A welcome return by Jane Gardner, this time for an entire day, to talk on the evolution of glass from the 16th to the 18th Century.
We began with a brief history lesson, as Jane explained that by the 4th Century the Romans had pretty well perfected the art of glass production. However by the 13th century these skills had been largely forgotten, except in specific regions, particularly Venice. A Venetian Glassmakers guild was formed in 1286 and the industry was forced to move to the island of Murano in 1292 because of the smells and dirt, an early example of industrial pollution. The isolation meant that the makers created their own society and began experimenting with both colours and styles. For example, by the 15th century most Venetian glass was being produced adding cobalt, so blue in colour, while some time later efforts were made to replicate Chinese porcelain. By the 16th century opaque glass, imitation rock crystal and more ornate designs using strands of glass were being produced and were much sought after. When Constantinople was invaded by the Turks demand from the East diminished and fresh markets in Western Europe were developed and while the product was extremely expensive it was also extremely fragile, so the breadth of the market is best shown by the many examples of glass from this period being found in excavated cesspits, as the broken product was thrown away on arrival.
The impact that Venetian glass had on society is perhaps best illustrated by looking at paintings throughout the ages as very few paintings don’t include a drinking vessel of some kind. It was inevitable that given the popularity of Venetian glass other centres would become established throughout Italy, but also in Spain, Germany and in England, attempting to replicate both quality and designs but also developing different styles.
While the Bohemians looked to produce clear glass, in Germany natural glass which is green in colour was popular. Specific designs became notable with beer glasses and tankards being designed with exaggerated lumps around the base, making holding easier given the additional weight of both the glass and the contents. In England the key design feature was a knot on the stem also to provide a better grip. However throughout history the ambition of all glass makers has been to replicate Murano glass which is still the “gold standard” to this day.
Jane then moved on to the development of the English glass industry, from the 17th century. While many examples of 9th/10th glass have been found, including drinking horns made to replicate animal horns, it is unclear whether they produced in England or northern France. However in 1615 a ban on burning wood in favour of coal was passed and the result was that the glass was produced black in colour and was used mainly for beer and wine bottles. The impact of the English Civil War and the subsequent period of puritan restraint caused a sharp drop in demand which was equally sharply reversed on the restoration. The Glass Sellers Company had been formed to control imports and the taxes imposed but also sent specific designs which were in demand in England and this encouraged English producers. In 1674 George Ravenscroft was looking to produce clear glass to match imports from Venice. Not easy, but by 1677 he was able to stamp clear rock crystal product. The most popular designs were copies of silverware although the examples of drinking vessels were incredibly modern looking, showing that little changes in public taste. As technology improved into the Georgian era so did glass production and a particularly English development was the use of thick glass for candle sticks and lead crystal for chandeliers as those that could afford such luxury loved the lustre of candle light being reflected by the glass.
In conclusion we were shown some early examples of Waterford crystal which was founded in 1783 and these beautiful shapes were a fitting conclusion to an extremely enjoyable day with a fascinating speaker and beautiful illustrations.