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

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…