Here we have a pair of rather fine Regency decanters, deeply tinted with a signature cobalt blue colourant and further enhanced with gilt decoration – perhaps the definitive colour combination of the period.

They are, of course, examples of Bristol blue glass, one of the most instantly recognisable ‘glass types’, but one which – I’m sure you are aware – has a most misleading name. Bristol, it’s true to say, had a highly successful glass industry that saw the city with a skyline consisting of “more glass kilns than church spires’ by the early years of the 18th century, but it was a manufacturing centre which attracted craftsmen from many different trades, including a pair of Quaker brethren by the names of Champion and Cooksworthy who were trying their utmost to make a niche for themselves in the rapidly-growing market for porcelain.

William Cooksworthy – as an entrepreneur, a chemist, and trader – had already discerned a source of one vital ingredient which could assist porcelain production, a source of the blue tinting medium which was vital to the production of very popular Oriental facsimiles in what would later become universally known as the ‘willow pattern’ style. He imported this material, processed cobalt oxide known as smalt, from a location on the Czech/German border near the town of Schneeburg. In the mid 1750’s, however, the operators of this facility were struggling financially, and signalled their intention to halt production. Our hero, ever alert to an opportunity, brokered a deal which gave him the exclusive rights to everything originating from the Schneeburg works, and which provided enough of a boost to ensure that the winding wheels and grinding stones of industry were able to keep turning.

Cooksworthy immediately set about importing significant quantities of his newly exclusive material into the UK, via the port of Bristol. From here, he was able to sell and distribute his commodity to clients the length and breadth of the country, to potteries in the South West and West Midlands and to glasshouses from London to Newcastle and all points in between. And so, there was a sudden upturn in the rate at which the same blue glass from which our decanters are made was being utilised in production facilities at many different locations. These disparate glasshouses turned out their own particular wares, but they all made use of Cooksworthy’s blue colouring agent, imported by way of Bristol, and thus the material became known as ‘Bristol blue’ glass, regardless of where it may actually have been produced.

Now, this new, vividly coloured glassware was to prove inordinately popular with the discerning gentlefolk of the day, and the nationwide distribution network for Bristolian smalt meant that although not exactly commonplace, it was certainly relatively easy to commission and obtain. What was needed for those who regarded themselves particularly highly was a means by which their Bristol blue glassware could be set apart from the more widely available material, and here Bristol’s resident craftsmen came to the fore. The upwardly mobile Georgian town of Bath was barely a dozen miles from their city and was home to a significant number of very wealthy folk, all of whom would have expected their glassware to be of the utmost quality. So, the artists and craftsmen of Bristol began to apply gilded decoration to blue glass wares, and silver stoppers and fitments, and fretwork coasters and cages and enamelled decoration and all the other trappings of high-end finery. To a certain extent this means that the very finest examples of Bristol blue glass are more likely to have actually been produced in and around the city from which they take their name, which rather belies the overall lack of specificity alluded to by the term in more general terms, and which does – after all – seem rather fitting…