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Glass



Glass, like silver, forms a highly specialised branch of antique collecting, with an enormous literature of its own, and, again like silver, it has its ardent devotees and also its detractors. On the debit side it must be admitted that glass is notoriously fragile and demands the most delicate handling and storage, while of course it lacks the colourful richness of porcelain and the lustrous glow of metalwork or the lovely patina of carved and polished wood. Again, it has, at least in the plain glass specimens, a certain coldness of appearance which makes it unattractive to some collectors, and it is, as is well known, an extremely bewildering subject to study when you begin to delve into its history.

As against all this, however, glass has many delightful and fascinating qualities. Its history, though certainly very obscure in places, is of extraordinary interest, for the art of glass-making is one of the oldest arts of all. And, though early examples are naturally rare, enough has survived to show that a high artistic standard was achieved even in the centuries before Christ.

Glass of a primitive kind was, in fact, known to the ancient Egyptians, but the real beginnings of glass as we know it (i.e. blown glass rather than a heavy glass paste) stem from about the first century B.C. The art flourished under the Romans and spread also to the countries under Roman domination, some beautiful specimens of Roman glass having survived which can be studied in the museums of London, New York and Berlin. Whether local manufactories developed in the Roman colonies or whether the products were merely exported from established centres is a matter of conjecture. But it is quite possible that in England, as in France, there were skilled native artists learning their craft from glassmakers who followed in the path of the civilising and peace-bringing Roman armies and who set up their furnaces here.

Later, in the centuries when Baghdad became a kind of Eastern Rome, some fine glass was to be produced by the Moslem countries, but as the complete history of glassmaking has never yet been satisfactorily put together much in the mediaeval sections of the story is still extremely vague. It is not, indeed, until we get towards the end of the Middle Ages that the outlines can be filled in with tolerable certainty, and by that time we find European glass-making a well-established art alongside that of the Islamic countries.

The most famous of the mediaeval European glassworks was undoubtedly that at Venice, or rather the nearby island of Murano, and Venetian glass has continued its pre- eminence right up to modern times. The early Venetian glassmakers jealously guarded the secrets of their craft and took elaborate pains to ensure that none of their artists should work abroad and disseminate their technical knowledge; some of their technical developments were indeed revolutionary and it was their invention of clear glass (`cristallo') as opposed to the coarser greenish glass of the earlier glassmakers which really inaugurated the era of modern glass manufacture.

Italian glass seems to have commanded a very wide market even as early as the thirteenth century and, in addition to Venice, there were manufactories at Padua, Ferrara, Ravenna, Bologna, Mantua, Vicenza and Treviso. Enamelling and gilding were freely employed in the decoration, and specimens of mediaeval Italian glass which have survived show a high degree of technical skill; but with the sixteenth century the enamelling of glass seems to have gone out of fashion and painting or engraving took its place.

The collector, however, is very unlikely to be able to acquire really early examples of this kind, and he will usually have to be content to admire both Mediaeval and Renaissance glass behind the protective panelling of museum cases. English glass is what he is most likely to acquire and specimens even of this are not likely to be earlier than the Restoration period when the glass industry became firmly established in London.

It was the experiments of George Ravenscroft with additional lead-oxide, leading to a beautiful kind of `crystal' glass, which gave England a reputation for fine glass-making, but examples of this Restoration glasswork are not easy to come by and the collector will find that the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries mark the real time-limits of his probable acquisitions.

Within these limits there is still a tremendous field for study, speculation and interesting purchases. Georgian drinking glasses, for example, form a fascinating branch of the art of glass, and the different styles of their stems often help in roughly dating them. There are the earlier 'balustershaped' stems which were popular until about 1750, the `Silesian' stems (a pedestal type which tapers to the foot of the glass, often having eight-sided `ribs'), and the straight stems (i.e. with no bulbous or ribbed projections as with the other two kinds.) This `straight stem' type is frequently adorned with exquisite internal twists or spirals, giving rise to the term 'air-twist stems,' and there are many very beautiful varieties of this lovely device, sometimes opaquewhite in colour.

These will date from the second half of the eighteenth century, as do the `cut stems,' often six-sided, which are another variety. However, there was a good deal of overlapping of styles in the various sections of the eighteenth century, and it does not do to be too precise in attempts to pin glasses down to a definite year merely by the shape of their stems.

A most interesting variety of eighteenth-century drinking glass is the `Jacobite glass.' Genuine examples are far from easy to get, but with a little trouble you may be able to acquire a few in the course of your collecting. They are connected, of course, with the two Stuart risings of 1715 and 1745 which left quite a heritage in glass as well as in literature and historical documents.

The 1715 Rebellion was in favour of the `Old Pretender,' the heir of James the Second who called himself James the Third, and the "45" was an attempt to put his son, the Bonnie Prince Charlie of Jacobite song and story, at the head of an army which was to march from Scotland and take London by storm. Both the people of London and the court of George the Second were very seriously alarmed by the second of these risings, and the initial successes of the Prince's forces threw them into something like a panic.

