The alchemy behind Victorian coloured glassware

Time for a significant splash of colour in our next article, and a look at some pieces from the 19th century, which saw the creation of some amazing artefacts using increasingly complex production techniques and innovative processes to impart coloured finishes.

The use of colour in Victorian glassware became far more extravagant and involved than that of any earlier period to date. Throughout Georgian and Regency times coloured pieces tended to consist of one uniform hue in their entirety, or with individually-tinted pieces being combined to give the appearance of multi-coloured items. The inclusion of coloured rods in the make-up of opaque or air-twist stems produced some particularly striking pieces, but it was to pale in to insignificance with the results of subsequent advancements. The latter decades of the 19th century saw a proliferation of techniques which resulted in a variety of innovative and highly decorative effects, from the use of subtle graduations in tone to vibrant pigmentation and pieces of overtly ostentatious tincture.

The processes behind the creation of some particularly popular types of coloured glass exhibited the splendidly injudicious mindset of Victorian Britain in full innovative spate; the blues, yellows and opalescent white edging of Davidsons’ patented Pearlescent range, for instance, required the addition of arsenic and uranium during manufacture – not the sort of thing that you imagine would have left the craftsmen of the time entirely unscathed. However, not all such finishes were quite so inherently dangerous to achieve, with marbled or malachite glass being made with the inclusion of common or garden mining slag. It is of interest to note that the primrose yellow Pearlescent pieces tinted with uranium dioxide or pitchblende (known as Vaseline glass) glow fluorescent green under ultra violet light – an irrefutable test of authenticity.

Of a similarly rather imprudent nature was the pursuit of effective silvering for glass for decorative purposes rather than use for mirroring. The long-standing quest for the refinement of this mirrored appearance had already employed tin and bismuth, and to a lesser extent mercury, and it was the latter, potentially more lethal of these which naturally proved to be the preferred Victorian constituent. It was not, however, added to molten glass in powdered form as was normally the case with ingredients which were intended to impart a particular hue. Rather molten mercury - or less often silver nitrate - was introduced to fill a paper-thin cavity in double-walled vessels, with the aperture in which it was encapsulated having to be plugged with a disc-seal – invariably carrying the name of the 1849 patent holders for the process, Hale Thomson and Edward Varnish. For additional embellishment the outer of the two skins could be made from “standard” wholly-coloured glass – known as flashing – with this external layer then being cut or deeply etched to make the silver underneath visible and part of any design.

Of course, it the production of coloured glassware was not a peculiarly British preserve, and the glasshouses of the continent also excelled themselves with the production of some truly stunning pieces. Some examples of Bohemian glass from this period almost defy description, with their use of deep colours, detailed engraving, etching and flashing.

While we are at it – and as it is often mentioned in our pages – it’s worth defining what area actually constituted Bohemia during the period in which most of the glass we display was produced. It was for the most part the majority of the Western half of the modern day Czech Republic, including the ancient Kingdom of Bohemia itself, sundry Silesian regions, Moravia and the Eastern extremities of Carpathian Ruthenia. Glass production was centered on the towns of Jablonec, Skalice, Poděbrady and Karlovy Vary.

Although the use of coloured rods had been used to construct twist stems during the 1700’s, the refinement of the techniques involved in applying the tinting media to the glass melt, the way in which twists were processed and in which finished pieces were assembled meant that later pieces really did look quite extraordinary – I’d suggest that you visit our site and take a look at the Josephinenhutte opaque colour twist glasses (from Piechowice on the northern fringes of Bohemia, made right at the end of the 1890’s) for some particularly stunning examples – the link to the relevant page is below.

Somewhat nearer to the other end of the spectrum of luxuriance – and by way of whole-colour pieces rather than compound glassware - we find what was termed milk glass, produced in Victorian times as a cheap alternative to porcelain and a derivative of 16th century Venetian opal glass technology. This saw opaquing elements added to the melt during production - originally ash or bone which produced the white colouration that gave the product its name, but also tin, arsenic and antimony as additives for the optional blue, black and occasionally green pigmentation of this utilitarian but still fetching and very collectable denomination. Such was the demand for coloured glass during the latter part of the 19th century that this age-old process was revived to cater for the demand. This saw – most notably – Thomas Webb’s commercial application of the processes required to produce cameo glass, refining knowledge which had existed since Roman times. In simple terms, vessels would be produced using opaque and coloured layers of glass, then a design marked out on to the outermost (opaque) surface using acid-resistant material, with the un-masked portion of the same layer then dissolved away to leave an image slightly in relief of its now coloured background.

Of a similar nature was the process of “cut to clear” glassmaking. Again, two layers of glass were utilised, but in this instance a coloured outer flashing layer was moulded over a clear glass inner blank. The outer face was then cut, rather than etched, to reveal the clear glass underneath. The lack of an opaque layer in this procedure produced pieces which were far more readily interactive with light, and – coupled with the myriad reflective facets of the cutting – made for some particularly striking pieces. Essentially the same as the process for producing what were termed overlayed vessels, the complexity could be further augmented by using a further, third coloured glass layer.

When one remembers that more standard methods of decoration such as gilding and enameling were also available to Victorian glassmakers it can be of no surprise that the period saw a huge volume of coloured material produced. Cranberry (or ruby) glass – beautiful, pale red, fine lead crystal tinted with compounds of gold – was in its lustrous heyday; satin glass – chemically treated opaque pieces similar to milk glass but coloured more richly – was also profligate (and required the acutely dangerous fumes of hydrofluoric acid during production, so fulfilling a seemingly vital criteria of the day !). Fortunately, quality – for once – is not greatly compromised by quantity, and Victorian coloured glassware therefore provides a rich and varied department for collectors to explore and enjoy, and with a bit of judicious searching it is possible to track down some very striking pieces as surprisingly realistic prices (most of which, obviously, are on our own website).

As ever, click the following links to visit our website where you can see many pictures of all the items mentioned above.

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