(possibly my favourite article title ever…)

Well – here’s a thing – three areas of interest related to today’s item, which makes for a distinct improvement over the more usual ‘no areas of interest at all’ – you are all very spoiled…


We have a late 19th century vase, produced by Thomas Webb & Sons of Stourbridge in the West Midlands (or thereabouts – they moved factory on more than one occasion). Dated to 1880, it’ll actually have been made by the “…& Sons”, Charles and Thomas junior, as Thomas senior had died in 1869. His demise brought to an end forty years of participation in the glass making trade, having had an initial introduction to the craft with the Richardson brothers in Wordsley and then inheriting his own father’s share of the nearby Shepherd & Webb concern.


The company was renowned for the high quality of its clear crystal glass, the equally fine coloured material it produced and for the unmatched ability of its engravers. These three elements are the constituent parts required for the production of cameo glass, and the company was able to establish itself as the UK’s premier source for such material, making the most of the abilities of such notable craftsmen as William Fritsch, and the Woodall brothers. 


Many of the engraved wares that these artists produced embraced the ‘house style’ which leant towards classical and mythological illustrations based on ancient Greek cultures. This predilection also manifested itself in the style of vessels which were produced, including those such as our ‘lebes’ style vase, featuring iridescent bronze colouration in order to replicate the appearance of the originals on which it was based. Lebes refers to the general shape and form of the vase – a broad, deep bowl something like a cauldron, with a disproportionately small, flat base and no foot. These ‘lebetes’ could be adapted for use as a cooking vessel by placement in a tripod, or with the use of a detachable foot, and they were also made more ornamental by pairing with longer stands (notably as part of the preparations for a wedding ceremony). As mentioned, the Greek originals were made of bronze, and they were so ubiquitous – and uniform – throughout the Hellenic world as to be used universally as a measure of value in as much as the worth of other items could be expressed by the number of lebetes that they equated to. In Homer’s Iliad for instance, a bronze lebes vase is given a more tangible appraisal by being said to have the same value as an ox. Of more immediate currency, and if we are to assume that the valuation of our own vase is correct (which, of course, it is), you would need ten similarly priced artefacts in order to be able to affect an equitable exchange for one decently-productive dairy cow.


Aside from a brief history of Thomas Webb and the intricacies of the bovine/Greek urn exchange rate mechanism, it’s also worth a quick look at the methodology behind the production of such an iridescent finish as has been given to the vase. This process was, initially, developed to replicate the naturally occurring iridescence on ancient glass, which proved to be attractive to collectors, but in the case of our lebes vase, the intention was to make it look like an original bronze-made version. Before the process became ‘industrialised’ by the use of purpose-built fume cabinets, it was simply a case of taking a bowl of metallic chloride crystals, dropping in a blob of molten glass by way of a heat source to precipitate an immediate reaction, and ‘bathing’ a pre-made glass object in the resulting fumes which were freely given off. This basically coated the surface of the glass with innumerable, microscopic particulates, which would collectively refract light in many different directions and generate the ‘shimmering’ finish. The precise nature of the chloride, the length of immersion in the fumes and the application of subsequent separate coatings could all be varied to alter the final colouration, which was achieved, and this could also be influenced by the choice of colour used for the ‘base’ glass object, so with all these variables it was very much a case of trial and error in order to end up with the desired colour. Fortunately, Thomas Webb’s employees were sufficiently diligent to stick with it until they found the perfect finish for their reproduction bronzed Greek vases!