A METAPHORICAL MEANDER through European Art Glass (part one)
Loetz, Lalique, Daum, Moser, Graystan and more.
Ahhh - I am overcome with ambient thoughts of festive conciliation and goodwill to all men, from wherever they may hail - and it’s also time to make the point that the world of Scottish Antiques is not exclusively mired in the fustian conceit of 18th and 19th century British glassware; to this end, we’ll now be taking a stroll through the eclectic melange which is 20th century European art glass
At first glance this may seem to be – as a movement - an anathema to the antiquarian enthusiast who more usually, and quite rightly, champions the most alluring property of glassware as being its inherent usability, as distinct from being made purely for ornamental or aesthetic purposes. How often have we ourselves said that a glass should be used, regardless of age, for it to be properly enjoyed ! Art Glass cannot, however, be dismissed as a frippery by anyone who understands the processes involved in the manufacturing or decorative processes involved in its production as - in some instances - examples of Art Glass exhibit either a radical, innovative departure from the norm, or the ultimate use of traditional techniques purely to provide an end product intended to look spectacular.
Glassware has obviously always been decorated in many different ways, but the expressive and expansive use and combination of both colour and form really came to the fore in Victorian times alongside the development of a greater diversity of manufacturing techniques. The application of cutting and engraving – almost to excess at times - and the growing use of colouration and variation in opacity throughout the 19th century gave the impetus to the production of items which were designed solely to be looked at and admired rather than simply having a purely utilitarian purpose, and so the stage was set for glassmakers far and wide to take a step back from the day to day manufacture of commonplace items and to utilise their skills both new and old to make items which best exhibited their talents – objects d’art in their own right.
As with every other aspect of society during the 1800’s, improved communication and transport links meant that new ideas and techniques spread like wildfire, and by the turn of the century there were individual centres of glassmaking excellence located throughout Europe. These were both inspired by new influences from far and wide, and by existing skills and crafts which had underpinned glass production in a specific region over the preceding centuries. Although the continued employment of these local techniques ensured that each manufacturing centre was able to retain its own distinctive style there was an explosion of new processing techniques – such as the use of metalic additives for colouration - and true aritistic creativity. Glass had become a genuinely artistic medium.
We’ll make a start on our own doorstep, though, before stepping out in to the continent at large.. British Art Glass - as with many other aspects of life in these scepter’d isles - mirrors the fact that they were a melting pot of influences and inspirations brought back home by explorers and adventurers who travelled to the farthest reaches of the globe over the centuries, looking to paint another part of the blank cartographic canvas with the red of Empire.
Trade, conquest, expansionism and simple curiosity saw Britain exposed albeit somewhat vicariously to the cultures of other countries from the 16th century onwards, and by the time it had become an industrial powerhouse, production techniques from Europe, North Africa and far beyond had been assimilated in to “British” crafts.
Hence there were aspects of Venetian and Bohemian glassmaking evident in pieces made here from the late 1600’s onwards, and – having honed our own techniques to the point that they at least matched the proficiency of their native practices – it becomes hard to discern what can be categorised as a truly British style.
Renowned in the 19th century as one of our foremost glass production companies, James Powell & Sons – for instance – was turning out paperweights and vases which were every bit as good as the Italian pieces after which they were styled. The Scandinavian preoccupation with naturalistic textures was mirrored years later by Wilson & Baxter – their moulded and hand-worked blown glasswares approximating the Nordic oeuvre.
Other producers of paperweights and vases – Bacchus of Birmingham, for instance – followed the Bohemian fancy for elaborately hand-worked rims, coloured casings and intricate applique decorations which was itself an echo of the Venetian originals.
Cameo glass, so perfectly executed by the French – also made in Stourbridge, West Midlands – though perhaps lacking the artisan caché of Nancy and the Moselle ? And ultimately Mdina Glass, once based in Malta in the Mediterranean, moved lock, stock and barrel to that bastion of British indefatigability in the face of the driving rain of our traditional high summer, the Isle of Wight.
Perhaps the best known “British” Art Glass manufacturers, based in various locations across Scotland throughout the 20th century, were wholly founded on the endeavours of Spaniards – the Ysart family – whose machinations gave us Monart, Ysart, Vasart and ultimately Strathearn amongst the litany of “home grown” talents. Their abstract designs with their distinctive swirling, fluidic and sometimes almost fluorescent colour schemes are some of the most striking and recognisable Art Glass pieces you may come across – but unequivocally British in the truest sense of the word, hmmm - that’s a debate for another day…
Hailing from another region with the same provenance of classically elegant glassware dating back to the middle ages as that of Italy, the Bohemian glassmakers of the 19th century paved the way for their successors to take a central role in Art Glass production.
