A SHORT HISTORY OF EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLISH GLASS

JULIUS KAPLAN

Art, culture, popular libations, politics, and even treason are all to
be found depicted on English glassware.


The well-appointed 18th-century American household was furnished for the most part with products made in America. Our affluent colonial ancestors dined at magnificent mahogany tables from New York, sat on elegant Chippendale chairs from Philadelphia, and carved and ate their turkey with cutlery and silverware from Massachusetts. However, when it came to finding glasses to drink from, Americans in those days still had to look back principally to Mother England. Proper stemware was not produced in this country until late in the century.

Fine glass was produced in substantial amounts in England during the entire 18th century. It was usually made from a lead crystal, then referred to as “flint” glass. George Ravenscroft, a glass maker in London, introduced the process in 1676 by mixing lead oxide and potash into a silica batch. The flint glass that resulted was acclaimed almost immediately for its beauty and clarity. Unfortunately, however, Ravenscroft’s early output had a tendency to “crizzle,” leaving an internal network of lines that eventually caused a breakdown of the surface of the glass. But this defect was soon corrected and, by the 1680s, Ravenscroft and others were consistently producing clear, brilliant, uncrizzled glass.

English flint glass tended to be heavier, more stable, and more refractive than the unleaded “soda” glass then in general use on the Continent. During the Georgian period, flint glass became the predominant material in drinking-glass production throughout England and the end products were greatly appreciated by connoisseurs. Flint glass is easily distinguished from soda glass. Besides being heavier in weight, it is also more resonant. It rings beautifully when tapped lightly with a fork, while soda glass gives off a dull thud. Leaded glass also is distinguishable by a faint grayish tinge. Both flint glass and high-quality German and Venetian soda glass sought to imitate the appearance of rock crystal, which is why we now use the word “crystal” for fine glassware.

Drinking glasses in those days came in many different sizes and shapes. They often had bowls, which had a small capacity by today’s standards, two ounces or less. Others were enormous, and were probably used for beer or as ceremonial glasses. Whatever the size, Georgian glasses tended to be well designed, with harmonious dimensions.

English glassware in the 18th century reflected the rise of a consumer culture in England. The fashion-conscious purchaser sought an assortment of different styles and shapes for each drink served. Among the popular shapes were glasses for ale, cordials, various kinds of wine, and “ratafias,” an almond-based drink similar to a cordial. There were tumblers and even special toastmaster glasses. The latter had thick bowls that held a deceptively small quantity of drink, thus enabling the toastmaster to propose numerous toasts and still make it home under his own power.

By the middle of the 18th century, many items throughout the home were being made of glass. Household glassware included candlesticks, taper sticks, salvers, sweetmeat glasses, and dessert glasses for jellies, syllabubs, and possets. Decanters, in this hard-drinking era, ranged in size from a quarter-bottle capacity to a “Methuselah” capable of holding eight full bottles. Decanters were collected for their form, size, and style of decoration. Rarities included enameled decanters from the workshop of the Beilby family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and gilded examples from James Giles’ decorating establishment in London during the 1760s. Later, manufacturers and dealers successfully promoted the use of a distinctive decanter for each type of beverage. It became fashionable to label decanters to indicate their contents, e.g., port, sherry, madeira, claret, “cyder,” and even beer and ale, which, in this period, were powerful beverages more accurately described as “barley wine.”

CHANGING TASTES

The design of Georgian glass reflected not only the tastes of the times—the lightness of rococo superseding the heavier baroque style and motifs—but also the impact of excise tax laws. For example, in 1745 England began to tax glass on the basis of weight, a tax imposed on the manufacturer. This impelled glass manufacturers to find ways to lighten their product. One method was the elimination of the “folded foot.” Prior to 1745, Georgian glasses generally had been made with the base, or foot, reinforced with an extra fold or layer of metal to protect the foot from chipping. Without this reinforced base, post-1745 glasses were less expensive to make, but more vulnerable to being damaged.

One example of an early drinking glass was the baluster. The earliest of these dated back to the reign of William III and Mary, circa 1690, but the best were produced mostly during the reign of Queen Anne (1701-1716). The baluster took its name from the architectural form for the short pillar, although, in the case of the glass, the shape was usually inverted. A wide variety of stem patterns, or “knops,” evolved in the broad field of baluster glasses. If produced by a good maker, knops shaped as acorns, mushrooms, or cylinders are eagerly sought by collectors today. Perhaps rarest of all, the plain ovoid or egg-shaped knop is highly desirable among collectors. An air bubble was often incorporated in the knop of balusters.

