Presenting 18th-century English drinking glasses

Recently, as research curator at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, I gave a ‘Friday Focus’ talk about the new display of 18th-century English drinking glasses that I have curated. This talk looked at the collector of the glasses, including an aspect of his life in Leamington, and then considered the different types of glasses that were created throughout the 18th century – and the various techniques used to decorate them. Lastly, I looked at why I chose to display the collection as I did:

Background to the collection and collector

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‘The Collector’ by Henry Holland, 1918, LSAG&M

This display highlights a selection of Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum’s collection of 160 English drinking glasses from the 18th century. They were purchased from the collector Francis Jahn in 1955 with the help of the National Art Collections Fund and the V&A Purchase Fund.

Jahn, who was born in 1871 and died in 1967, was a collector of oriental art, ceramics and 18th-century glasses. He followed his German father, Louis Jahn, a curator at the Hanley Museum, who built up a vast private collection of 18th-century Staffordshire pottery during his lifetime, which he left to his son. Many of the finest items were later bequeathed by Francis Jahn himself to Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum. 

In 1891, after studying at Hanley School of Art, Francis Jahn received a scholarship to go to the Royal College of Art. He then studied in Paris before returning as modelling master to Hanley School of Art. During this time, he also designed pottery for many leading firms, and exhibited his sculptures at the Royal Academy. He returned to teaching after WW1 and became modelling master at Sheffield School of Art. It is around this time, in 1918, that his friend and colleague Henry Hoyland painted an oil portrait of him (illustrated on this current slide). This painting is now in our collection and currently on display just behind this powerpoint screen. It emphasises Jahn’s identity as a connoisseur and collector by depicting him engaged with his collection within his drawing room, rather than looking out at the viewer.

Jahn retired and moved to Dulwich in 1930. Just before the outbreak of WW2 he relocated to Leamington Spa, where Henry Hoyland was based. Hoyland worked for the Camouflage Directorate in Leamington. This was an organisation established by the British government on the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939. It employed a large number of distinguished artists and designers, such as Edwin La Dell, Stephen Bone, Christopher Ironside and Trevor Tennant, to develop camouflage techniques that would protect factories, oil tanks, roads and water supplies across the UK from being targeted by the enemy. Our summer exhibition, called ‘Concealment and Deception: The Art of the Camoufleurs of Leamington Spa 1939 – 1945’, will explore this fascinating work in more detail.

During WW2, Jahn and his sister lived with Henry Hoyland and his family on Arlington Avenue in Leamington. As part of the research I’ve been doing for the camouflage exhibition, I recently met Hoyland’s daughter, Karen Hoyland, who is Jahn’s goddaughter. She told me that Jahn had moved his collection from London to their shared home in Leamington, and at one point he had 24 grandfather clocks all ticking away in the house. She couldn’t recall how his collection of drinking glasses were displayed.

The glasses

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The display at Leamington Spa Art Gallery

The glasses that Leamington Art Gallery purchased from Jahn give great insight into the types of English drinking vessels being made throughout the 18th century, and the different techniques that were used to decorate them and create distinctive styles. One of the major advancements in glass making – that made this possible – was George Ravenscroft’s introduction of lead oxide to the chemical makeup of glass, in 1674. Compared to previous forms, glass containing lead oxide had a sparkling and clearer appearance. It also had increased strength, making it suitable for a wider range of decorative techniques. In addition, it causes the glass to cool more slowly, making it easier to work with and manipulate. Due to the introduction of lead oxide, by the end of the 17th century, England had become the European centre for glass production and exportation. Lead glass was perfected between about 1690 to 1720. Earlier types were prone to something called ‘crizzling’, where marks would appear on the glasses’ surfaces.

Light and heavy baluster

During the first half of the 18th century, sturdy drinking glasses known as balusters were most popular – they were also the first original English drinking glasses. Strong glasses were desirable because they were widely used by the emerging middle class in domestic settings and drinking salons. Many of them have a relatively thick folded foot, which protected them from chipping. The foot on the glass on the LHS of this slide is very thick.

