HISTORY OF EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLISH GLASS
by JULIUS KAPLAN
popular libations, politics, and even treason are all to
be found depicted on English glassware.
The well-appointed 18th-century
American household was furnished for the most part with products made in America.
Our affluent colonial ancestors dined at magnificent mahogany tables from New
York, sat on elegant Chippendale chairs from Philadelphia, and carved and ate
their turkey with cutlery and silverware from Massachusetts. However, when it
came to finding glasses to drink from, Americans in those days still had to
look back principally to Mother England. Proper stemware was not produced in
this country until late in the century.
Fine glass was produced
in substantial amounts in England during the entire 18th century. It was usually
made from a lead crystal, then referred to as “flint” glass. George Ravenscroft,
a glass maker in London, introduced the process in 1676 by mixing lead oxide
and potash into a silica batch. The flint glass that resulted was acclaimed
almost immediately for its beauty and clarity. Unfortunately, however, Ravenscroft’s
early output had a tendency to “crizzle,” leaving an internal network of lines
that eventually caused a breakdown of the surface of the glass. But this defect
was soon corrected and, by the 1680s, Ravenscroft and others were consistently
producing clear, brilliant, uncrizzled glass.
English flint glass tended
to be heavier, more stable, and more refractive than the unleaded “soda” glass
then in general use on the Continent. During the Georgian period, flint glass
became the predominant material in drinking-glass production throughout England
and the end products were greatly appreciated by connoisseurs. Flint glass is
easily distinguished from soda glass. Besides being heavier in weight, it is
also more resonant. It rings beautifully when tapped lightly with a fork, while
soda glass gives off a dull thud. Leaded glass also is distinguishable by a
faint grayish tinge. Both flint glass and high-quality German and Venetian soda
glass sought to imitate the appearance of rock crystal, which is why we now
use the word “crystal” for fine glassware.
Drinking glasses in those
days came in many different sizes and shapes. They often had bowls, which had
a small capacity by today’s standards, two ounces or less. Others were enormous,
and were probably used for beer or as ceremonial glasses. Whatever the size,
Georgian glasses tended to be well designed, with harmonious dimensions.
English glassware in the
18th century reflected the rise of a consumer culture in England. The fashion-conscious
purchaser sought an assortment of different styles and shapes for each drink
served. Among the popular shapes were glasses for ale, cordials, various kinds
of wine, and “ratafias,” an almond-based drink similar to a cordial. There were
tumblers and even special toastmaster glasses. The latter had thick bowls that
held a deceptively small quantity of drink, thus enabling the toastmaster to
propose numerous toasts and still make it home under his own power.
By the middle of the 18th
century, many items throughout the home were being made of glass. Household
glassware included candlesticks, taper sticks, salvers, sweetmeat glasses, and
dessert glasses for jellies, syllabubs, and possets. Decanters, in this hard-drinking
era, ranged in size from a quarter-bottle capacity to a “Methuselah” capable
of holding eight full bottles. Decanters were collected for their form, size,
and style of decoration. Rarities included enameled decanters from the workshop
of the Beilby family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and gilded examples from James Giles’
decorating establishment in London during the 1760s. Later, manufacturers and
dealers successfully promoted the use of a distinctive decanter for each type
of beverage. It became fashionable to label decanters to indicate their contents,
e.g., port, sherry, madeira, claret, “cyder,” and even beer and ale, which,
in this period, were powerful beverages more accurately described as “barley
The design of Georgian
glass reflected not only the tastes of the times—the lightness of rococo superseding
the heavier baroque style and motifs—but also the impact of excise tax laws.
For example, in 1745 England began to tax glass on the basis of weight, a tax
imposed on the manufacturer. This impelled glass manufacturers to find ways
to lighten their product. One method was the elimination of the “folded foot.”
Prior to 1745, Georgian glasses generally had been made with the base, or foot,
reinforced with an extra fold or layer of metal to protect the foot from chipping.
