EUSTACE BUDGELL (October 1714): IMITATION IS A KIND OF ARTLESS FLATTERY - NAILSEA GLASS
You’ll no doubt be familiar with the convention of naming styles of porcelain production after the location of the factory from whence it came; Bow, Worcester, Pinxton and Derby from the UK for instance; Sevres, Meissen and Dresden from the continent. It’s less usual, though, to find similarly-named glassware. There are examples, such as Newcastle light balusters, Lynn glass and Bristol green glass, but even a cursory investigation will reveal that these names do not derive solely from the place where the items were manufactured – they have, instead, become generic terms for a particular style regardless of the point of origin, and there is another example of this same standard which can be found with Nailsea glass.
As with the other named genres, there is an initial relevance to the specific place which was to go on to lend its name to output from far more widely-spread sources. Nailsea is a small town in Somerset, between Bristol and Clevedon and, in the latter part of the 18th century, there was a glassworks which was quite deliberately sited there. Its owner/operator was one John Robert Lucas, a local businessman who had previously dabbled in brewing, and who already had minority holdings in glass manufactories in Bristol. The area was ideally suited to the trade, the local environment provided raw materials aplenty by way of coal and sand, potash from the abundant woodlands and soda from seaweed and samphire gathered along the Severn estuary.
Furthermore, Bristol was a rapidly expanding centre of commerce with international trade centred around its quays and dockyards, and excellent means of communication with the rest of the UK. There was a large, increasingly skilled workforce to hand, which conveniently doubled as ready-made consumers for domestic wares, and it was clearly a city on the up.
When Lucas heard that plans were afoot to connect Nailsea with the existing canal network, further enhancing its potential, he settled on the town as the location for his own business and, in 1788, he fired up the pair of cones (kilns) to signal the start of production. The original intention was to service Bristol’s demand for both bottle glass and crown glass, used for making windows. The city’s other manufactories, having served their time producing such utilitarian wares in less affluent times, were drifting towards higher-end domestic wares for the export market and for the unashamedly middle-class clientele of nearby Bath, in its heyday of Regency splendour.
Lucas shrewdly noted that while others chased the pounds, shillings and pence to be made from these loftier realms of society, there was still a vast swathe of common citizenry who needed bottles for their beer and bullseye panes for their windows and shopfronts; his gamble of pitching for quantity over quality paid off handsomely, and he was soon at the head of a thriving business, which expanded to such an extent that he was obliged to construct purpose-built housing schemes to accommodate all the employees drafted in to work at his behest.
If further encouragement was needed for Lucas to tread a path other than one involving the production of high-end glassware, it was to come from the revenue officers of the day. Taxes on goods made from lead crystal, and those intended for more discerning customers, were punitive compared to those levied against bottle and crown glass material, so the Nailsea workers found themselves restricted to the creation of these less auspicious products. While Bristol’s other glass-houses were turning out enamelled or gilded cobalt-blue fripperies, fine dinner services, salts, pepper shakers, condiment bottles and ink pounces, many of Fuller’s workforce developed a sideline in making more utilitarian items – over and above their proscribed daily quotas - often for their personal use or (quite legitimate) resale. The end of a shift would often see workers gathering up leftover materials and working on in to the evening to produce jugs, mugs, vases and bowls to take home. They’d pay the company a few pennies for the waste materials, and there was obviously no labour charge to recover, so these cheap pieces quickly became commonplace in the houses of the workers, those of their friends and families and amongst casual acquaintances and local shopkeepers as they were handed out as gifts or hawked around in exchange for other bits and pieces. What they were, though - other than being rather mundane - was well-made and nicely decorated. Where end-of-day materials were gathered up, there may well not be sufficient quantity of one uniform colour to make a complete piece, so differently coloured remnants would be combined; it was particularly common at Nailsea for bone ash or oxides of tin (readily available from the nearby Cornish mines) to be mixed with opalescent bottle-glass to create an approximation of white milk glass, so many of the pieces made there feature this common element alongside the standard greens.