Baluster glasses are usually subdivided into heavy and light varieties. The heavy glasses (an example of which is shown on the LHS of the slide below) have simple shaped bowls, simple knopped stems and folded feet, and are regarded by many as some of the finest English glasses ever produced. Light balusters (like those on the RHS of the slide) have more varied and elegant bowls, lighter stems and more elaborate knops.

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A common decorative feature for baluster glasses is the tear within the stem. A tear is a bubble of air trapped inside the glass, created with something called a pricking tool. It’s hard to see in this image, but the glass on the RHS of the slide has several tears of air within its central knop; the arrow points towards this.

Mid 18th century glass

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 16.03.39Glassblowers manipulate the bubble of air within the glass to create different types of stems. Varieties of air twist stems were popular between about 1745 and 1780, after baluster glasses had largely ceased to be fashionable. The types of glasses typical of this middle period are light glasses, with angular forms and varied bowl shapes, which I think is illustrated by the image of the mid 18th-century glasses in the collection, part of the new display. Lighter glasses not only satisfied changing tastes, but, as glass was often taxed and sold by weight, were also desirable after the introduction of the Glass Excise Act in 1745. This Act caused the tax on glass to double, leading to a significant increase in the price of glass.

 

Stems

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Air twist stems are made by trapping multiple bubbles in a regular formation within the glass. As the glass is heated, drawn out and twisted, the bubbles are also drawn out and twisted, forming spiral filaments. One of the most common types is the cotton or opaque twist stem; this has opaque white glass embedded in the stem, either instead of or alongside air bubbles. Many of the glasses in the collection, dating around the mid 18th-century, have this type of stem. A small selection is shown in this slide. Colour twists are similar to opaque twists – they have twists of coloured enamels within the glass, like the stem on the RHS of this slide. Like many colour twist stems, this one is quite rare. Some of the rarest enamel colours from this time are yellow and red.

Another rare glass in the collection is the one shown on the far LHS of the slide, with a gold thread running through the opaque twist stem. Other stems combine different twist shapes, like the one in the foreground on the slide, where a corkscrew twist surrounds a spiral twist.

Bowl shapes

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 16.19.29The majority of the drinking glasses in the collection are dated to the mid 18th century – and illustrate the wonderful variety of bowl shapes that were being made at the time. This includes funnel, trumpet, thistle, bell and ogee bowls (as you can see on the slide).

Engravings, Jacobite glasses

Many of these mid 18th-century glasses are decorated with engravings, which often depict natural motifs, typical of the Rococo style that flourished at the time. There are two types of engraving. Diamond-point engraving is the technique of scratching decoration freehand onto the surface of a glass. This is usually done with a diamond splinter fixed in a pen holder. The other type is wheel engraving – decoration is cut into the surface of a glass by holding it against a small rotating copper wheel. The engraving areas stand out as a matt relief against the shiny glass surface.

In particular, Jacobite glasses were often decorated with engravings of roses. Close ups of this decoration are shown on the current slide; these glasses are all wheel engraved. They are not within the collection – I chose them because the photos of the engravings are particularly clear. We do, however, have several Jacobite glasses in the collection and as part of the new display.

Jacobites were supporters of the exiled Stuart King James II, his son ‘The Old Pretender’ and grandson ‘The Young Pretender’. By implication they were also supporters of the Catholic cause. These convictions were best kept secret and so a code of symbols was adopted to express their beliefs. The heraldic rose of England is a typical Jacobian engraved motif and is often depicted with 6 outer petals and six inner petals around a seeded centre. It is not clear why the Jacobite rose is normally a 6 petal rose. However, the open rose is thought to denote the crown, while buds represent the Old and Young Pretenders.

Enamel and gilding

Other forms of decoration for all types of drinking glasses – produced from the middle to the late 18th century – include the use of enamelling and gilding. Enamelling was developed in Syria and Egypt, and is a method of adding surface decoration to glass using a paste containing powdered glass and metallic oxides mixed with an oily medium. It is a secondary process, carried out once the glass has already been made and allowed to cool.