With the advent of the Hanoverian monarchy in 1714, English makers began producing glasses similar to the styles being made in Germany. These glasses emerged during the reign of George I and may well reflect the influence of his court. Typically, these glasses possessed a molded pedestal stem sometimes referred to as a “Silesian” stem. A very small number incorporate the motto “God Save King George” on the stem. The pedestals usually had six or eight sides, although some early four-sided ones were also made. Others were molded with diamonds or stars on the points of the shoulders. The feet are usually folded, as were the feet of baluster glasses. The Silesian stem also was found on candlesticks and sweetmeat glasses.

During the second quarter of the century, glass makers in England began to realize that the air bubble or “tear” in baluster glasses could be manipulated to be a central decorative feature in the stem. These manipulations took elaborate and intricate forms, and often resulted in glasses of great beauty and brilliance. Many varieties of air twists were created. They were incorporated in straight-stemmed glasses, as well as in glasses with knops. By mid-century, multi-spiral, air twist stems were extremely popular.

Figure 1. This Beilby wineglass (circa 1765-70) features a double-series opaque-twist stem.

Before long, the air twist was overtaken in popularity by glasses with an opaque twist stem (see Figure 1). Instead of manipulating the air bubble, manufacturers placed rods of white enamel around the inside of a cylindrical mold. The mold was then filled with molten glass, which, after cooling and reheating, could be twisted to create “cotton twists” of elaborate and intricate design. Opaque twist stems were used in most styles of drinking glasses, both small and large, as well as in candlesticks and sweetmeat glasses.

Around 1760, an especially attractive variation of the twist-stemmed glass emerged with the addition of color. In lieu of rods of white enamel, the glass maker now substituted, most commonly, red, green, and blue rods. These were frequently intertwined with opaque white twists, resulting in complex and very beautiful designs. Today, color twist glasses from this era are far rarer than air or opaque twist glasses. Those with brown and turquoise twists are especially rare. Yellows, though also rare, are not as difficult to find. The color twist was sometimes mixed with an air twist. Another attractive combination, though rare, is a color twist combined with both an air twist and an opaque twist. The rarest of the color twists, however, has a stem with a single color and neither an opaque nor an air twist.

In 1777, taxes once again played an important role in the development of English glassware. Parliament’s approval of the Excise Act of 1777 doubled the tax rate on glass produced in England, but from 1780 onward exempted glass produced in Ireland. As a result, the Irish cut-glass industry was born. One of the early producers there was the now internationally famous Waterford manufactory. Most Irish cut glass was made for export to England and America.

The bowls of Georgian glasses were frequently decorated with engraved images. This was accomplished by using either a “diamond point” or, more commonly, an engraving wheel. Engraving on glass with a sharp instrument had been practiced by the Romans. Indeed, Egyptian antecedents go back as far as the 14th century, B.C., and there are references to engraved Venetian glass dating from the 16th century. By 1570, the technique had spread to England, where it was employed by both English and Dutch engravers.

The subjects of the engravings varied. Wine glasses often were decorated with representations of vines and grapes, ale glasses with barley and hops, and cider glasses with apple trees and perhaps the word CYDER. Other common 18th-century subjects included flowers and plants, busts of famous and not-so-famous persons, armorial seals of aristocratic families, hunting scenes, political slogans, animals, flags, and ships.

Bristol, famed for its glass as well as its shipbuilding, was a major center for glasses engraved with warships. The production of “privateer” glasses began in the late 1750s. The bowls were decorated with wheel-engraved images of the specific ships then being commissioned in Bristol for use by the English in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Most of these “privateers” had bucket-shaped bowls.

GLASSES AND POLITICS

Perhaps the most famous, and controversial, of English engraved glassware is Jacobite glass: glassware that overtly or covertly supported the Stuart cause in England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-1689. This period of strife has its origins in 1669, when James, the son of Charles I of England, converted to Catholicism. In 1685, he ascended the throne as King James II and immediately started to convert his Roman Catholic faith into royal policy. This policy greatly alarmed the Protestants of England who, three years later, forced the King to flee for his life to France, replacing him with the Protestant monarchy of William III of Orange and his wife, Mary, James II’s daughter.

James II spent the rest of his days attempting to recapture the throne, as did his son, James Edward Stuart, and grandson, Charles Edward Stuart. They failed, despite substantial, if often furtive, support from the “Jacobites” who championed their cause. Jacobite societies had to be secret since they were officially banned. Nevertheless, they met frequently and, over a bowl of water, toasted “the King,” often using glasses engraved with Jacobite symbols. The toast was well understood by the members as a tribute to the “King over the sea,” or James III, as James Edward Stuart styled himself.

The most common symbol of Jacobite support on glassware is the rose. The flower is depicted fully open and normally has two closed buds on the stem. The open flower is believed to represent the throne of England, and the two buds are interpreted to be the two Stuart sons of James III—Prince Charles Edward and Prince Henry the Cardinal Duke of York.

