An explantion of what baluster and balustroid wine glasses - and baluster stems - are all about

There are many words that we glass collecting types like to bandy about with impunity, adding an air of sophistication and mystery to our hobby, obfuscating our earnest conversations in the shadows with the intent of excluding the casual eavesdropper. However, we must be aware that in order to appear at least partially welcoming toward newcomers who wish to enter the inner sanctum of proceedings, we must – once in a while – take time to explain exactly what on earth it is that might be on about. We’ve already done this to a certain extent with exposés of knops, different bowl-forms, opaque and air twist stems and some of the other more arcane terms – but what of balusters – what, indeed, is a baluster glass – and what is a baluster stem - as if it’s not already more than enough for a connoisseur of oenophile accoutrements to expose his knop to you…

Well, perhaps the most accessible point of reference is to the term balustrade. I am sure you are all aware of this simple architectural feature – a series of vertical moulded pillars with a solid coping along the top, or a handrail when used alongside a flight of stairs. Each of the single uprights is a baluster – a pilaster or freestanding column, with a curved, symmetrical profile – you’ll recognise them as being fairly commonplace from the pictures which accompany this article. But of course, as is always the case with language, there’s more to it than just a passing similarity to something that stops you falling off a balcony or down a staircase. The original root of the word is from Greek, and thence Latin, where it referred to the shape of the partially open flower of the pomegranate. The buds had a smoothly swelling profile, initially thicker at the stem and less so towards the extremity, but with the inverse proportion as the flower matured and approached the point where it was to burst open. It was used almost exclusively in this botanical sense right up until the “quattrocento” early renaissance, especially in northern Italy, when it began to be applied to design features. Up to this point the use of arched miniature arcading would have sufficed for balcony edging – a recognisably Roman and later Norman influence. Once the city states of the Veneto region made a conscious stylistic departure from these earlier influences, however, the baluster began to appear in buildings across Verona, Padua, Vicenza and Venice before spreading far and wide as the renaissance itself burst in to full bloom over Western Europe.

Venice, at this same time, was edging towards its place at the very forefront of glass design. The extremely high quality metal with which the artisan craftsmen of Murano were working leant itself to the production of exquisitely fine, thinly-drawn serpentine adornments with which glass stems could be decorated; the experience gained by the glassmakers of the island over time added to their dexterity, and it was wholly unsurprising that when their wares began to spread over the continent – where other far less sophisticated glass manufactories had started to spring up – it was next to impossible to replicate them; European glassmaking was truly in the dark ages compared to the skills of the enlightened islanders of Murano.

If ever anywhere was to be the antithesis of the refinement of production around the lagoon, it was going to be good old Blighty. As glassmaking began to capture the imagination of entrepreneurs across perfidious Albion, it was as an industry, not a craft that it would seem to be most appropriately classified. Our sooty, somewhat uncomplicated manufactories turned out usable wares and always pursued lofty stylistic heights, but – at the turn of the 17th century – even the best London glasshouses were hampered by the unsophisticated processes that they employed. This meant – specifically – that although we were able to produce some fine crystal, using high grade Lynn sand and well-clarified lead, our furnaces were unable to heat the substrate to a high enough temperature to render it as malleable and finely-workable as Venetian crystal. Our glasses at this time were, in a word, clunky, with thick-rimmed bowls, smutty inclusions and a stolid, uncomplicated form. Such limitations notwithstanding though, we did our best to emulate the finer excesses of continental glassware, the length of our stems began to grow – and decoration came to the fore. However, all that could be done at first was to quickly elongate the molten lead and fashion it rather crudely before it set hard; it could be stretched, crimped, pinched, rolled and have simple ribs or coils appended and worked in to the stem structure – this meant that the go-to adornments of English glasses from the latter part of the 17th century were the aforementioned knops – the bulbous swellings, albeit of a number of different styles, which found their way on to stems. Before even this had become popular, the simple drawing of stems into varying thicknesses to approximate some sort of contouring had given us plain, unembellished glass pillars – very reminiscent of the stone equivalents from renaissance architecture - the very balusters from which they were to take their name.

An inverted baluster was – as the name might suggest – a normally configured baluster stem which was simply rotated through 180 degrees so that the thicker elements were closer to the bowl of the glass rather than towards the foot, which was initially the more normal configuration. This variant actually proved to be more practical – the stems which were wider towards the top sitting more naturally – and safely – in the hand.

What was to follow with regard to the development of baluster stems simply mirrored the advancements which were incorporated in to their production processes with growing rapidity as the industrial revolution gathered pace. Improved refinement of raw materials, ongoing research and development, hotter and more easily-controllable furnaces all gave the British glassmakers a higher quality crystal which could be more easily manipulated and their end products became more delicate as a result. Knops could be shaped more dextrously, bowls were lighter (consequently requiring less substantial stems and feet), improved tools permitted more complex and precise working of molten crystal, and the original heavy baluster glasses were replaced by balustroid types – retaining all the original design elements, but simply better and more adroitly executed. By the time that the inclusion of tears in the stems had been perfected, we had finely-crafted type of glassware made from clear, near flawless crystal, and British glassmaking was accelerating smartly away from its earlier, darker ages, defining its own styles and setting its own standards.

By the 1750’s even these vastly improved wares were being superseded by still more delicate and thoughtfully composed pieces, and the newly-coined term light balusters – readily attributed to glassmakers in Newcastle – came to the fore, with the pieces held in such esteem that they were seen as the ideal medium on which the astonishingly skilled engravers from the low countries preferred to work, as they were considered to be of a high enough quality to properly complement the exquisite decorations.

And so it can be seen that having originally been the embodiment of our somewhat uncomplicated and utilitarian approach to glassmaking, the refinement of British baluster wine glasses and baluster stems mirrored the transition of the processes on these islands away from their workmanlike beginnings, right up to the stage where they could produce the constituent parts of some of the most desirable of all Georgian wine glasses – properly sought-after and treasured antique glasses. Not that they’d be much use when it comes to stopping you falling of a balcony in to the Grand Canal, mind, particularly after a few deep draughts of a sticky bardolino or malmsey – do mind your step, now….

The pictures show the (fairly obvious) progression from early heavy balusters, to balustroids and then light balusters – with a couple of illustrative architectural pieces and a plate from Dr Thoem’s “Flora von Deutschland” (1885) that shows the profile of a fully-closed pomegranate flower, and a section through one that is partially open (with due deference to Wikipedia for this particular image).

site search results for balusters of all types



The Hoard Limited (scottishantiques.com ) © 2023 | Designed by Jarilo Design