today, much of the eighteenth century glass of many countries defies precise classification because of a strong similarity of characteristics and the fact that itinerant glassmakers introduced their native methods and patterns into foreign lands. In most instances, however, Russian glass, although rare, is not difficult to identify, and the choicest items incorporating rich decorative notes are unmistakable.