LYNN GLASS - AN 18TH CENTURY PUZZLE

LYNN GLASS - AN 18TH CENTURY PUZZLE

Lynn-sand glassware - resplendent with its peculiar hoops


From a purely personal point of view it’s gratifying to see that we’ve been able to add one particular item to our catalogue of sale glass recently – a Georgian carafe, some 250 years old. It’s rather plain compared to some, with one or two small imperfections and a particularly unrefined appearance. Nothing special at all you may think, and the only decoration which it does carry is a set of seven broad, concentric horizontal rings to the inner surface, but these mark it out as being a piece of Lynn glass, a range which just happens to be my particular favourite. Not only is it a mark with solid, British provenance without any undue frippery or overindulgent foibles (none of your convoluted Façon de Venise ornamentation or Bohemian extravagance with these elemental beauties) but it’s also an excuse to trot out my most studious bit of glass-related research, which – with apologies to those who may have come across it before – I shall now regurgitate for your edification and delight...


Lynn glass is a generic term for 18th glassware which is identified by this sort of horizontal banding. It’s a simply-applied ornamentation, which is also regularly referred to as “Lynn moulding” in spite of actually being a tooled finish rather than one which is moulded in any way. Curiously, though, in the world of antique glass where terminology is unfailingly exact when used to describe particular aspects of glassware, there are no hard and fast rules with regard to what features a piece must display in order to carry this particular name. The rings can be of different widths, applied to the inner, outer or both surfaces of a piece, either completely uniform or quite uneven and – perhaps most surprisingly – liable to appear in any number. There are examples bearing the Lynn epithet which have anything from three to a full dozen such rings – hardly an exacting criteria when it comes to labelling an item with a specific designation.


Furthermore, the banded decoration has been applied to several different types of glassware: wine glasses, carafes, decanters, finger bowls, tumblers, cordials, colourless crystal and – very occasionally - blue glass and pieces which carry additional engraving – these last two variants being of singular rarity, to the best of my knowledge. Tableware – syllabub or handled jelly glasses – have also been recorded bearing the tell-tale rings. There are also similarly uncommon examples of stemware which have moulded, terraced feet, mirroring the linear decoration on their bowls in a rather pleasing manner, as does one of the aforementioned dessert pieces.


With regard specifically to stemware, there are two sub-groups in to which pieces can be allocated. The first significantly less-refined examples have a somewhat insubstantial composition, with small feet, ill-defined banding and a tendency to be made from a lower grade of crystal which exhibits a slight cloudiness. The second order then seems to consist of pieces which have been far more competently put together – made of clearer crystal, more sturdily proportioned and with clearly defined banding. It is not clear whether these variants are the products of different manufactories or simply earlier and later examples of an evolving style from one source.


With such non-specific design specifications being loosely applied to the rather vagarious pieces that made up the Lynn glass collective, the one aspect that was generally assumed to lend some sort of commonality to them all was where they might have been manufactured. The name is ostensibly derived from the town of Kings Lynn in Norfolk, East Anglia - formerly Lynn Regis or just plain Lynn. The only problem with this is that there is little or no evidence of the town ever having had a significant glass manufacturing industry, certainly not one that could have produced sufficient numbers of like pieces to warrant them all carrying the name as an identifier !


In spite of this rather damning lack of provenance, however, there is documentary evidence to establish the use of the name in a broader context, as we shall see – but next, what of the town itself and its purported glassmaking industry ?


Lynn’s glassmaking production was restricted to just one or two manufactories operating from the very late 17th century onwards under the auspices of Messrs Francis Jackson and John Straw, and following on from Isaac Harrison’s earlier bottle-glass house. There are several depositions on record from these gentlemen to their local MP’s appealing for a reduction in glass tax, as the consequent increase in price of their products restricted sales and threatened the viability of the operation, which provided a significant source of employment for the townsfolk. These remonstrations fell on deaf ears, and the trade remained hampered by the imposition of the taxation for its entire duration, something which also mitigated against the broader expansion of any glassmaking enterprise in the area.


The reason for the initial establishment of the albeit small trade in the area brings us to the origins of the name in its current usage. Naturally, industrial premises have always sought to locate themselves favourably, and in this instance it was the presence of extremely high quality glassmaking sand that prompted their establishment near Lynn. Easily found just to the east of town, near Dersingham, the sand was noted as being one of the area’s most significant exports – most notably as listed in the quite splendidly entitled Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; Vol 13-14 (1838). This publication includes a lengthy piece about every aspect of Lynn, it's topography, the demographic make-up of the population, the profile of local trades and so on. It makes specific reference to the export of fine sand - but there is no mention at all of a locally based glass manufacturing industry, something which would undoubtedly have been well documented had it been extant.


The high quality of this Lynn sand is often commented upon in contemporary writing, with records of it being exported far and wide to Newcastle, Leith (Edinburgh), the Waterford crystal works in Ireland and even to France where it was evidently equally as highly regarded as it was on this side of the channel. Any 18th century “recipe” for good quality crystal will inevitably include a proportion of “Lynn sand” in its make-up. In conclusion, then, we are left with little reason to do anything other than to fully concur with Nathaniel Whittock, writing in The Decorative Painters' and Glaziers' Guide (I T Hinton 1828) who asserts, fairly unequivocally, that:


The sand most fit for making white, transparent glass is that brought from Lynn in Norfolk, by the name of which place it is distinguished.


And there you have it – contemporary affirmation that Lynn glass was a term applied to any wares manufactured using the sand which was sourced from the area, entirely without regard to where the pieces may have actually been produced. The commonality of the banded decorations is clearly based on little more than its application being a popular and straightforward way in which to augment the high quality Lynn-sand glassware, which – on reflection - might have been a more appropriate name for the pieces and gone some way to avoid the ensuing misconception as to its place of manufacture. As the bands are technically known as “internal optic corrugations”, and are intended to refract light in order to enhance the appearance of a piece, it’s clear that they would be best applied to good quality, clear crystal articles made from the aforementioned sand, so there is no surprise that the decorative form and the name of the distinctive material included in their composition have become synonymous over time.


The name as a distinction of the similarly-decorated pieces does however provide a useful label by which they can easily be referred in the absence of any other distinguishing features – place of origin, manufacturer, manufacturing process, commonality of form or any of the other usual identifiers. Given the variety of different items which have been shown to exhibit the delineating bands, it is actually quite a broad-ranging category and one which would constitute a very worthwhile collection to assemble should anyone be so inclined – do let us know if you intend to go after examples of Lynn glass, I’d personally be very interested to hear if you manage to track anything down !


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