Without this reinforced base, post-1745 glasses were less expensive to make,
but more vulnerable to being damaged.
One example of an early
drinking glass was the baluster. The earliest of these dated back to the reign
of William III and Mary, circa 1690, but the best were produced mostly during
the reign of Queen Anne (1701-1716). The baluster took its name from the architectural
form for the short pillar, although, in the case of the glass, the shape was
usually inverted. A wide variety of stem patterns, or “knops,” evolved in the
broad field of baluster glasses. If produced by a good maker, knops shaped as
acorns, mushrooms, or cylinders are eagerly sought by collectors today. Perhaps
rarest of all, the plain ovoid or egg-shaped knop is highly desirable among
collectors. An air bubble was often incorporated in the knop of balusters.
With the advent of the
Hanoverian monarchy in 1714, English makers began producing glasses similar
to the styles being made in Germany. These glasses emerged during the reign
of George I and may well reflect the influence of his court. Typically, these
glasses possessed a molded pedestal stem sometimes referred to as a “Silesian”
stem. A very small number incorporate the motto “God Save King George” on the
stem. The pedestals usually had six or eight sides, although some early four-sided
ones were also made. Others were molded with diamonds or stars on the points
of the shoulders. The feet are usually folded, as were the feet of baluster
glasses. The Silesian stem also was found on candlesticks and sweetmeat glasses.
During the second quarter
of the century, glass makers in England began to realize that the air bubble
or “tear” in baluster glasses could be manipulated to be a central decorative
feature in the stem. These manipulations took elaborate and intricate forms,
and often resulted in glasses of great beauty and brilliance. Many varieties
of air twists were created. They were incorporated in straight-stemmed glasses,
as well as in glasses with knops. By mid-century, multi-spiral, air twist stems
were extremely popular.
1. This Beilby wineglass (circa 1765-70) features a double-series opaque-twist
Before long, the air twist
was overtaken in popularity by glasses with an opaque twist stem (see Figure
1). Instead of manipulating the air bubble, manufacturers placed rods of white
enamel around the inside of a cylindrical mold. The mold was then filled with
molten glass, which, after cooling and reheating, could be twisted to create
“cotton twists” of elaborate and intricate design. Opaque twist stems were used
in most styles of drinking glasses, both small and large, as well as in candlesticks
and sweetmeat glasses.
Around 1760, an especially
attractive variation of the twist-stemmed glass emerged with the addition of
color. In lieu of rods of white enamel, the glass maker now substituted, most
commonly, red, green, and blue rods. These were frequently intertwined with
opaque white twists, resulting in complex and very beautiful designs. Today,
color twist glasses from this era are far rarer than air or opaque twist glasses.
Those with brown and turquoise twists are especially rare. Yellows, though also
rare, are not as difficult to find. The color twist was sometimes mixed with
an air twist. Another attractive combination, though rare, is a color twist
combined with both an air twist and an opaque twist. The rarest of the color
twists, however, has a stem with a single color and neither an opaque nor an
In 1777, taxes once again
played an important role in the development of English glassware. Parliament’s
approval of the Excise Act of 1777 doubled the tax rate on glass produced in
England, but from 1780 onward exempted glass produced in Ireland. As a result,
the Irish cut-glass industry was born. One of the early producers there was
the now internationally famous Waterford manufactory. Most Irish cut glass was
made for export to England and America.
The bowls of Georgian glasses
were frequently decorated with engraved images. This was accomplished by using
either a “diamond point” or, more commonly, an engraving wheel. Engraving on
glass with a sharp instrument had been practiced by the Romans. Indeed, Egyptian
antecedents go back as far as the 14th century, B.C., and there are references
to engraved Venetian glass dating from the 16th century. By 1570, the technique
had spread to England, where it was employed by both English and Dutch engravers.