In addition to the symbolic flowers, Jacobite glasses frequently have words engraved on them: Fiat (meaning “let it be” or “let it come to pass”) or Redeat, Redi, or Revirescit (suggesting hope that the Prince will return). The bowls of some Jacobite glasses bear a likeness of the grandson of James II, Charles Edward Stuart, known as the Young Pretender or Bonnie Prince Charlie. But the most famous, as well as the earliest, Jacobite glasses are the “Amen” glasses. There are fewer than 40 known examples. Two to four verses of the Jacobite hymn and the word Amen are engraved in diamond point on their bowls.

Jacobite glasses have long been a favorite with collectors. The popularity of Jacobite glasses, in fact, drove prices so high that forgers were encouraged to produce copies. The forgeries were principally done in the 19th and 20th centuries on genuine Georgian glass. As a consequence, serious doubt has been cast on the authenticity of many putative Jacobite glasses.

Predictably, perhaps, the Protestant supporters of King William III and Queen Mary responded to the popularity of Jacobite glasses with engraved glassware of their own. The Protestant glasses usually depict an equestrian figure of William and also were frequently copied by forgers. When George I became king in 1714, thereby establishing the House of Hanover on the British throne, engraved glasses were produced that depicted a Hanoverian white horse together with a white heraldic rose.

DUTCH INFLUENCES

William of Orange was not the only Dutch connection to English glass. Dutch engravers worked on many English and English-style glasses. They tended to be more skilled than their English counterparts, which is why many English glasses were sent to Holland for engraving. Some 18th-century English glass makers may even have set up factories in the Netherlands and Norway to produce English-style flint glass. Many 18th-century glasses formerly thought to be of English origin are now thought by many experts to be of Dutch or Belgian origin.

One type of glass engraving perfected in Holland during the 18th century was diamond stippling, the use of pointillist techniques to create images on glass. The originator of stippling was Anna Roemers, who lived in Leiden in the second quarter of the 17th century. Stipple-engravers created images by making innumerable tiny dots on the bowl of the glass. Darker areas were made with dots spaced farther apart, and lighter areas with the dots closer together. The result was an image of incredible delicacy. Interestingly, the image can hardly be seen unless light is cast from above on the edge of the glass. When lighted in that way, the image is said to have been “breathed upon.”

Figure 2
Figure 2. Stipple engraving (circa 1780) by David Wolff featuring a prancing horse.

Roemers’ stippling technique was taken up early in the 18th century by Frans Greenwood of Amsterdam (1680-1763), a gifted amateur who created beautiful images on glass. There are about 50 recorded glasses by Greenwood. Most of the stipple-engravers were, like Greenwood, amateurs. There were, however, at least two who were probably professionals and who were great masters, in any case: David Wolff (1732-1798); and an anonymous pointillist nicknamed “Alias” by F.G.A.M. Smit, the author of an important 20th century catalogue raisonné of Dutch stippled glass. The craftsmanship of both “Alias” and Wolff was immaculate (see Figure 2). Both frequently depicted children, often together with inscriptions dealing with love, friendship, and liberty. Wolff also stipple-engraved portraits of aristocratic personages and armorials, frequently of the House of Orange. One of the most intricate and beautiful of Wolff’s glasses is the “Personification of Amsterdam,” depicting Asia and Africa paying obeisance to Amsterdam. Another important glass by Wolff pictures a house in a landscape on which is inscribed in a banderole, “VRYHEIDS LUST” (“yearning for freedom”).

No discussion of Dutch engravings on English or English-style glasses can be complete without mention of two masters of wheel-engraved glass, the Brothers Sang—Jacob Sang and Simon Jacob Sang. The Sangs originated in Brunswick, Germany, and worked in Amsterdam. An advertisement for the wares of Jacob Sang appeared in an Amsterdam newspaper in 1753. It noted that he engraved on English-style glass and that the subjects of his engraving included portraits, armorials, classical subjects, figures of all sorts, names, and inscriptions, and decorative designs of the newest fashions. Several Sang glasses, signed and dated, exist today.

Figure 3
Figure 3. The bowl of this Beilby wineglass (circa 1767-70) depicts the coat of arms of Wilhem V, Prince of Orange, and his bride, Princess Frederika Sophia Wilhelmina.

THE ARTISTRY OF WILLIAM BEILBY

Rather than being engraved, some Georgian glasses were beautifully decorated with paintings, principally by an artist named William Beilby, sometimes with the assistance of his sister, Mary, and his brother Ralph. They produced their works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, principally during the 1760s. William Beilby learned enameling and painting during the 1750s while apprenticed to a Birmingham artist named John Haseldine. In 1761, William discovered how to fire his enamel paintings onto glass so that they virtually fused with the glass. We know much of this from the diaries of Thomas Bewick, a highly regarded artist, who for several years was an apprentice in the Beilby atelier.