It’s sometimes said that these white and second-colour pieces are in the style of Venetian “latticino” wares, but this extraordinarily delicate use of opaque white canes and finely-trailed filaments as decorative components seems far more accomplished that all but the very finest examples of Nailsea work; the broader, more crudely incorporated strands are more properly described as having been pulled or combed in – literally, molten blobs of opaque white melt were dropped on to equally viscous coloured glass and trailed through it with nails on wooden handles; the fused, now bi-chromic glass could then be used to make the signature flasks and bowls with their distinctive white bands.
This decorative style became emblematic of the Nailsea out-turn, along with the (less popular) use of random coloured chips added to the melt during production which resulted in randomly-mottled pieces; both variations can be seen in combination with the basic pale green bottle glass, the use of which is perhaps the best indication of whether or not a particular piece might have been made in Somerset or farther afield at one of the manufactories producing “replica” pieces; this is by no means the definitive means of determining the provenance of such items, but it can offer a useful form of guidance as the other sources looked to “improve” on the Nailsea originals by using higher quality material. Pale red cranberry glass and far-rarer amber, were other colours used by the Somerset facility, but once again, items made with these colours are cannot be attributed to Fuller’s factory with any degree of certainty.
As the production of Nailsea wares became increasingly widespread, the range of items available also broadened, with more decorative pieces coming to the fore. Walking canes in the manner of large opaque twist glass stems would be hung on walls (obviously too delicate for more standard use), along with extravagant curlicue or briar-style tobacco pipes, paperweights, storage jars, swords, hunting horns and – perhaps most well-known – rolling pins. These were originally dual-purpose items, intended to also be used as containers with one end sealed with a cork and the dimensions such that they would contain a pound of salt or tea. Items were also made for window displays – hats for milliners, shoes for cobblers and so on – and so the renown of the Nailsea fripperies, or friggers as they were known, spread to increasingly more exotic climes.
Naturally, there was now an increased demand for these decorative pieces to the point where they were almost sustainable product lines in their own right. Some ever more elaborate, specially commissioned pieces were made – ceremonial maces, swords with the cutting edge highlighted with red enamel as if they had drawn blood, epergnes, riding crops, fully-functional horns and bugles made of amber glass and scarified with abrasive material to take on the appearance of brass, candlesticks, hollow canes filled with sweetmeats or comfits, perfume bottles and even bells ! However, as the majority of pieces had their origins as “unofficial” products, they were utterly unprotected by the rudimentary copyright regulations of the day, and the manufacture of similar items spread like wildfire throughout the other glassmaking communities of the UK, all of whom had access to the same materials, methods and skill-sets as had Nailsea.
By the 1820’s there were imitation Nailsea wares being made in Stourbridge, Donnington (Wrockwardine) near Ironbridge, throughout the North East across South Shields, Wearside and Newcastle and as far north as Erskine’s Glassworks in Alloa, Clackmannanshire (I’ve never seen Alloa alluded to as ”more exotic” in any other context, ever – may give myself a pat on the back for that one !)
As far as cornering the market in what was proving to be a very lucrative product line, the cat was now very much out of the bag, and there was no chance of Fuller’s Nailsea Crown Glass & Bottle Manufacturing Company cornering it and making it captive for their own exclusive use once again; the company carried on in various guises for another fifty years, but trading mainly in the production of low-grade, blown bottles and sheet glass, having missed an opportunity to carve a significant niche for themselves in the Victorian glass marketplace.
What did endure, however, was the name - although it is self-evident that this has long been applied to pieces which are “in the style of Nailsea” rather than actually having been made there, in much the same way that Bristol blue glass is synonymous with the city regardless of where it may have physically come from. It’s perfectly acceptable to refer to material of this style using the name – divers august establishments such as the UK’s premier museums are happy to do so - but do bear in mind that I you pick up some examples – particularly those of more a more colourful or fanciful nature – that they are, in all probability, unlikely to have come from anywhere in the shadow of Cleve Toot where John Lucas and his cohorts plied their trade for nearly 100 years.
Our pictures show a contemporary painting (1810) and some early photographs of the Nailsea works, a range of “original” bottle green examples, some more extravagantly-coloured items bearing the name, likely to have come from other sources and a table groaning under a spectacular collection of pieces – note the hats and bells ! (with thanks to Graham and Boha Glass); to the bottom right is an Alloa bottle.
link to all our Nailsea material: