“The Development of the Drinking Glass” by Jane Gardiner

Jane Gardiner, a Senior Tutor for Sotheby’s of 17th and 18th Century Decorative Art, returned to our Group to talk on “The Development of the Drinking Glass” which gave members a fascinating insight into the subject.

Jane started from the earliest glass “skyphos” made in the 2nd Century BC – a clear glass vessel, which predates the technique of “glass blowing” that was discovered by the Romans to 18th Century Venetian and other European examples.

The talk was illustrated not only by examples of the glass but by paintings which prove the different types of drinking vessel made over the years and show how it became more fashionable to use glass as opposed to other materials for the vessel for drinking.  For example, slides showing frescos in Herculaneum illustrate the earliest vessels and provide proof of glass being used in place of silver or earthenware pieces.   Also, pictures showing early glass examples as having no feet for standing and are shown held like flutes or drinking horns to the later pieces showing bases, different shapes with fine decoration as engraving and glass blowing techniques were improved.

Apparently the British Rail Pension Fund held a large number of examples of early drinking glasses and around thirty items were sold for nearly £4 million pounds in 1997, including a Roman diatretum or  “cage” cups – cut out of a single blank to form two layers. – the solid inner cup is linked to its outer cage only by a series of delicate struts. No surprise that this example, most remarkable as it survived two millennia buried and then excavated became the star of the British Rail Pension Fund.

By the 4th Century the Romans had perfected glass decorating with enamelling and colours.  The Romans had furnaces throughout their Empire.  One beautiful example that survives from the 13th Century, possible made in Aleppo (Syria) is the “Luck of Edenhall” and its recorded history starts in Cumberland when it appears in the will of the late Sir Philip Musgrave owner of Eden Hall in 1677, becoming a talisman for the family.  It is purported that if anything happened to the glass the fortunes of the family would change and was so treasured that it was kept in a leather box.  It is now displayed in the Medieval Treasury of the V & A Museum in London.  It is an illustration of luxury glass in the Islamic style with patterned enamel plants of gold and blue in absolutely pristine condition.

The talk continued with Venetian glass, which was moved to Murano in 1292 because of the fire hazard of the furnaces – health and safety in 13th century!! Copper Oxide was added to the potash to create the emerald green colour and continued with other coloured precious stone-like colours including seed pearls.   When Constantinople fell to the Turks, the Venetians lost some of their main trading routes and looked to trade more within Europe, and we start to see the development of glass within Europe.  German glass being made from “forest” potash giving a clear form of glass, which was thicker and carved using a rotating wheel.  Lines being added, rock crystal being used, shallow looking bowls being used. –  “Blobs” of glass, like raspberries being added to the glass. The progress of the industry was illustrated by paintings from the Louvre, Uffizi and many other European Museums and galleries.  Also the different shapes of glass being used for wine and cordials, the introduction of red and white wine glasses – although on being questioned about different shapes – Jane explained most of the small, large fluted and bowl shaped are to do with current fashions and tastes.

The drinking habits across Europe were revolutionised as it became fashionable to offer wine in a glass rather than in precious metal amongst the more affluent members of society.

Jane‘s talk was very informative, interesting and extremely well supported by slides and will certainly make us look at paintings for examples of not only glass but also ceramics through the ages.