A brief look at the application of cut decoration to glassware, from Roman times to the Regency and beyond…

Although cut glass is rightly regarded as
having first come to the fore during the 18th century, the method of
decorating crystal by the used of rotating, abrasive wheels goes back much
further – certainly if we are to take the word of such an august source as
Pliny the Elder. Gaius Plinius Secundus, as he was known to his mates, hanging by the forum, wrote copious notes recording the world as he perceived it from around
45AD to his death thirty years later. He records without ambiguity that Roman
and Greek craftsmen were adept at engraving designs on to hard surfaces, and
whilst this may well refer to incised working (with the use of a pointed stylus
to “draw” linear images) he also affirms that the use of a rotating lapidary’s
wheel was employed to mark perhaps less intricate elements of designs.
Lapidaries were those who cut, polished and engraved precious stones – with essentially
the same methods being applied to metal artefacts or early vitreous materials; ceramics or primitive glass.  

This formative technology, in common with
many skills of the classical world, was largely lost as Europe was overwhelmed
by the brutality of the Dark Ages, and the plague-ridden misery of early
Medieval times, but the knowledge persisted in places less ravaged by such
vagaries, and it was a case of resurrecting such dimly-remembered skills rather than rediscovering things completely anew when late-renaissance
craftsmen sought to turn their hand to decorative techniques. Initially these
were for the most part applied to metal objects, with the emphasis here being
on the same incised work to which Pliny had alluded. However, as first bottle
glass then finer lead crystal began to circulate European trade routes in the
1600’s, methods were explored by which these wares could also be decorated and turned in to more desirable commodities.

Near-contemporary records assign the
development of workable glass-cutting techniques to one Caspar Lehmann, working
in the first decade of the 17th century in the Prague workshops of Rudolf
II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. Lehmann was a gem cutter and
silversmith, but worked on adapting the method of engraving these media with
copper and bronze wheels for use with crystal and was able to master the craft
which, in conjunction with the countersunk engravings at which he was also
adept, he was able to use in the production of some remarkably detailed work,
both on drinking glasses and flat panes. Rudolf appointed Lehmann as engraver
to his court, allowing him to patent the processes and underwrite
apprenticeships for aspiring successors. Zacharius Belzar was one such artisan
scholar, as was George Schwanhard, son of a joiner and – ultimately – deemed to
be sufficiently capable as to take up Lehmann’s mantle on the death of his
mentor in  1622.

Schwanhard relocated to Nuremburg and also
had works at Ratisbon, where he worked for successive Emperors Ferdinand and
Leopold, and his sons George Junior and Henry carried on the work again after
their father’s death. By this time, diamond point engraving – supremely detailed
work a using super-hard stylus – had been perfected by Dutch engravers (see our
earlier piece on their activities), and for high-end decorative glassware their
work could not be surpassed. However, this time consuming, labour intensive
decoration commanded premium prices, far out of the reach of mere mortals and,
as drinking glasses en masse became more widely available to such less wealthy
folk, there was a need for a cheaper more readily-available form of decorative
effect to, well, tart them up a bit. It was at this point that the engraving
wheels once again came to the fore, not necessarily with regard to the quality
of their out-turn, but certainly as a more practical means of enhancement, well
suited for keeping pace with the increasing rate of drinking glass production. The one problem
which had always assailed those who sought to decorate anything by use of
rotating cutting wheels had, though, been the variable speed at which the
wheels could be turned; power was imparted by way of pulleys and shafts, taking
the initial drive provided by ponies, women or small children, working
treadmills or hand-cranking handles. With the best will in the world, these beasts of burden could not
provide a consistent rate of input, and the quality of the cutters’ work suffered
as a result of having to use wheels that rotated at unreliable and variable speeds (thereby cutting to irregular depths). However, as luck would have it for all concerned – overworked urchins in particular, Britain was on the cusp
of the industrial revolution, the whole of which depended on and developed from the provision of
reliable, efficient power sources. Naturally, as water, coal and ultimately
steam were harnessed as derivative sources, and the understanding of drive
transfer by way of more finely-tuned mechanics and even gearing were assimilated
in to more and more tasks, engraving and cutting wheels were swept along with
the tide, and steadier more readily-controllable output speeds to the wheels resulted in an ever-improving quality of work.

Good quality lead crystal glasses could now
be cut, sliced, faceted, ground – even hammered to some extent – and plain
stemware became distinctly passé as the 18th century continued
apace. Vertical facets on wine glasses were used to accentuated the graceful
lines of champagne flutes and the more delicate large ale glasses, along with slice cuts,
mitred grooves and fine hatched lines; scalloped edges (a craft in its own
right, but similarly executed with grinding wheels) would augment the rims of
sweetmeats and any number of the myriad tableware bowls that now filled the
catalogues and inventories of glass manufactories. Salts – both master and
trencher – monteiths, piggins, bonnet glasses and stemware of all kinds from humble tinctures
to grand tazzas would go under the knife, as it were, and emerge bearing
refractive, facetted finery – and all at the hands of craftsmen who were wielding a combination of both cutting-edge (see what I’ve done, there ?) technology and a basic methodology
that dated back to antiquity. For an illustration of how new and old came
together in the perfect storm of creativity that was the industrial revolution,
the relatively modest pursuit of glass cutting is as good an example as any.

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all the images below are of glasses made earlier than 1800