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 practise.

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.

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