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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

England's Lead Glass Called Flint

Phoenician ships loading the lead and tin of Cornwall must have traded "aggry" glass beads to British chiefs. Through the years, Roman generals landing their thousands of soldiers, brought drinking glasses and glass blowers. When they left Britain, 410 A. D., the grass crept over their glass furnaces and shards, excavated in modern times. The monasteries brought in glass making along with other arts, and Father Benedict imported glass blowers from France to make windows for his new church at Wearmouth in 675 A. D.

A thousand years later England developed lead table glass - one of the epochal forward moves in glass making, for England's lead glass put glassware in the cupboards of the people.

Not that lead glass in itself was new. The Babylonians used it to add glisten to the glaze of their bricks, the Egyptians and Chinese for glass jewels. The Romans increased its uses. Medieval Europe knew it as "Jewish jewel glass." And Antonio Neri's "Art of Glass," on Italian glass making, written in 1612, 'tells of it as the finest and noblest of glass though too easily shattered.


Early English glass was made of "fern leaves and burned stone." The Normans in turn brought their glass blowers who turned to England's woods for their glass furnaces. Elizabeth encouraged the coming of more French glassmen. Some of these families along with French exiles, made so by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, founded famous English glass businesses. But the Italian, Jacob Verzelini, fathered English glass in the Italian manner, using Italian pebbles and barilla.

Sir Richard Mansell, tycoon, with patents on coal burning furnaces (when England stopped burning her forests to save her ship business), brought in Venetian glassmen to guide his workers. The Duke of Buckingham lent his name to soft, light English glass of Venetian type. And Thomas Tilson, probably influenced by Neri's glass book which was translated into English in 1662 by Christopher Merret, produced "Chris'tal glass" that was beautiful and clear but too brittle for tableware.

Then George Ravenscroft and the Italian Da Costa started to make English glass of English materials. They used potash with calcined and pulverized flints but their glass crizzled and flaked off. They replaced part of the potash with oxide of lead to help fuse the flint, and got a clear rich crystal. The more lead they used, the more this glass refracted the light. Eventually thirty to forty percent was added.

This new glass was heavier, 'thicker, less workable and required higher working temperature than other glass. It could not be blown into the fanciful, bubble-thin, ethereally lovely glass of Venice. It colored beautifully. But it lacked the popular rich gold-produced ruby and the expert and fanciful cutting of Bohemian glass.

It had a mirror-like quality - an oily silvery sheen, an inner fire, a scintillating, light-refracting, almost diamond-like brilliance. So this English lead crystal, made first with flints, later with sand, captured and held the markets of the world for about two centuries.


Collectors of English drinking glasses talk "feet, stems and bowls." Early feet, domed or "with high insteps," left room for the rough pontil which would otherwise scratch the table. A folded under rim gave strength and a rounded edge against chipping. Then the folded rim disappeared. And when the cutting wheels got busy on foot, stem and bowl, the pon'til was ground off so 'the foot could flatten to the table. The Norwich foot was terraced. The "firing foot" was thick and strong.

The stems dominate the periods. The first were heavy and knopt like stair balusters, and made before England's tax on glass weight reduced the lead content and the quality of the material. Baluster stems were sometimes decorated by an enclosed coin or by air bubbles called tears. These tears were made by poking a wooden peg in the molten stem, then casing it in hot glass to sea! in the bubbles.

Drawn stems were made by pulling the bowl out into a stem. The later ones were often corrugated spirally.

Air twist stems, grooved in a mold, then cased in hot glass to seal 'the air grooves, were drawn, twisted and cut into stem lengths.

Cotton spiral stems were made by standing milk glass rods around a mold, inserting a paraison of hot glass in their midst, then working and drawing them into a long rod for cutting to stem lengths. Colored twists later used yellow, green, blue, or red rods with white, mostly Bristol made. All are now rare collectors' prizes.

Cut glass stems, last of the famous five, were generally hexagonal. The shallow cut often carried up onto the bowl's base.