The subjects of the engravings
varied. Wine glasses often were decorated with representations of vines and
grapes, ale glasses with barley and hops, and cider glasses with apple trees
and perhaps the word CYDER. Other common 18th-century subjects included
flowers and plants, busts of famous and not-so-famous persons, armorial seals
of aristocratic families, hunting scenes, political slogans, animals, flags,
Bristol, famed for its
glass as well as its shipbuilding, was a major center for glasses engraved
with warships. The production of “privateer” glasses began in the late 1750s.
The bowls were decorated with wheel-engraved images of the specific ships then
being commissioned in Bristol for use by the English in the Seven Years’ War
(1756-1763). Most of these “privateers” had bucket-shaped bowls.
Perhaps the most famous,
and controversial, of English engraved glassware is Jacobite glass: glassware
that overtly or covertly supported the Stuart cause in England’s “Glorious Revolution”
of 1688-1689. This period of strife has its origins in 1669, when James, the
son of Charles I of England, converted to Catholicism. In 1685, he ascended
the throne as King James II and immediately started to convert his Roman Catholic
faith into royal policy. This policy greatly alarmed the Protestants of England
who, three years later, forced the King to flee for his life to France, replacing
him with the Protestant monarchy of William III of Orange and his wife, Mary,
James II’s daughter.
James II spent the rest
of his days attempting to recapture the throne, as did his son, James Edward
Stuart, and grandson, Charles Edward Stuart. They failed, despite substantial,
if often furtive, support from the “Jacobites” who championed their cause. Jacobite
societies had to be secret since they were officially banned. Nevertheless,
they met frequently and, over a bowl of water, toasted “the King,” often using
glasses engraved with Jacobite symbols. The toast was well understood by the
members as a tribute to the “King over the sea,” or James III, as James Edward
Stuart styled himself.
The most common symbol
of Jacobite support on glassware is the rose. The flower is depicted fully open
and normally has two closed buds on the stem. The open flower is believed to
represent the throne of England, and the two buds are interpreted to be the
two Stuart sons of James III—Prince Charles Edward and Prince Henry the Cardinal
Duke of York.
In addition to the symbolic
flowers, Jacobite glasses frequently have words engraved on them: Fiat (meaning “let it be” or “let it come to pass”) or Redeat, Redi, or Revirescit (suggesting hope that the Prince will return). The bowls of some Jacobite glasses
bear a likeness of the grandson of James II, Charles Edward Stuart, known as
the Young Pretender or Bonnie Prince Charlie. But the most famous, as well as
the earliest, Jacobite glasses are the “Amen” glasses. There are fewer than
40 known examples. Two to four verses of the Jacobite hymn and the word Amen
are engraved in diamond point on their bowls.
Jacobite glasses have long
been a favorite with collectors. The popularity of Jacobite glasses, in fact,
drove prices so high that forgers were encouraged to produce copies. The forgeries
were principally done in the 19th and 20th centuries on genuine Georgian glass.
As a consequence, serious doubt has been cast on the authenticity of many putative
Predictably, perhaps, the
Protestant supporters of King William III and Queen Mary responded to the popularity
of Jacobite glasses with engraved glassware of their own. The Protestant glasses
usually depict an equestrian figure of William and also were frequently copied
by forgers. When George I became king in 1714, thereby establishing the House
of Hanover on the British throne, engraved glasses were produced that depicted
a Hanoverian white horse together with a white heraldic rose.
William of Orange was
not the only Dutch connection to English glass. Dutch engravers worked on many
English and English-style glasses. They tended to be more skilled than their
English counterparts, which is why many English glasses were sent to Holland
for engraving. Some 18th-century English glass makers may even have set up factories
in the Netherlands and Norway to produce English-style flint glass. Many 18th-century
glasses formerly thought to be of English origin are now thought by many experts
to be of Dutch or Belgian origin.
