Bohemian and Saxon glass engraving under the Emperor of Prussia

It’s the late seventeenth century, and the production of high-quality
finished glassware across the disparate collection of nation-states
which will go on to become a united Germany is almost entirely confined
to the regions of Bohemia and Saxony. Craftsmen in these areas have
perfected the art of engraving, having been able to work with
water-powered machinery drawing its energy from the vertiginous mountain
streams which abound (those around Riesengebirge and the Hirschberger
Valley, in particular). The constant and reliable provision of power to
the engraving wheels that was made available by utilisation of this
source meant that the tools could be used to create images which had the
facility to be large, deeply incised and complex, involving great
detail and no little finesse. In simple terms, the wheels increased the
productivity of the craftsmen by reducing the time that it would take to
complete any individual piece – their skills could be applied more
intensely with less requirement for time-consuming tedium, and the
quality of output reflected this improvement in general working

Meanwhile, in loftier realms, political machinations
were afoot which would ultimately see the assimilation of the Province
of Brandenburg in to the ever-growing Prussian Kingdom, and the main
administrative centre of the formerly independent margraviate – Berlin –
was to assume far greater significance as the de facto capital of the
evolving entity. With a degree of self-importance befitting a head of
state, Great Elector Frederick William I had designs – amongst other no
doubt weightier matters – on overseeing the creation of his own centre
of glassmaking excellence, and he decreed that Potsdam, just to the
south west of Berlin, was to be his chosen hive of vitreous industry.
Eager to be in a position to furnish a burgeoning customer-base with
their requisite glassware sundries, the artisans of the now somewhat
marginalised trade formerly based around Leipzig, Dresden and Prague
began to gravitate towards the new, state-sponsored glasshouses on the
River Havel.

The nature of the glass itself which was already
“native” to the area – very clear potash-lime material with few
impurities or unintentional inclusions which leant itself to the
manufacture of thickset pieces – was the ideal substrate on which the
newly-relocated engravers could put their talents to work with
particularly impressive effect, and a definitive style quickly became
established which perfectly catered for prevailing tastes. Frederick
William went so far as to underwrite the development of a glassmaking
“laboratory”, where Johann Kunckel undertook much investigative work to
reduce the effect of “crizzling” which had always bedevilled the
region’s raw material – thus was the quality of the substrate improved
to a higher standard, although he was never able to fully resolve the
problem which is evident on many pieces from the region which still
exist (including our own pokal).

Foremost amongst the engravers
of this early period was Gottfried Spiller, working from a
purpose-built, water powered manufactory in Berlin; he was to be
succeeded by Heinrich Jäger and then one Elias Rosbach, who went on to
work at Zechlin, a town situated north of Berlin and to which the
original Potsdam Drewitz glassworks relocated in 1736. Working from this
new facility, the Glashütte Zechlinerhütte, Rosbach began to assemble a
substantial body of work to a uniformly high standard. He drew
inspiration – in particular – from two French painters: Antoine Pesne
was an accomplished portrait painter retained by the Prussian court, and
consequently resident in Berlin, while Jean-Antoine Watteau was more
itinerant, working in Paris, Rome and London, though his paintings found
their way to Prussia through his network of patrons and buyers.
Watteau’s works in particular reflected an interest affected by the
Prussian Crown Prince Freidrich in the idealised rural idyll, and he
almost single-handedly instigated a movement known as fêtes galantes,
which featured the placement of classical figures in bucolic, almost
theatrical compositions.

Rosbach picked up on this theme, keen to
curry favour with the royal household, and created images featuring
nymphs, satyrs and gods from antiquity set in striking and
exquisitely-detailed landscapes. He was also to take this use of figures
one stage further and produce a number of glass pokals bearing gently
erotic images – a reclining nude being covertly watched by gentlemen who
has a wrench in his hand commenting to the observer that “both are
likely to be made to work hard in the fullness of time”, intimate
moments between courting couples who might reasonably have expected to
be out of sight in secluded rural settings and a what was known as a
“mockery mug” featuring the rather strangely entitled tableaux which is
“several women who are fighting over the content of a man’s trousers”.
However, such was Rosbach’s skill that he was able to turn his hand to
capturing many and varied themes, as directed by his sponsors, and – of
more direct relevance to the subject matter of this article – he also
produced a “triumphant” piece featuring the King of Prussia alongside an
image of the bombardment of Dresden during the Seven Years War, and
other pieces depicting dueling horsemen, showing that he was no stranger
to the creation of martial images.

For more articles about glass in a historical context, see the following links:

A Regency wedding ale glass – love, criminality, deportation and death

A moulded Regency wine bottle with links to the Irish gentry, and medieval battles

A porcelain castor rest which links Hartlepool to Napoleon’s military nadir

Exotic spirits and liquors from the 18th and 19th centuries

Some traditional, alternative uses for ales and beer

A Georgian tumbler cognate to letchery, murder, execution and dissection !

The invasion of Europe by Ottoman Turks is dashed against The Wall of Christianity (part two)

Competitive pineapple growing – passtime of the idle rich

Glassware on the apothecary’s shelves in the 18th century

Lynn glass – an enduring puzzle solved ?

Sedition and religion come together in an engraved wine glass from 1750

Link to the full details of Rosbach’s pokal, as featured on our website.