A brief look at the application of cut decoration to glassware, from Roman times to the Regency and beyond...

Although cut glass is rightly regarded as having first come to the fore during the 18th century, the method of decorating crystal by the used of rotating, abrasive wheels goes back much further – certainly if we are to take the word of such an august source as Pliny the Elder. Gaius Plinius Secundus, as he was known to his mates, hanging by the forum, wrote copious notes recording the world as he perceived it from around 45AD to his death thirty years later. He records without ambiguity that Roman and Greek craftsmen were adept at engraving designs on to hard surfaces, and whilst this may well refer to incised working (with the use of a pointed stylus to “draw” linear images) he also affirms that the use of a rotating lapidary’s wheel was employed to mark perhaps less intricate elements of designs. Lapidaries were those who cut, polished and engraved precious stones – with essentially the same methods being applied to metal artefacts or early vitreous materials; ceramics or primitive glass.  

This formative technology, in common with many skills of the classical world, was largely lost as Europe was overwhelmed by the brutality of the Dark Ages, and the plague-ridden misery of early Medieval times, but the knowledge persisted in places less ravaged by such vagaries, and it was a case of resurrecting such dimly-remembered skills rather than rediscovering things completely anew when late-renaissance craftsmen sought to turn their hand to decorative techniques. Initially these were for the most part applied to metal objects, with the emphasis here being on the same incised work to which Pliny had alluded. However, as first bottle glass then finer lead crystal began to circulate European trade routes in the 1600’s, methods were explored by which these wares could also be decorated and turned in to more desirable commodities.

Near-contemporary records assign the development of workable glass-cutting techniques to one Caspar Lehmann, working in the first decade of the 17th century in the Prague workshops of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. Lehmann was a gem cutter and silversmith, but worked on adapting the method of engraving these media with copper and bronze wheels for use with crystal and was able to master the craft which, in conjunction with the countersunk engravings at which he was also adept, he was able to use in the production of some remarkably detailed work, both on drinking glasses and flat panes. Rudolf appointed Lehmann as engraver to his court, allowing him to patent the processes and underwrite apprenticeships for aspiring successors. Zacharius Belzar was one such artisan scholar, as was George Schwanhard, son of a joiner and – ultimately – deemed to be sufficiently capable as to take up Lehmann’s mantle on the death of his mentor in  1622.

Schwanhard relocated to Nuremburg and also had works at Ratisbon, where he worked for successive Emperors Ferdinand and Leopold, and his sons George Junior and Henry carried on the work again after their father’s death. By this time, diamond point engraving – supremely detailed work a using super-hard stylus – had been perfected by Dutch engravers (see our earlier piece on their activities), and for high-end decorative glassware their work could not be surpassed. However, this time consuming, labour intensive decoration commanded premium prices, far out of the reach of mere mortals and, as drinking glasses en masse became more widely available to such less wealthy folk, there was a need for a cheaper more readily-available form of decorative effect to, well, tart them up a bit. It was at this point that the engraving wheels once again came to the fore, not necessarily with regard to the quality of their out-turn, but certainly as a more practical means of enhancement, well suited for keeping pace with the increasing rate of drinking glass production. The one problem which had always assailed those who sought to decorate anything by use of rotating cutting wheels had, though, been the variable speed at which the wheels could be turned; power was imparted by way of pulleys and shafts, taking the initial drive provided by ponies, women or small children, working treadmills or hand-cranking handles. With the best will in the world, these beasts of burden could not provide a consistent rate of input, and the quality of the cutters’ work suffered as a result of having to use wheels that rotated at unreliable and variable speeds (thereby cutting to irregular depths). However, as luck would have it for all concerned - overworked urchins in particular, Britain was on the cusp of the industrial revolution, the whole of which depended on and developed from the provision of reliable, efficient power sources. Naturally, as water, coal and ultimately steam were harnessed as derivative sources, and the understanding of drive transfer by way of more finely-tuned mechanics and even gearing were assimilated in to more and more tasks, engraving and cutting wheels were swept along with the tide, and steadier more readily-controllable output speeds to the wheels resulted in an ever-improving quality of work.

Good quality lead crystal glasses could now be cut, sliced, faceted, ground – even hammered to some extent – and plain stemware became distinctly passé as the 18th century continued apace. Vertical facets on wine glasses were used to accentuated the graceful lines of champagne flutes and the more delicate large ale glasses, along with slice cuts, mitred grooves and fine hatched lines; scalloped edges (a craft in its own right, but similarly executed with grinding wheels) would augment the rims of sweetmeats and any number of the myriad tableware bowls that now filled the catalogues and inventories of glass manufactories. Salts – both master and trencher - monteiths, piggins, bonnet glasses and stemware of all kinds from humble tinctures to grand tazzas would go under the knife, as it were, and emerge bearing refractive, facetted finery – and all at the hands of craftsmen who were wielding a combination of both cutting-edge (see what I’ve done, there ?) technology and a basic methodology that dated back to antiquity. For an illustration of how new and old came together in the perfect storm of creativity that was the industrial revolution, the relatively modest pursuit of glass cutting is as good an example as any.

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all the images below are of glasses made earlier than 1800

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