One type of glass engraving
perfected in Holland during the 18th century was diamond stippling, the use
of pointillist techniques to create images on glass. The originator of stippling
was Anna Roemers, who lived in Leiden in the second quarter of the 17th century.
Stipple-engravers created images by making innumerable tiny dots on the bowl
of the glass. Darker areas were made with dots spaced farther apart, and lighter
areas with the dots closer together. The result was an image of incredible delicacy.
Interestingly, the image can hardly be seen unless light is cast from above
on the edge of the glass. When lighted in that way, the image is said to have
been “breathed upon.”
2. Stipple engraving (circa 1780) by David Wolff featuring a prancing
Roemers’ stippling technique
was taken up early in the 18th century by Frans Greenwood of Amsterdam (1680-1763),
a gifted amateur who created beautiful images on glass. There are about 50 recorded
glasses by Greenwood. Most of the stipple-engravers were, like Greenwood, amateurs.
There were, however, at least two who were probably professionals and who were
great masters, in any case: David Wolff (1732-1798); and an anonymous pointillist
nicknamed “Alias” by F.G.A.M. Smit, the author of an important 20th century catalogue raisonné of Dutch stippled glass. The craftsmanship of both
“Alias” and Wolff was immaculate (see Figure 2). Both frequently depicted
children, often together with inscriptions dealing with love, friendship, and
liberty. Wolff also stipple-engraved portraits of aristocratic personages and
armorials, frequently of the House of Orange. One of the most intricate and
beautiful of Wolff’s glasses is the “Personification of Amsterdam,” depicting
Asia and Africa paying obeisance to Amsterdam. Another important glass by Wolff
pictures a house in a landscape on which is inscribed in a banderole, “VRYHEIDS
LUST” (“yearning for freedom”).
No discussion of Dutch
engravings on English or English-style glasses can be complete without mention
of two masters of wheel-engraved glass, the Brothers Sang—Jacob Sang and Simon
Jacob Sang. The Sangs originated in Brunswick, Germany, and worked in Amsterdam.
An advertisement for the wares of Jacob Sang appeared in an Amsterdam newspaper
in 1753. It noted
that he engraved on English-style glass and that the subjects of his engraving
included portraits, armorials, classical subjects, figures of all sorts, names,
and inscriptions, and decorative designs of the newest fashions. Several Sang
glasses, signed and dated, exist today.
3. The bowl of this Beilby wineglass (circa 1767-70) depicts the coat of
arms of Wilhem V, Prince of Orange, and his bride, Princess Frederika Sophia
Rather than being engraved,
some Georgian glasses were beautifully decorated with paintings, principally
by an artist named William Beilby, sometimes with the assistance of his sister,
Mary, and his brother Ralph. They produced their works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
principally during the 1760s. William Beilby learned enameling and painting
during the 1750s while apprenticed to a Birmingham artist named John Haseldine.
In 1761, William discovered how to fire his enamel paintings onto glass so that
they virtually fused with the glass. We know much of this from the diaries of
Thomas Bewick, a highly regarded artist, who for several years was an apprentice
in the Beilby atelier.
The most famous Beilby
glasses are families’ coats of arms and other armorials, which often were painted
in bright colors. These include royal armorials for the Dutch and English crowns,
as well as armorials for important English families (see Figure 3). A
few were signed with the name of W. Beilby or Beilby Jr. Other Beilby glass
was “signed” with a butterfly, as the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler
did many years later in his paintings and drawings.
4. Crafted by James Giles, this blue decanter (circa 1760- 70) has elaborate
gilt birds among foliage.
One of the more interesting
Beilby glasses is a very handsome and tall goblet known as the Standard of Hesleyside.