Having spent several hundred years perfecting the production of a wide variety of cut, gilded, enamelled and etched pieces, the 1800’s saw a collective shift in emphasis for the glassmakers of this loosely-defined central European region from a preoccupation with shape and form to the use of ingenious and inventive methods of working with different surface composition. This started with experiments in marbling which accentuated and complemented the extant use of iridescent glass created by the particular firing and reduction techniques which were already in place. In the first instance, it was vases, pitchers, jugs and large cups or bowls which were made with these new materials, and they would often be initially blown to a basic pattern, before being re-heated and twisted, stretched and distorted in to less formal shapes which drew heavily on naturalistic inspiration for their curves, whorls, twists and spirals. One of the most enthusiastic developers of these themes was Johann Loetz, who had already won international acclaim for his work with marbled glass, and who had touched on later developments by trying to approximate texturing by the imaginative use of colour.
The natural progression was to then physically apply textured finishes, rather than being satisfied with approximating the visual effect alone, and Loetz developed a technique known as Phänomen which involved the application of molten glass threads to a separately-formed base which was also still hot; these threads were then dragged and stretched over the surface of the base piece, which imparted furrows and channels – you can imagine how this combined with marbling to create a three dimensional fusion of both varying colour and texture. Loetz then took further inspiration from the region’s traditional iridescent glass, and enhanced this finish by incorporating improvements he divined from the processes used for Tiffany’s similar “favrile” style of glassware which was being made in the United States. Ultimately, this research would lead to Loetz’s renowned Diaspora series of pieces, which had a virtually metallic patina, such was the polished and reflective effects which were achieved.
Again in common with Italy, as the 20th century progressed the appearance of Bohemian glassware would mirror artistic movements as they waxed and waned. Colour schemes would briefly become popular before losing favour, leaving different collections each with their own distinctive hues. The Tango range featured bright yellows and dark blues, black, white and an almost fluorescent green, any two of which would be paired on individual pieces to give vivid contrasts; Perlglas pieces, on the other hand, were largely translucent and echoed much earlier Bohemian pieces which relied more on form and function rather than eyecatching colour or texture to captivate. The importance of the French contribution to the art glass movement can be gauged by the fact that Rene Lalique – one of the finest craftsmen ever to work in the medium – is considered to have produced pieces that are not the best there were on offer. He was equalled, and often eclipsed, by stunning work from Emile Galle and Daum Freres, who between them elevated French art glass wares to the very highest level.
Initially having taken on the wider Victorian production of cameo glass, the French artists developed the process, adding their own enhancements and creative foibles. The basic premise of cameo glass saw etching techniques used to remove the outer layers of multi-ply glass pieces, revealing the underlying lamina and creating images in relief. Galle was considered the master of this art, but Daum’s craftsmen developed the use of acid etching which enabled them to add texture or varying opacity to their material, and create a new range of products as a result. They also pioneered the use of wheel-ground surfaces, which produced something approaching a hammered or beaten effect, more common on metalwork, which opened yet more opportunities for creativity.
The Great War, unsurprisingly, meant a lengthy hiatus in both production and development, but Daum in particular sprang out of the traps once peace had broken out, and took up their innovative ways once again. Pate de verre was one such modernism, which saw crushed, coloured glass reheated, and used as the initial melt from which new pieces were made which could then be subjected to existing finishing techniques – old skills that gave startling new results when using the reconstituted molten material. At the Christalerie de Nancy – which opened alongside the company’s existing Verrerie in the same town – the preference was to work with brilliantly clear lead crystal, blown in to vases and other vessels, or tooled whilst still molten to produce figurines and sculptural pieces.
Galle had long since set new standard in cameo glassware, introducing decorative bubbles – harking back to the Georgian penchant for air twist stems – and also developing the inclusion of metallic foils as layers in his stratified pieces. With Lalique also producing his signature vases, perfume bottles, glass plaques and later stemware – with his own innovative processes such as the “lost wax” casting process borrowed from his earlier jewellery making expertise – it is evident that France could boast an unsurpassed line up of art glass craftsmen, and its place at the very highest table is beyond refute.
Next up – Germany, Austria, Italy, Scandinavia and the other smaller centred of European art glass production; click the link below for our website with its catalogue of items from all the featured countries.