History

To cover the history of glass in a single web page means that we can only give a brief outline of the way that glass evolved, and we would point the reader to any one of the more comprehensive works on the subject. This page is aimed at the neophyte who wants a brief understanding of which periods of glassmaking were the most important (and therefore collectible), and the major events that occurred in the development of manufacturing of glass products, particularly in Britain.

In theory, glass has been around longer than man. The naturally occuring obsidian is a form of glass, created by the heat of the earth's core erupting via volcanoes. One theory is that man-made glass may have first occurred in the sands of North Africa and the Middle East where travelers dug pits in sand (silica) to hold their fires, and used naturally occuring vegetation, rich in potash, as fuel. The alkaline potash acted as a flux and reduced the melting point of the silica to that generated by the fire. The result would have been a thin coating of glass. It would not have taken long for the ever observant merchants and tradespeople of the time to work out that they could coat pebbles with this product and generate the first glass "jewelry". Of course, with this happening several thousand years ago it is difficult to know exactly how and when it first came about. There is evidence however that glass was known to the ancient Egyptians.

Glass really only requires three ingredients - silica, an alkaline flux such as potash or soda, and a stabiliser such as lead oxide; plus the fuel required to generate heat at high temperatures. For this reason the early days of glassmaking are linked with the abundance of one or more of these ingredients. Glass houses were set up where they could find top quality silica (not all sand is useful for making quality glass), potash or soda (bracken from forests was used extensively for creating the alkaline flux), or in forests where the wood needed for generating large, continuous fires was easily available.

Some of the earliest known objects created wholly in glass are thought to have been made by creating a hardened clay object around which molten glass could be added so that it eventually covered the clay. The glass would be allowed to cool and the clay then chipped out carefully from the middle leaving a vessel capable of holding fluids.

As far as the collector is concerned. however, the first major period of time in the evolution of glass making was that of the Roman Empire. It is not known whether glass had reached Britain before it was conquered by the Romans in AD 43 but there is ample evidence that glass was either made in Britain during the Roman occupation, or at least finished off here from raw material imported from Gaul. There is a surprising amount of Roman glass available to the collector, as much glass was buried with their owners, and archaeological sites provide a steady stream of specimens. Many Roman vessels are small and have taken on a luminescence from the interaction of the glass with the surrounding earth over a millenium or more. They were mainly used for carrying unguents, vinegars, and medicines, but there are also some wonderful pieces of larger glass.

Whether the art of glass blowing was introduced by the Romans, the Greeks, the Syrians or by other races is not for us to comment on but what we do know is that the art of glass blowing was not only known to the Romans but was used to great effect. The Portland Vase is arguably the most beautiful piece of glass ever made, and it was made nearly two thousand years ago. Nearly all the methods of decorating glass used today were known to the Romans including the cameo techniques used on the aforesaid vase. The art of glass blowing, of course, involved the use of an iron tube through which the glassmaker would blow air into a gather of glass at the other end of the tube. This would inflate the gather into a hollow sphere which could be shaped using tools, by swinging the blowing iron to and fro, and by rolling it on a marver, a flat surface. The Romans also used blow moulding where the gather of glass would be blown into a mould so that the outer surface of the glass bubble generated would take on the outline of the mould when cooled. Collecting Roman glass can be a rewarding if occasionally expensive experience.

Once the Romans left Britain at the beginning the fifth century AD there was a decline in all the arts in Britain, including that of glass making. Until the sixteenth century the important history of glass is confined to the Continent of Europe and to the Islamic countries of North Africa. There is very little reference to the manufacture of glass in Britain, save for some window glass. Glass was made in the forests of Germany and Bohemia (on the borders of Germany and the Czech Republic) but was rather less than ornate for the earlier part of the period at least. It was not until the Italians in Venice evolved glassmaking into a modern art that any great evolutionary leaps were taken. The glass makers were moved to the island of Murano to help safeguard the city against the ever lit fires of the glasshouses, and that island produces some of the finest glass in the world even today. They also produced glassmakers who, despite the threat of execution for passing on the knowledge, ventured abroad and took their skills with them.

In the mid-16th century a gentleman called Jean Carré moved from Lorraine to set up production of glass in Southern England. Using Venetian workmen and others, Carré developed an equivalence to the glass made in Venice that he called cristallo. It is thought that he introduced Jacob Verzelini to his glasshouse in Crutched Friars in about 1571, and it was Verzelini who was responsible for the building up of a sustainable glass industry in England, based on a monopoly to manufacture façon de Venise (glass in the Venetian style) which lasted twenty plus years and ended up with him retiring a wealthy man. In common with most Venetian style glasses, Verzelini's were thinly blown, and the majority were dark and greenish in colour. Very few of Verzelini's glasses remain intact today. The next major character of note in the development of English glass was Sir Robert Mansell. From about 1610 to the middle of the 17th century Mansell built up a thriving glass business based on letters of patent and monopolies which continued to produce glass in the Venetian style.

