Glass is a magic material, a substance we would not want to live without. It has fascinated for centuries, as it captures light and glows from within.
Glass is a jewel like substance made from the most ordinary materials: sand transformed by fire.
After the Venetian worker Verzelini, and the artist and businessman Robert Mansell, there was the innovative technologist, George Ravenscroft, (b1632; d May 1681).
Initially a merchant dealing in glass at London, and at Venice, where he had built up extensive contacts, George Ravenscroft would prove to be the force that would revolutionize the glass industry in England, following the Restoration of King Charles II to the throne.
Charles entered London on his 30th birthday, the 29th May 1660. English man of letters Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary “Great joy at London and ringing of bells, and drinking of the King’s health upon their knees in the streets, which methinks is a little too much. But everybody seems to be very joyful in the business.”
Throughout Venice’s great era of production of glass, unlike anything the world has ever known, Venetian glass makers approached glass like a ductile material to be manipulated, moulded, even cast in dozens of ways.
They coloured, embellished and decorated it into a myriad of forms and fantasies. They painted it with enamels while it was cooling and cold and then re-fired it to render them permanent.
However they had not ever cut it.
We are so used to easily obtaining glass, especially cut glass now it is difficult to imagine the sheer exhilaration and excitement, when in a display of grace the English made a remarkable contribution to glass’s already fascinating history by inventing a strong, durable clear glass in the late seventeenth century.
George Ravenscroft would make the first celebrated English ‘glass of lead’, a product now known as crystal. It was unique in that its surface could be cut.
George Ravenscroft obtained a seven-year patent from Charles II in 1674 to produce glass. Later the same year he became official glass maker to the Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers at London. He founded a glass factory in the Savoy Palace on the Strand at London in 1673, bringing Italian glass makers to England to work for him.
They, more than likely, included glass maker Seignior Da Costa, a native of Monferrato who brought the techniques attached to producing cristallo to England.
At first their glasses suffered from the same crizzling as the glasses had at Venice, (crizzling is a disease caused by a chemical imbalance from an excessive use of potash).
However with much trial and error it was eventually overcome.
The Royal Oak Goblet in the George H. Lorimer Collection donated in 1938 to The Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a rare example of late seventeenth century English glass making by an industry in its infancy.
Dating from 1663 it is engraved with portraits of King Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, his Queen consort. Set between their likenesses is a bust of the king wreathed in the branches of a tree inscribed the Royal Oak.
This alludes to an incident of 1651 in which Charles, defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s anti-Royalist forces, hid in a large oak tree before escaping to France, returning to England only when the monarchy was restored in 1660.
The goblet has an unbroken history of ownership from the seventeenth century beginning with John Grenville, a close member of Charles’s court. Its origin early in the King’s reign coincides with the founding of a glasshouse near London by one of his loyal supporters, the dashing George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, to whom the goblet has frequently been attributed.
It is made of coloured soda-lime glass with diamond-point engraved decoration in the manner of his Vauxhall factory.
George Ravenscroft began producing German style Roemers in the mid-1670s. There was a small but steady demand for this type of glass developed originally in Germany for the consumption of hock (still mass produced today).
From 1676 to about 1684, English glass makers also put a seal on their glasses, bottles and bowls, impressing the crest into a molten blob of glass.
They represented the maker, not owner and the raven’s head crest of George Ravenscroft was a seal of guarantee of quality. The invention of a dark-green wine bottle was also synonymous with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.
Applied stamped seals were clearly inspired by imported German stoneware bottles, which the new heavy glass wine bottles were largely replacing.
It is likely that lead was first introduced in a trial by Ravenscroft to act as a stabilising agent. By 1676 his works had developed a glass, which contained a higher quantity of lead oxide.
This produced far greater transparency, a whiter colour and exhibited refractive qualities far greater than that of Venetian cristallo.
The lead content was approximately 37% while today’s modern crystal contains 33%.