On the glasses commemorating these events there is much curious and symbolistic decoration and there have been many attempts to explain it. They frequently show a rose with two buds which may represent the Throne of England and the two Pretenders (the `Old' and the `New'), or they may symbolise the Old Pretender (`James the Third') and his two sons, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his brother Henry. (This Henry, who was sometimes even styled `Henry the Ninth of England,' afterwards became a Cardinal of the Roman Church and his death finally extinguished any possibilities of a Stuart succession.) The word `Fiat' (in the sense of `May it come to pass') is also frequently to be seen and seems to be an expression of pious hope in the Restoration of the Stuart `Pretenders.'

The collector, however, should note that modern imitations of these Jacobite glasses are especially numerous, and, unless he has expert advice to rely on, he will do better to confine himself at the beginning to ordinary Georgian wine glasses which can still be obtained fairly cheaply. And with a little practice he will soon be able to distinguish the beautiful lustrous softness of genuine Georgian glass from the hard `metallic' quality of the modern reproductions. He should note, though, that the clear `ring' sounded by a glass is not, as some people imagine, an infallible test of the genuineness of old glass, for much modern glass possesses it too.

Glass can often be attributed with fair certainty to its place of origin and there are at least three British glassworks whose names the collector should know, those of Waterford, Bristol and Nailsea.

Waterford was the finest of the Irish glass-making centres and examples of its work are highly prized, some particularly elegant chandeliers being made there at the end of the eighteenth century. But note that the greyish-blue colour which used to be considered the hallmark of Waterford glass is not now held to be at all an infallible sign, and caution is necessary if one is offered an expensive piece of glass stated to be `certainly' Waterford merely because of its distinctive blue-ish tinge; some Old English glass has this tinge also.

Bristol was the best known of the English glass-centres. Favourably situated as an important port for the manufacture and export of glass-ware, it had begun by developing a flourishing trade in bottles for Bath and Bristol Waters, and for beer and cider from the nearby Somerset villages. It was already famous in the mid-eighteenth century and developed no less than fifteen glass-manufactories.

Bristol's output of ornamental glass was to become enormous, and though there are, as usual, plenty of fakes about, a vast number of extant specimens are undoubtedly of genuine Bristol origin. The lovely milk-white glass, resembling porcelain, which was a speciality of Bristol, is the most common kind and it is often decorated with coloured and gilded flowers. Sometimes there are white ribs or streaks around the glass, and sometimes the glass is `mottled' with contrasting colours. The charming softness of Bristol glass is another characteristic feature of it, and many lovely Venetian patterns were copied and adapted at Bristol. The variety of the products was extraordinary and it includes vases, candlesticks, salt cellars, cups and saucers, and many other objects. The base of some of these pieces is often left slightly rough, and this provides something of a test of genuineness as the modern imitations are usually smoothly finished.

A famous name in the history of the Bristol works is that of Michael Edkins, who flourished in the 1760s. Edkins seems to have been a remarkable person, with musical abilities as well as talents for painting and enamelling glass. He sang on the stage at Bristol and also at Covent Garden, painted theatrical properties, and is credited with thirtythree children! His fame, however, is as a glass painter, and though the attribution of his pieces is still a muchdisputed matter it seems clear that he painted and gilded many of the lovely examples of blue glass turned out at Bristol in the 1760s. If the collector can acquire any genuine specimens of the work of Edkins, it is well worth a considerable outlay.

At Nailsea, quite close to Bristol, was another famous glass-making centre; it was, in fact, started by a Bristol bottle-glassmaker in 1788 and produced some extremely interesting and beautifully made bottles as well as jugs and flasks. The celebrated `latticinio' glass of Nailsea comprises two or more different-coloured kinds of glass which are combined in stripe patterns. Many charming little `fairings' and love-tokens were also turned out by Nailsea and the fascinating glass rolling-pins with which the name of Nailsea is always closely associated may well have been used for the smuggling of spirits at a time when every device was exploited for evading the Excise laws. Sailors, of course, abounded in the vicinity of Nailsea and Bristol.

Finally, it should be noted that much Victorian glass is very attractive and is still fairly easy to acquire. Something is said about Victorian lustres in the chapter on Victoriana, as they were so closely bound up with Victorian ideas of domestic decoration. But many other charming Victorian pieces can often be obtained at sales, such as the very pretty coloured glass baskets with glass handles, glass walking sticks, ornamental scent bottles and those pleasing ruby glass sugar basins and cream jugs, adorned with white spiral threads, which seem to turn up quite frequently.

Modern glass, of course, does not concern us here, but a great deal of really lovely glass is still being produced. Anyone who has a holiday in Venice, for instance, will almost certainly want to bring back some of the beautiful pieces of Murano work which can be bought quite reasonably in the Venetian shops.

These, after all, although not yet antiques, will one day qualify for that honour, and there is no reason at all why a collection of glass, containing primarily historical specimens, should not be rounded off with a few examples of the glassmaker's art of the present time.