It was not until 1676 that, for the first time in recorded history, George Ravenscroft introduced lead oxide into the production process for glass. The appearance of this new type of glass was unmistakeably different from anything seen before. The glass was heavy and limpid and demanded new techniques in fashioning and design, as it was unsuitable for the production of the light, thin walled Venetian styles that until then had been dominant. The new English style (façon d'Angleterre) was born alongside the advent of English lead crystal, with new, simple, thick walled glasses that had a tactile element that is so beloved of the collectors of English Georgian glass.

The early lead glasses made in the late seventeenth century were prone to crizzling, a glass "disease" which results in the surface of the glass being covered in what looks like crazy paving. This was eventually refined away and eighteenth century English glassware can look as good as the day it was made. Very few pieces of glass that predate 1700 are available to the collector. It is possible to find façon de Venise wine glasses and dishes from the 17th century but they are expensive and highly sort after. It is the norm that such glasses will be valued in the thousands of pounds. The eighteenth century however is a collector's dream with the "Georgian" glasses from this period providing a variety in styles, availability and cost that attracts a large public.

Although all sorts of other utensils and vessels were made in glass during the period, it is in the production of drinking glasses that the Georgian glassmaker excelled. The Georgians liked to drink and to show off their wealth. Beautiful drinking glasses allowed them to do both. The earliest drinking glasses made in lead crystal were the heavy balusters. Thick walled, heavily striated, intensely tactile glasses with an almost oily feel to the glass, this type of glass dominated until about 1725 when the balusters became lighter, and then eventually declined into not more than a plain stem with a swelling. As the size and weight of the balusters declined, some say due to the imposition of a glass tax based on the weight of the glass, the plain stem glasses came into their own. Often containing tears of air, some of the Georgian plain stem glasses show a simplicity and elegance that has stood the test of time.

As the century moved forward, more and more ornate stem types came into fashion. The moulded pedestal or Silesian stem was used throughout much of the century on sweetmeat glasses and salvers, as well as a number of drinking glasses. Air twist stems were popular in the middle of the century, and opaque twist stems followed. Mixed twist stems were made that combined twists of both air and opaque enamel. As cutting became popular towards the end of the century, the facet cut stem moved into prominance.

As the eighteenth century ended and the nineteenth century began we moved into the heyday of cut glass. The lead crystal produced in England lent itself to cutting in a way that glass made with other metal did not and the result was a cut glass, lead crystal industry that still flourishes today. Many collectors specialise in the cut glass of the Regency period at the beginning of the nineteenth century where hand blown glass was hand cut and polished, providing glass objects whose current prices give little value for the amount of effort that went into the manufacture of these beautiful objects.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the great glass houses of modern Britain began to develop, many of them based to the West of Birmingham in Dudley and Stourbridge. The houses of Richardsons, Thomas Webb, Stevens and Williams, Whitefriars and others produced glassware that pushed both the science and the art of British glassmaking to new heights.

The advent of automation, initially in the form of steam engines, meant that the arts of cutting and engraving became easier and more precise, allowing ever more innovative forms to be produced. The advent of acid based etching was used to augment or replace engraving; press moulds were introduced for mass production; cameo and intaglio techniques dating from the days of the Romans were investigated and updated; and science produced new colour combinations and methods of handling them. The nineteenth century saw the Victorians apply their improvements in industry, science and technology to all manners of glassmaking, and combined it with the skilled artistry of tradesmen who had often been in the business for generations. The result is some of the most beautiful and collectible glass ever made, whether it be the cameo glass of Webbs, Stevens and Williams or Richardsons, the elaborate and ornate lustres and epergnes, the engraved or etched decanters, jugs, and drinking glasses, or the coloured glass often attributed to Bristol and Nailsea, there is a host of collecting opportunities for any size of pocket.

As the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth century began, the Art Noveau movement brought natural forms to glass and saw some of the greatest designs ever applied to that medium from designers such as Emil Gallé, Louis Comfort Tiffany, René Lalique, the Daum brothers of Nancy, France and others, including Arthur Nash of Webbs in Britain. The first world war changed peoples' views on life, the Art Deco movement coming to the fore and saw the end of many of these great masters. Although some good glass was produced during the inter-war years, the innovation that is natural to Britain did not really bubble up again until after the second world war.

The post-war period produced some of Britain's greatest innovators in glass, and allowed this country to compete with what was going on in Scandinavia at Orrefors, Kosta and Iittala, Italy, America and other countries. Fresh designs were introduced to glass and new and established glass works vied to produce ever more interesting and innovative pieces. Some of these designers of glass have become iconic and are collected widely; Geoffrey Baxter at Whitefriars, Ronald Stennett Willson at Wedgwood, Clyne Farquharson for John Walsh Walsh, Keith Murray for Royal Brierley, Michael Harris for Mdina, Paul Ysart for John Moncrieff, and Richard Golding at Okra, to name but a few.

Whatever form of glass you choose to collect, make sure that it's a form that you enjoy for itself. You may or may not make money on it as an investment, but if you can enjoy looking at it each day you will have gained much more.

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