From the outset the importance of this new glass was recognised. Its robust nature and inherent thickness made it a wonderful refractor of light.
An exciting manner and the splendid resounding ring, emitted by the glass when struck, was immediately admired. Ravenscroft’s lead-glass formula was perfected by 1681. It was a softer material with an attractive surface to decorate and became immediately popular at home, and abroad creating a new, large and prosperous industry for England.
Although it could not be blown as thin as the Venetian cristallo, Ravenscroft’s glass was far more durable and its softness lent itself well to deep cutting. It also had a greater brilliance and richness, which gave it a good reputation.
In 1678 Ravenscroft retired from Henley-on-Thames and was succeeded by his brother Francis Ravenscroft and Hawley Bishopp (fl 1676–85), the latter taking over the Savoy glasshouse in 1682. Ravenscroft died in 1683 so did not live to see how successful his glassware would be.
The glass produced by his works had a great deal of characteristic moulding and decoration. Most notable were his ‘nipt diamond waies’ the phrase he used to describe a technique where cords of glass are trailed on the surface of either a glass or decanter and then nipped together at intervals to form a pattern of large diamonds. This process had been first developed at Venice based on antique examples.
From the late seventeenth century England became a major exporter of glass and within 20 years there were over 100 glasshouses producing lead glass at London, Bristol, Stourbridge, Birmingham, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Europe boasted other centres too by now and tiny Holland gained a foothold in this new exciting industry and would become, over time as always, a force to be reckoned with.
Glasses consisted of three elements, the bowl, stem and foot and throughout the eighteenth century all of these elements would each be subjected to changing fashion, innovation and creative genius.
There is a progression that can be traced from their development as simple, solid pure shapes to attractive combinations that required an extra complexity of construction through superb craftsmanship.
The earliest form of drinking glass was the baluster, known as the glory of English glass. It took its name from the architectural form for the short pillar, popular in Baroque styled architecture of the time, although, in the case of the glass, the shape was usually inverted.
Its convoluted stem and sturdy appearance was most attractive and very conducive to serious drinking at a time when it was considered ill mannered to leave the table sober. It was the glass that gave England a homogeneous style, which remained peculiar to it for many years.
Balusters were in vogue from about 1690 to 1725 and during this time a wide variety of stem patterns, or “knops,” evolved. If produced by a good maker, the knops were shaped as acorns, mushrooms and collectors eagerly seek those that contain cylinders today. Perhaps the rarest is the plain ovoid or egg-shaped knop, which is highly desirable among collectors.
An air bubble was also incorporated into the knops of balusters to provide interest as did trapping a silver shilling within a multi ringed knop.
William of Orange had a short reign as William 111 of Great Britannia and Ireland 1689 – 1702. Glasses made in his honour are extremely rare. and were engraved with a portrait of William III on horseback. The most famous inscription on a Williamite glass read
‘To the gloreous pious and immortal memory of the great and good King William, who freed us from Pope and Popery, Knavery and Slavery, Brass Money and Wooden Shoes, and he who refuses this Toast may be Damned, Grammed and Rammed down the great Gun of Athlone.
Engraved so-called Williamite and Jacobite glasses are much faked, especially by Franz Tieze (1842–1932) a late 19th century Dublin based forger. Most museums of the world with glass collections have now identified and removed the offending items.
Here’s to the man who loves his wife
And loves his wife alone
For many a man loves another man’s wife
When he ought to be loving his own.”
There were special toastmaster glasses with thick bowls that held a deceptively small quantity of drink, enabling the toastmaster to propose numerous toasts and still make it home under his own power.
There were also Firing glasses made for banging on the table in response to the many toasts or ‘bumpers’ as they were called, so frequently drunk by gentlemen in their clubs. The effect of many glasses being rapped on wood sounded like discharging a musket hence the term firing.
A boy may kiss his girl goodbye,
The sun may kiss the butterfly,
The wine may kiss the crystal glass,
And you, my friend, may kiss my …
Many of the toasts that were enjoyed were certainly ribald but the majority toasted exalted beauties and life…
Here’s to our wives,
and here’s to our sweethearts,
may the two never meet!