Bowls were drawn or cone, bell - waisted bell or thistle, egg, bucket, and ogee - elongated S-curve. Most of these glasses are in collections. They are a period of English glass fine in material, in simplicity of form, and simplicity of decoration.


Hogarth glasses (see his paintings) had deep, slim bowls and short stems. Masonic glasses had heavy firing feet for "Kentish fire" - pounding-on-'the-table applause. Joey, coaching, and fuddling glasses were footless, so were emptied while in hand. Boot glasses, the hunting party favorite, had sentiment if not beauty. Yard-of-ale glasses amusingly (?) emptied their bulb's contents over the drinker's face. Thick toastmaster glasses left little space for tongue-twisting liquor.

Decanters brought the wine to table, some say for Elizabeth, others for Charles I. They ranged from bottle green to crystal, from simple wrythen through ringed neck, from mushroom-stoppered massive to tall nine pin with cased, cut, and engraved decoration.

Sugars, creamers, sweet meat dishes, captain's glasses and comports adjusted rims, bowls, stems and feet to style. Salts, custard cups and lusters changed metal, shapes and decorations.

Glasses commemorated kingly houses, battles, heroes, ships and bridges. The six petaled Sttiart rose with large bud for the Old Pretender, small for the Young; with bird, butterfly or moth for the sea crossing and words like Fiat (Let it be done) mark Jacobite glasses. Wellington with his sword, Nelson with his ship, and the Bridge at Sunderland, name a few others.


It is as cut glass that English lead crystal attained world fame, for the glass tax controlled the metal quality and profit could only be made through decoration.

Elaborate cutting actually cut away part of the weight and so cut down the tax cost.

Cutting - simply the grinding out of pattern in the glass with an iron wheel and an abrasive sand, then polishing with wooden wheel and putty powder - gave the prismatic light refraction which showed lead glass at its brilliant best.

Three men, John Akerman, Thomas Betts, and Jerome Johnson, set English cut glass styles. Akerman had his cornered and scalloped brims, rayed panels, oval facets, sunbursts, and relief diamonds. Betts added lunar slicing and beveled edges. Jerome Johnson put in the flowers, sharpened the bevels and increased the polish. The strawberry, square hobnail, diamond shape, herringbone, rose, honeysuckle, and ribbon-andswag are well known cut patterns.

Engravings with the softer copper wheel, and diamond point for detail, put flowers, fruited vines and landscapes on clear crystal or cased glass. Rare gilt engravings were done through gold leaf fixed to the glass and burnished. I'Iuoric acid etching left its faint and lovely patterns.

Enameling ornamented some glass. William and Mary Beilby painted white, bluish white, and pinkish white heraldry, flowers, vines and country life scenes on Newcastle glass. Michael Edkins put his china paintings of perched birds and tight flower bouquets on Bristol's famous dense white, thin milk glass, or crystal, or blue.

Bristol imprisoned daintily colored and fashioned flowers in her paperweights and door stops. Nailsea made her colored witch balls, sentiment-inscribed rolling pins, pipes, canes and bottles.

Victorianisms came in with pressed glass which put cut glass patterns in English cottages. And Victoria's Crystal Palace, the first house of glass, assembled the world's finest glass crafts and glass history, including Apsley Pellatt's revival of Rome's intaglio and cameo inset glass.

Modern English glass has pristine colors, reproductions of old crystal patterns, massive engraved ware with eye to light and shadow effects, and simple cuttings following form and bringing out the glistening quality of glass. All have collectors' status. It is clearer and more brilliant than the old, due to care in selecting and cleaning of materials, clarifying of the batch, and youth itself.

Glass collectors watch for color, surface appearance, style of shape, and tone. Old lead glass is sooty, and has a metallic, oily gleam. It is misted and feels soft and velvety to glass-knowing fingers. It is heavy. It has a lingering ring. But this last, plus the rough pontil mark, though once important, are no longer sure tests for the old in glass.

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