Old English Paperweights

The first Old English Paperweight is generally attributed to Apsley Pellatt and his patented method of enclosing ‘sulphide’ sculptures in glass domes. The creation of these sulphides goes back to the very end of the 18th century. It took Pellat another twenty years or so to perfect the process and have his patent formalised, but this did not confer exclusivity, and by the time the sulphide paperweights had become popular in the late 1840’s they were being made – albeit on a small scale – by a number of producers.

By this same time, the popularity of French millefiori weights was impacting the UK, and both George Bacchus and the Islington Glass Works were doing their utmost to profit from the wave of enthusiasm. George Bacchus & Sons in particular perfected the creation of concentric millefiori paperweights and close-pack millefiori paperweights, using Queen Victoria silhouette and profile canes, cogs and ruffles, oak-leaf canes and ‘combination’ canes made from bound and drawn gathers of up to a dozen ‘standard’ canes.

Another feature of Bacchus paperweights – particularly noticeable in the concentric paperweights with their otherwise regimented construction – was the use of a single ‘rogue’ cane which identified individual craftsmen who made a particular Bacchus paperweight.

Other renowned features of Bacchus paperweights are those in the ‘sodden snow’ style with canes set in to a white ground, the use of ‘torsades’ which were twisted strands of glass in two or three colours to form ‘frames’ and ‘flower basket’ paperweights, with millefiori contents set in to a basket with an internally-set torsade or closed-twist handle.

It’s believed that Bacchus produced their paperweights over a relatively short period, some six years or so, and that the total number which were made is only in the region of 500; this scarcity, and the very high quality of many of the paperweights, goes a long way towards explaining the significant cost of George Bacchus paperweights !

For rarity amongst early English paperweights, though, you need look no further than those made by a Bacchus contemporary, the Islington Glass Works. Created from extraordinarily complex canes, examples of these are very few and far between, and if you manage to track down a paperweight with an IGW signature cane, or one with silhouettes of draught horses, then you will have yourself a very rare thing indeed.

All the time that Apsley Pellat, George Bacchus and IGW were producing paperweights, there was another manufacturer also carrying on his trade, but turning our markedly different products. This was John Kilner who established an offshoot of his existing green and bottle glass company to produce paperweights, door-stops and other ornamental pieces.

Kilner’s outturn looked rather naive compared to the exquisite Bacchus and IGW paperweights – simple irregularly-shaped green glass globes known as dumps, with foil or ‘controlled bubble’ inserts, which were sometimes augmented by rudimentary coloured-glass canes. The style, however, was sufficiently popular for numerous unidentified manufacturers to follow suit, right up until the end of the 19th century. Some of these harked back to Pellatt’s ‘sulphides’, using clay-made encapsulated figures – often, disembodied children which looked quite grotesque !

English paperweights returned to a more classically artistic style with the advent of the 20th century. Companies such as Richardson’s, Arculus, Walsh-Walsh, Stevens & Williams and Whitefriars all produced millefiori canes and utilised them in ‘classic’ paperweights, inkwells, doorstops, in the base of shot-glasses and candlesticks.

Notable by its absence from the story of English paperweights is the use of lampwork. It is generally assumed that having come to the mid-19th century party a little late, there was no time for the development of lampwork production by English craftsmen before demand for paperweights in general dropped off. So few and far between were those who curated the skill that individuals stand out, even now – a namecheck, therefore, for William Swingewood who worked at Stevens & Williams in the 1930’s, and whose ‘hunting’ figures are very much sought after by those who collect drinking glasses – his characters being set in to the hollow stems of goblets.

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