It carries with it an interesting story. In 1763, Edward Charlton of Hesleyside
visited the Beilby workshop in Newcastle. Impressed with the quality of the
workmanship he saw, Charlton commissioned William Beilby to decorate a glass
that would hold a full bottle of claret. Beilby designed a goblet with a deep,
round funnel bowl connected to an additional globular bowl beneath it. One
side of the glass bears the inscription The Standard of Hesleyside. On
the reverse side is the Charlton family arms in color with the inscription Edward
Charlton Esqv. 1763. According to J. Rush, who wrote about the Beilby artistry
in 1987, it became “the custom and a challenge . . . to gulp the contents [of
this two-bowl glass] down without taking a breath,” and drinking a full bottle
of Bordeaux wine in this fashion became known as “Sinking the Standard.” Unfortunately,
this unique glass was damaged when Charlton’s drunken butler mishandled it.
History does not record whether the butler himself had tried to “Sink the Standard.”
In addition to armorials,
the Beilbys painted hunting and fishing scenes, pastoral scenes, classical ruins,
exotic birds, Chinese pavilions, and beehives. Other glasses had somewhat more
abstract vine-scroll and hop-and-barley motifs. In still others, the white enamel
is highlighted with bluish or pink tones. The rim of the glass is frequently
gilded. Among the most treasured of all Beilby glasses are those fashioned by
William Beilby to commemorate the birth of the Prince of Wales on August 4,
1762. They are executed in full heraldic color, with mantling painted in white
enamel and shadowing in other colors. Among the rarest Beilbys are a sweetmeat
glass and a sugar bowl.
Another famous painter
who decorated glass was James Giles (and his atelier). Giles gilded a variety
of glass objects but was best known for his decanters, glasses, and bottles
featuring portrayals of exotic birds amid slender, feathery trees (see Figure
4). Giles also did vine trails and hop-and-barley motifs, and later added
bucranium (stag’s head) designs to his repertoire. Although James Giles’ decoration
of glass was highly regarded, his atelier was best known for its decoration
of colored china, principally from Worcester.
Isaac Jacobs of Bristol
was yet another skilled craftsman who gilded on blue (and opaque white) glass.
He is perhaps best known for his blue bowls with key-fret borders, which were
often signed. The bowls were brought out at the end of a meal and were used
“for rinsing hands and mouth,” according to one account of the times.
One final type of 18th-century
English glassware of interest is the “rummer,” a corruption of the Dutch word
“Roemer.” This type of green-colored glass was used to drink German white wines
(“Hock” or “Rhenish” wine, as they were called in Georgian times). The original
Roemer was normally green with a prunted stem (the shape of a sliced raspberry)
and a cup-shaped bowl. The Georgian version omitted the prunts and gadrooning
(an abstract design), and took on the shape and design of the clear glass being
produced at the time. A few of these green glasses had air twist stems and,
less frequently, opaque twist stems. Very few had a green bowl and foot, with
a clear opaque twist stem. Less than a dozen such glasses have survived. In
general, green glass is much rarer than clear flint glass, probably reflecting
a relative lack of interest by 18th-century imbibers in drinking Hock. Green
decanters are even more rare. One of the rarest colored English drinking glasses
of the 18th century is a glass with a blue bowl and foot, and a clear opaque
Many of these works of
art are greatly prized today by collectors and museums. They have gone up in
value, though perhaps not as aggressively as Impressionist paintings. For a
fine Georgian glass, one must count on paying anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000—and
beyond for very rare and beautiful examples.
A number of museums in
the United States— including the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York;
the Toledo Museum in Toledo, Ohio; and the Philadelphia Museum—have excellent
collections of English 18th-century glass. In addition, there are important
private American collections, several of which are in the Washington-Baltimore
Bickerton, L.M. Eighteenth-Century Drinking Glasses: An Illustrated Guide. Woodbridge, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd., 1986.
Charleston, R.J. English Glass and the Glass Used in England, Circa 400-
1940. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984.
Lloyd, W. Investing in Georgian Glass. London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd.,
Julius Kaplan (CC ‘83)
is counsel to Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. He is a collector of Chinese ceramics,
American paintings, and English glass.