One of the most eyecatching and distinctive categories of Georgian glassware - Bristol Blue glasses, decanters and tableware

As is often the case, I’m taking the inspiration for this current blog article from items that are newly listed on our website – this time, it’s the pieces of Bristol Blue glass – a well-known phrase in glass collecting circles, but in actual fact a bit of a misnomer.

Creative sorts had been using blue colouring to give their creations a distinctive hue for centuries by the time Georgian glassmakers followed suit, so it certainly wasn’t innovation which made the phrase so enduring. The Romans had created the blue tiles (tesserae) for use in their mosaics by using an oxide of cobalt as a colourant, as had the Egyptians before them. The technology had been employed closer to home, as fragments of a blue glass item were found in the grave goods packed inside the Sutton Hoo burial ship grave, dating from the latter part of the Dark Ages. The usage continued throughout medieval times, and was documented in 1558 with details given of the use of smalt – a derivative of cobalt, and used (in the specific instance in question) to colour clothing. It was also a constituent of the paints used by Rembrandt in the 17th century, was used to provide the blue underglaze colouring on Chinese porcelain (which was to have specific relevance to our story) having been introduced to the Orient by Persian traders and was certainly known to Venetian glassmakers.

So – what exactly was this ubiquitous “smalt”, the influence of which was spread far and wide even before it came to the attention of Bristol’s artisan craftsmen ? Well – for the most part it came from mines at Schneeburg in the Ore Mountains near the present day Czech/German border. The metallic element was pulverised, roasted, ground, combined with flint, superheated and melted to the point that it became vitreous and then quickly cooled and mechanically pounded to reduce it to a fine powder – the state in which it was considered to be a tradeable commodity.

Now, back to Blighty and the travails of the good folk of Bristol. A significant trading centre by the middle ages due to its location on the Severn Estuary, the city enjoyed the advantage of being proximate to sources of many raw materials useful to industries of many sorts, and inexorably grew over the years to become a real manufacturing powerhouse. There were huge reserves of good quality sand to be had from Redcliffe and also significant deposits of coal which could be mined locally, so the resources were on hand for glassmaking to become a staple of local manufacturing. Initially known just for the production of bottle and window glass, the development of nearby Bath as a 17th century tourist attraction and home to many rich potential customers saw a drift towards higher-quality wares, and a steady trickle of more capable craftsmen in to the city intent on taking advantage of such a potentially lucrative marketplace. As mentioned, the wherewithal to produce blue glassware was widely known, and Bristolian producers employed it – albeit sparingly with regard to scale in the first instance – from the 1650’s onwards, specifically to produce medicine and syrup bottles. The potential quality of Bristol’s glass turnout received another boost in the wake of Ravenscroft’s development of lead crystal, as there were lead deposits in the nearby Mendip Hills, and the perfect storm for glass production on a really significant scale began to gather strength. It was noted by the early 1700’s that a view across the city would present a vista consisting of “more glass kiln chimneys than church spires”.

So, Bristol is growing at a disproportionate rate of knots, second only to London as a centre of manufacturing, with it’s glassmaking industry ideally placed to assume absolute pre-eminence in Britain. Who exactly were the two gentlemen who were to forge an auspicious union and make the most of the feracious industrial ferment, poised to burst in to life on the banks of the Severn ?

Richard Champion; local potter, Quaker and merchant. With a keen eye to prevailing tastes amongst the discerning gentlefolk of the time, Champion was looking to refine glassmaking technology to produce high grade porcelain which he could then sell for a premium. To give his business plan a significant boost, he intended to emulate the style of the much sought after porcelain imported from the Far East – widely feted by the cognoscenti but, naturally, a scarce commodity in early 18th century England. The defining element of this porcelain was, of course, the distinctive blue-painted designs, so Champion needed a source of blue pigment. He fortuitously hooked up with one William Cooksworthy, chemist, merchant, entrepreneur - also a Quaker - and another aspirant porcelain pioneer who had previous dealings with the aforementioned smalt producers in Saxony. Cooksworthy discerned an opportunity for significant betterment and went all-in when the Königlich Sächsischen facility gave notice that it was on the brink of closure in 1753, securing himself exclusive distribution rights for the entire remaining stock of their signature product. Naturally, this resource was to be imported via Bristol.

Now, although Cooksworthy had a monopoly on the import of smalt, he was not obliged to sell it on exclusively to either Champion or other local businesses, and he had no compunction in dealing with anyone who offered him a good price, wherever they might be based. As a result, blue glassware was made in London and Newcastle, as well as other provincial glasshouses, but the colourant itself all came from the one source and was to take the name of its point of entry to the UK. Manufacturers would therefore source Bristol Blue as an ingredient for their wares – and anything thusly coloured would be termed Bristol Blue glass, regardless of where it was made. And this is the misnomer to which I refer in my opening paragraph – it ain’t the glassware itself, but the colouring medium which gives rise to the name.

With regard to the glass itself, now uniformly resplendent in the sumptuous blue hue by which it was to become commonly known, the range of wares grew exponentially. It swiftly became a signifier of wealth and prosperity, and as Bristol’s merchant class flourished the blue glassware which they commissioned was considered to be representative of their opulence and affluence. Tableware, decanters, purely decorative pieces – even hinged boxes and items of jewellery – were regularly made from the newly fashionable material. However, there was always the need for certain parties to go that little bit further than others when specifying their ostentatious requirements, and some way of discerning what were the real top of the range pieces was needed. As mentioned earlier, Bristol was by now the home of many skilled craftsmen, and blue glass pieces were enhanced with silver settings and adornments or gilded in gold leaf for that overtly extravagant touch when the customer demanded.

As ever, there were opportunists ready to take advantage of any niche market, and a gentleman by the name of Lazarus Jacobs did just that, acquiring Perrot’s Red Lane manufactory when it went out of business in 1774, and immediately resurrecting it as a going concern in order that he could put his engraving and decorating skills to good use, embellishing the bankrupt stock. Jacobs employed his son, Isaac, in the family business and added another dimension to his work by signing the vast majority of items which they produced. The Jacobs ciphers soon became the byword for the very highest quality Bristol Blue glassware, and items with verifiable signatures are rightly considered amongst the most collectable examples which can be found to this day. Jacobs had no little faith in the quality of his own work, and adopted the self-styled epithet of “glass manufacturer to His Majesty the King”. Official endorsement or otherwise, affectation was everything in upwardly mobile Georgian England, and the business (at least in the short term, before eventual ruin) went from strength to strength.

In conclusion we should go back to the early days of Bristol’s glass manufacturing history. We’ve already noted that it was initially the production of bottle glass that was the most common pursuit of the city’s glasshouses, entirely to supply the equally proliferant local distilling industry. This had grown up as a result of both the extensive importation of European wine through the port and the bringing in of vast cargoes of sugar cane, in addition to the already extant local breweries and cider producers, established to furnish the ever-growing workforce with their daily draughts. One of the names at the forefront of these imports for over 200 years now has been John Harvey & Sons, producers of the renowned Bristol Cream blended dessert sherry. For the last thirty years or so this has been bottled in vessels made from Bristol Blue glass which, wittingly or otherwise, are the perfect encapsulation of the city’s defining commercial enterprises. You do though, of course, need to track down a signature Jacobs decanter from which to properly dispense it, and thereby close the circle completely.

Stay tuned for a follow up in a few days when I’m hoping to get my teeth in to the (presumably) closely associated commodity which was Bristol Green glass – look to be yet more convolutions and complexities on the way, but another excuse for a great many more pretty pictures, even if any clarification may not be forthcoming…

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