William and his sister Mary of the Beilby family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne were the main glass enamellers of the 18th century. Common subjects for the decoration included borders of fruiting vines and festoons of flowers, the very essence of Rococo. The Beilby family also produced Rococo landscapes incorporating ruins, sheep and hunting scenes. A large proportion of the Beilby’s work was done in white enamel only. Enamel colours are often broadly painted and yet remarkably precise effects can also be achieved.

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 16.20.46On display, the glass shown here on the LHS has a vine border painted in white enamel around the top of its small ogee shaped bowl. It has been identified as a Beilby specimen and dates to about 1750 to 1775. The gold gilding on the other two glasses is likely to have been done by James Giles, who was the lead glass gilder, based in London, during the second half of the century. A popular motif that he applied was the fruiting vine, emblematic of wine; but he also did flower sprays, insects and mosaic patterns.

Late 18th century

Many of the glasses from the late 18th century are decorated with patterns cut into the glass. Glass containing lead oxide responds best to this ornamental technique because it has a high refractive index, meaning it allows a lot of light to be bent or refracted through the glass, as well as reflected from it – and so gives the impression of a very sparkly surface. Cutting had not previously been used on glasses for many centuries, including during Venice’s reign as the greatest centre of glass production in the world (from the Renaissance to the late 17th century).

Neoclassical ideas were expressed well in cut glass. In addition to cut geometric patterns, other stereotypical Neoclassical designs began to appear, such as urns, stags and formalised floral designs, which took inspiration from the architecture and decorative arts of the time.

Commemorative glasses

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 16.21.26In the 18th and 19th centuries, glasses were often engraved to commemorate people and events. The glasses on display – and shown on this slide – were not part of Jahn’s collection, but do illustrate these types of glasses well. The tall glass with the air twist stem (on the LHS) is engraved with an image of Queen Elizabeth II. It commemorates the 20th Anniversary of her reign in 1971. Next to it, the straight-sided cut glass commemorates the centenary of St John’s Ambulance Service in 1977. The huge goblet dates to about 1820. Its stem contains three coins from the reigns of George I and II.

Display layout

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The new display is divided into six sections. The first section concentrates on the early 18th century, and makes up the first two shelves, stacked one on top of the other, which is indicated by the annotated photo. The section on the mid 18th century follows this, with the two shelves for the late 18th century on the RHS. This division hopefully allows you to clearly see the gradual changes to English drinking glasses over the century. Within each time period, the glasses are grouped by bowl type, as this is their most distinctive feature.

The bottom shelves each display a different type of glass. On the left is a great variety of cordial glasses, the middle shelf showcases glasses with enamel and gilding, and the right hand one displays the commemorative glasses, and the two Jacobite glasses in the collection.

Display – other museums

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I’ve visited other museums and galleries to help me decide how to present the glasses, particularly in terms of the background colour needed to show off and bring them out. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has a large collection of 18th century English drinking glasses, which are also displayed in cabinet cases. The green velvet background does help the glasses to be seen clearly, more so than those displayed against a white background – like the ones on open storage at the V&A – and seen in the photo on the RHS of this slide. I decided to take a risk and ask one of our technicians, Kurt, to paint the case the darkest grey colour that he could find in the hope that the glasses would spring out and their details be easily seen by the viewer. Apparently this is the first time a wall has been painted this dark in the gallery – so I kept my fingers crossed that my plan would work. Luckily, by coincidence, I saw a similar display at the British Museum a week after making this decision, and then felt I could relax.

There are a couple of ways to gain information about the glasses on display – I’ve layered the information by using labels within the cabinet cases themselves, as well as having an introductory information panel and glossary of terms nearby. I hope you enjoy looking at this new display and come, if you don’t already, to find 18th-century English drinking glasses as interesting as I find them.

glass panel

The introductory panel to the display

 

 

 

 

 

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