Here’s to the man who is wisest and best,
Here’s to the man who with judgment is blest.
Here’s who’s as smart as he can be –
I mean the man who agrees with me!”
Prior to 1745 all glasses were generally made with the base, or foot, reinforced with an extra fold or layer of metal to protect the foot from chipping. The ingredients for eighteenth century lead glass consisted of three parts silica, two parts red lead, one part potash, a pinch of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) borax and arsenic.
The design of eighteenth century glass reflects not only the tastes of the times but also the impact of government imposed excise tax laws. In 1745 England began to tax its own glass industry 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 domed and “folded foot.” on glasses. Without this reinforced base, post-1745 glasses were less expensive to make, but more vulnerable to being damaged.
During the second quarter of the century, glassmakers in England also began to realize the air bubble or “tear” in the stem could be further manipulated and they could use it not only as a central decorative feature of the stem but also could use it to beat the excise tax on weight.
These manipulations took elaborate and intricate forms. Many varieties of air twists in the stems were created and incorporated in straight-stemmed glasses, as well as in glasses with knops and on candlesticks and by mid-century, multi-spiral, air twist stems were extremely popular.
Before long, the air twist was overtaken in popularity by glasses with an opaque twist stem. Instead of manipulating the air bubble, manufacturers placed rods of white enamel around the inside of a cylindrical mould.
The mould 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.
By the middle of the eighteenth century household glassware included candlesticks, taper sticks, salvers, sweetmeat glasses, and dessert glasses for jellies, syllabubs, and possets. This table chandelier now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is an unique object with no known parallels.
Brass and perhaps wooden examples no doubt existed in the early 18th century and although other fragments have been found this is the only one found intact.
Manufacturing superb objects such as this led to positive growth in the English economy, which was starting to boom. Around 1760, an especially attractive variation of the twist-stemmed glass emerged with the addition of colour.
In lieu of rods of white enamel, the glassmaker 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, colour twist glasses from this era are exceedingly rare. There are only three known sets of six such glasses still extant, including the illustrated set of blue twists with a bucket bowl.
Glasses with brown and turquoise twists are especially rare. Yellows, though also rare, are not as difficult to find. The colour twist was sometimes mixed with an air twist.
Another attractive combination, though rare, is a colour twist combined with both an air twist and an opaque twist. The rarest of the colour twists, however, has a stem with a single colour and neither an opaque nor an air twist.
Life is a journey of a winter’s day,
Where many breakfast and then pass away
Some few stay dinner, and depart full fed,
Fewer that sup before they go to bed….
Those who had the ready necessary in England in the eighteenth century went in for enormous meals, which two centuries of prosperity and gluttony had made habitual.
Promiscuous seating began to creep in shortly after mid century… as yet favoured only by the ultra smart rich, who as all decent and envious people knew, were as low on the moral scale as they were high in the social or economic one.
Promiscuous seating meant nothing less than men and women sitting next to each other, alternately, at table and it worried many as to what depths of depravity the mixing of men and women at table might lead.
‘Dinner’, said the young French visitor Francois de la Rochefoucauld in 1784, ‘is the most wearisome of all English experiences, lasting as it does from four to five hours’.
He did not understand it had once been quite usual to linger seven hours over dinner, while drinking copious quantities of wine from splendid drinking glasses of lead that had faceted and cut stems that shimmered in the light of the new innovation, a cut glass crystal chandelier, surely the grandest of all glass objects that not only reflected light but a promise of things to come.
The great age of cut glass had arrived and from now on artist-carvers would express in cut crystal as the glass of the day was often contemporarily known, the influences of the neoclassical style of the day with urns, swags and paterae, taking their inspiration from the architecture and other decorative arts of the period. Once launched onto the market cut crystal did not from then on, ever lose its lustre or appeal.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2013