INCREASED REFINEMENT IN 18th CENTURY WINE GLASS FORMS
Georgian balustroid wine glasses – and light balusters – are vessels which are essentially a stylised 18th century incarnation of earlier, more substantial baluster glasses. They exhibited, in the first instance, a more delicate and some would say more refined form. They are lighter in weight, have a wider diversity of bowl shapes than their heavyweight predecessors, and can immediately be seen to be both beautifully balanced, and possess a simple understated elegance.
It is often cited that the impetus behind the development of this reduced balustroid form was the Glass Tax introduced in 1746 by Henry Pelham’s Whig government, and whilst, without due consideration, this seems entirely plausible, it should be noted that glasses of this nature had first appeared at least twenty years prior to this date, so there was clearly something more to it than simple avoidance of excise duty by prudent manufacturers.
There are, of course, properly hollow-stemmed glasses - not just examples with extended tears – which can be more readily attributed to the necessity of reducing weight to minimise taxation, as unequivocally are those examples bearing the inscription “No Excise“. These ‘statement pieces’ will also have been produced with noticeably less-substantial stems, concave feet and other features intended to minimise their bulk and therefore keep the price down.
The development of the balustroid form was more multi-faceted than simple tax avoidance, although there was certainly a degree of frugality involved. The sturdy, full-blown balusters of the late 17th and early 18th centuries were the core business of the manufactories that produced them, and – as such – they were made from the best-prepared lead crystal available. Plain-stem glasses were fabricated from the remaining, lesser quality raw materials, residual to every production run. It was these pieces which were the commonplace glasses of the day, supplying the mass market, such as it was. As social stratification evolved alongside the industrial revolution, a new, more affluent ‘merchant class’ came in to being, a demographic which sought out wares which were a step above the everyday plain-stem pieces. The balustroid form seems to have been conceived to cater for this new large customer base – less expensive glasses which still had the features of their earlier counterparts.
It is not, though, entirely accurate to say that the slender balustroid glasses were wholly a product of this increased demand and constituted something approaching a mass-produced commodity. We have placed balustroids which exhibit multiple, complex knops above and below a plain stem into the safe hands of collectors, and one only has to consider the work required to produce the Newcastle light baluster type to appreciate that speed of production, the excise matter and simplicity of design were not overriding factors. The production of these pieces endured both before and after the introduction of the glass tax, and their complexity with regard to the use of multiple knops and exemplary engraving is in some instances quite unsurpassed.
It is, however, true to say that the size of knops applied to balustroid glasses diminished with time, but this seems to have been simply a matter of taste rather than any more prosaic, practical consideration. It was indicative of the age itself that form had to be ever-more refined and delicate to meet the updated wishes of the client base, rather than simply being based on whatever the prevailing technology was capable of turning out in a rather “like it or lump it …” approach.
The light baluster was certainly the finest expression that reflected changing style considerations. Whatever the influences may have been, though, the results are some of the most appealing examples of British antique glassware – timeless, elegantly crafted artefacts from an age of growing awareness and sophistication.