Dutch diamond-point engraving on English crystal glassware

Although we’ve touched on Dutch art glass in recent articles, on the original source of “fierljeppen” with regard to the Leaping Lords of our 2015 Christmas treatise (still my favourite bit of research !) and by way of one or two other cursory mentions elsewhere, the Netherlands has by and large escaped closer scrutiny with regard to its impact on glassmaking heritage. Time to rectify this glaring omission, though, and a look at some of the most incredible glass artefacts that you are likely to come across – exquisitely engraved pieces dating back to the mid 17th century which are almost universally considered to be of “museum quality” and thus command very significant fees should they ever make it on to the marketplace.

Dutch glass making itself is a curious concern; all the constituent parts were in place for the provinces to produce very fine material – exceptionally good quality quartz sand, an affinity for technical advancement, general financial security and affluence and an aspirational and acquisitive “upper class” who would gladly have paid good money for well executed pieces. However, the Dutch were at heart a nation of traders rather than tradesmen, and had a long history of importing commodities from the farthest flung corners of the globe rather than setting any great store by developing their own manufacturing industries. As well as the goods themselves, the Dutch also had a voracious appetite for ideas and innovations, and it was an area of artisan abundancy which attracted Venetian glassmakers looking to escape from the restrictive practices which curtailed their endeavours around the lagoon. Relatively small-scale production of high quality pieces, therefore, characterised Dutch glass manufacturing from the 1600’s onwards. There was also a natural flow of skills from bordering countries, and although German glass of the same period was for the most part of a substantial, potash-lime composition – far heavier than the finesse of the facon de venise pieces – it was robust enough to encourage experimentation with initially crude engraving techniques, and the artists of Potsdam and Nuremburg – having cut their teeth on this coarse material - gravitated towards the Low Countries and the promise of more delicate items with which they could work.

It was the basic tenets of Dutch glassmaking, picked up from Nijmegen, that John Bellingham was to bring back to London’s Vauxhall glasshouses in the 1670’s, and which were to be distilled and refined by the ubiquitous George Ravenscroft as he developed his signature English Lead Crystal which was to become the de facto prototype for European glass evolution with almost immediate effect. The Dutch, as ever with an eye for a commodity which they could acquire, improve upon and upsell, immediately began to import fine English crystal, and put it in the hands of their community of engravers to embellish, enhance and augment.

Being somewhat removed from the manufacturing process itself, engraving was a pursuit which had become increasingly the preserve of somewhat aristocratic practitioners, and so it came to take the fancy of one Anna Roemer Visscher. The daughter of a merchant from Amsterdam, Anna was afforded a sophisticated education including many artistic pursuits and study of classical language. She undertook the translation of many emblem books – volumes containing the sort of allegorical illustrations which we often see on engraved glassware - and began to develop her own methods for reproducing the etchings which they contained. Sticking closely to the methodology of the original engravers working on their blocks, she used crosshatching and tightly-grouped dots to effect shading, developing a style which became known as diamond-point engraving, taking its name from the very fine diamond-tipped tool used to engrave the glass. Anna’s work, though undertaken on early, somewhat coarse glassware as her work predated the production of lead crystal, was so finely executed as to ensure that she was very highly regarded amongst The Netherland’s elite and much-vaunted artistic community by the time of her death in 1651, so much so that she was often cited as a source of inspiration by those that sought to replicate her work. Anna’s sister, Maria Tesselshade, also produced high quality engravings, but it was a friend of the family - Anna Maria van Schurman – who can first properly have been said to follow in her footsteps. Van Schurman became something of a religious recluse in later life, but she had produced enough fine engravings to have passed the creative torch on to subsequent generations, as it were, and it was Frans Greenwood of Dordrecht who was to then come to the fore. Greenwood introduced ever-more subtlety to the shading techniques, mastering stipple-engraving with a lightness of touch on the surface of the glass which almost defied belief and produced what is best characterised as a “halftone screen” reminiscent of the gradations in tone which characterise printed images.

Jacob Strang of Amsterdam, David Wolff of the Hague and Willem Otto Robart of Leiden were exemplary followers of Greenwood’s lead, with the former also being an incredibly skilled user of the engraving wheel and therefore able to introduce another facet to his work, adding sweeping scrollwork, floral patterns and elaborate borders to his details images. Other artists such as Hendrick Scholting worked on flat surfaces, imparting calligraphic artistry to mirrored glass or window panes.

By this time (around 1750 to 1785) the Dutch artists were working almost exclusively on very fine English lead crystal “blanks” and the fusion of extraordinarily high-quality decoration with beautifully made glasses ensured that examples of this work remain some of the most sought-after pieces of collectable glassware, with prices reaching tens of thousands of dollars should they ever come to auction. Although this sets them aside from our usual fare, which is very much “glassware for the people”, it can do no harm to consider items which inhabit such a rarefied sphere of endeavour, even if only to establish in no uncertain terms what can really be said to constitute works of art crafted in glass.

We have a number of engraved, Dutch glasses on our books – nothing of the magnitude of Visscher, Greenwood or Wolff’s finest work – but still some pretty striking examples of this most delicate of decorative methods; please do take a look at the individual item pages which are linked from our index page as below – it takes the full sized, close-up images to do real justice to some of these remarkable pieces…

The pieces in the montage below have all been produced by the various artists referenced above between 1635 and 1785, and are presently housed in museums across the world…


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