The most famous Beilby glasses are families’ coats of arms and other armorials, which often were painted in bright colors. These include royal armorials for the Dutch and English crowns, as well as armorials for important English families (see Figure 3). A few were signed with the name of W. Beilby or Beilby Jr. Other Beilby glass was “signed” with a butterfly, as the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler did many years later in his paintings and drawings.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Crafted by James Giles, this blue decanter (circa 1760- 70) has elaborate gilt birds among foliage.

One of the more interesting Beilby glasses is a very handsome and tall goblet known as the Standard of Hesleyside. It carries with it an interesting story. In 1763, Edward Charlton of Hesleyside visited the Beilby workshop in Newcastle. Impressed with the quality of the workmanship he saw, Charlton commissioned William Beilby to decorate a glass that would hold a full bottle of claret. Beilby designed a goblet with a deep, round funnel bowl connected to an additional globular bowl beneath it. One side of the glass bears the inscription The Standard of Hesleyside. On the reverse side is the Charlton family arms in color with the inscription Edward Charlton Esqv. 1763. According to J. Rush, who wrote about the Beilby artistry in 1987, it became “the custom and a challenge . . . to gulp the contents [of this two-bowl glass] down without taking a breath,” and drinking a full bottle of Bordeaux wine in this fashion became known as “Sinking the Standard.” Unfortunately, this unique glass was damaged when Charlton’s drunken butler mishandled it. History does not record whether the butler himself had tried to “Sink the Standard.”

In addition to armorials, the Beilbys painted hunting and fishing scenes, pastoral scenes, classical ruins, exotic birds, Chinese pavilions, and beehives. Other glasses had somewhat more abstract vine-scroll and hop-and-barley motifs. In still others, the white enamel is highlighted with bluish or pink tones. The rim of the glass is frequently gilded. Among the most treasured of all Beilby glasses are those fashioned by William Beilby to commemorate the birth of the Prince of Wales on August 4, 1762. They are executed in full heraldic color, with mantling painted in white enamel and shadowing in other colors. Among the rarest Beilbys are a sweetmeat glass and a sugar bowl.

Another famous painter who decorated glass was James Giles (and his atelier). Giles gilded a variety of glass objects but was best known for his decanters, glasses, and bottles featuring portrayals of exotic birds amid slender, feathery trees (see Figure 4). Giles also did vine trails and hop-and-barley motifs, and later added bucranium (stag’s head) designs to his repertoire. Although James Giles’ decoration of glass was highly regarded, his atelier was best known for its decoration of colored china, principally from Worcester.

Isaac Jacobs of Bristol was yet another skilled craftsman who gilded on blue (and opaque white) glass. He is perhaps best known for his blue bowls with key-fret borders, which were often signed. The bowls were brought out at the end of a meal and were used “for rinsing hands and mouth,” according to one account of the times.

One final type of 18th-century English glassware of interest is the “rummer,” a corruption of the Dutch word “Roemer.” This type of green-colored glass was used to drink German white wines (“Hock” or “Rhenish” wine, as they were called in Georgian times). The original Roemer was normally green with a prunted stem (the shape of a sliced raspberry) and a cup-shaped bowl. The Georgian version omitted the prunts and gadrooning (an abstract design), and took on the shape and design of the clear glass being produced at the time. A few of these green glasses had air twist stems and, less frequently, opaque twist stems. Very few had a green bowl and foot, with a clear opaque twist stem. Less than a dozen such glasses have survived. In general, green glass is much rarer than clear flint glass, probably reflecting a relative lack of interest by 18th-century imbibers in drinking Hock. Green decanters are even more rare. One of the rarest colored English drinking glasses of the 18th century is a glass with a blue bowl and foot, and a clear opaque twist stem.

PRESERVING THE TREASURES

Many of these works of art are greatly prized today by collectors and museums. They have gone up in value, though perhaps not as aggressively as Impressionist paintings. For a fine Georgian glass, one must count on paying anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000—and beyond for very rare and beautiful examples.

A number of museums in the United States— including the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York; the Toledo Museum in Toledo, Ohio; and the Philadelphia Museum—have excellent collections of English 18th-century glass. In addition, there are important private American collections, several of which are in the Washington-Baltimore area.


Recommended Readings:
Bickerton, L.M. Eighteenth-Century Drinking Glasses: An Illustrated Guide. Woodbridge, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd., 1986.
Charleston, R.J. English Glass and the Glass Used in England, Circa 400- 1940. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984.
Lloyd, W. Investing in Georgian Glass. London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd., 1969


photo of J. Kaplan

 

Julius Kaplan (CC ‘83) is counsel to Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. He is a collector of Chinese ceramics, American paintings, and English glass.

 


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