From the brilliant sparkle of traditional cut glass to the rich glow of
colored etched pieces, the Victorians could choose from a spectacular new range of shapes and colors.
In the 19th century, mechanisation and new techniques of press moulding
opened the way for hundreds of brand new designs and colors. Tints ranged
from deep blues to delicate pinks and the clear glass was cut, etched, engraved
and enamelled with glittering results. The middle classes wanted to buy
them and glassworks competed hotly to keep up with demand for novelty.
As international trade grew, a great variety of
foreign glassware appeared on the market. A single place setting on the
English Victorian dining table could sit alongside pieces from Germany, Ireland and the USA.
The English glass industry was centred in the
Midlands, but there were so many glassworks set up around this time, all of
whom poached each other's top craftsmen and copied each others designs, that
it is often very hard to tell exactly where a particular piece came from.
DECORATIVE GLASS TECHNIQUES
Etched glass, which is decorated by removing
layers of glass with acid, reached a peak in the mid-Victorian era. An
outstanding new technique was the carving away of a thick layer of colored
glass to reveal white glass underneath. Cameo-cut glass, as this was
called, took a lot of time and skill, so the wares were very expensive.
However, cheaper versions were produced whereby the decoration was acid-etched
rather than carved by hand.
Press mouldings was a major advance in
glassmaking. It was originally used as an imitation cut glass but
manufacturers quickly realised that it was the perfect way to make novelty
shapes and began to produce tableware in the form of sphinxes, baskets, people
and animals. Some of these have a raised maker's mark, the most
important British makers being Sowerby, Davidison (both of Gateshead) and Greener of Sunderland.
Slag glass, an opaque glass designed to imitate marble, was made by adding slag from iron foundries. The most common
color was purple. Browns, greens and blues were made but these were rarer and more expensive.
CLEAR AND BRILLIANT GLASS DECANTERS
Although there were so many kinds of colored glass
available, such as vitrified enamel (colored glass applied in a paste to the
piece and then fired) and cranberry (pinkish ruby), clear glass remained the
most common, especially for dining-room ware.
Traditional hand cut glass remained the most
popular style and the removal of the tax on weight led to the very heavy table
glass of the 1850s and 1860s. Pressed glassware was fire polished to
give it brilliance and to remove the seam left by the mould, but genuine cut
wine glasses and decanters continued to reign unchallenged in the dining room.
COLLECTING GLASS DECANTERS
Decanters and decanter jugs were first used at the
table in the early 18th century when it became fashionable to decant wine from
the cask, leaving the sediment behind. Their basic shape has changed little since.
For claret, the Victorians preferred to use a
claret jug which had a wider neck, often silver mouthed with a hinged lid
rather than a stopper, to keep dust and insects from falling into the wine.
Decanters were usually more heavily decorated than
drinking glasses. Cased work was where one or more layers of colored
glass are fused onto a layer of clear glass and the outer layer layer cut away
in a pattern to reveal the clear glass underneath. Cased work became
common after 1850 as did its cheaper version, flashed glass, where the piece
is dipped in a thin layer of dye.
Cameo-cut glass became easier to produce when
wheel engraving (cutting the design in the glass by using small revolving
metal wheels and an abrasive paste) was introduced. Stourbridge in
England was a famous center for this work - decanters with almost complete
surface ornamentation of very high quality were produced there.
Though colored decanters were the most interesting
innovation in the period, cut or pressed clear glass remained the most
popular. Cut glass decanters for spirits were made in matching sets of
three or four to fit into a tantalus - a lockable wooden stand designed to
prevent servants from helping themselves to the master's whiskey.
A typical Victorian- era place setting for dinner
included glasses for sherry, champagne and claret as well as water glass for
sparkling mineral waters. Water carafes with matching tumblers for plain
water were also available. After the cheese, the table was re-set for
dessert with fresh wine glasses. Liqueur sets with silver holders to
enhance their etched glass were also used.
Etched decoration is typical of the period as the
development in acid etching made it possible to decorate sets comparatively
cheaply. Wine glasses were usually bordered with grape and vine leaves
while ale glasses were patterned with hops and barley.
Glasses were also decorated with machine wheel
engraving by holding them under a rotating wheel which could be changed to
give lines of differing width. This gave cleaner lines than etching with
acid where the lines were often fuzzy, but required more skill.
GLASS DECANTER COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Victorian table glass is such a large subject that it is best to
specialise from the outset - perhaps in a particular style of decoration such
as etched or cut, or on a theme such as sherry glasses or decanters.
At first you may have some trouble in distinguishing a genuine
Victorian piece from a later piece in Victorian style. A good way to
build up experience without making expensive mistakes is to visit museums and
specialist dealers and inspect their displays.
Victorian blown glass rarely had any identifiable marks. Pressed
glass, however was marked with a patent office 'lozenge' or registration mark
between 1842 and 1883 and individual factories had their own particular mark -
a peacock's head for Sowerby and a demi-lion on a turret for Davidson.
Dates can be roughly estimated by the presence or absence of what is
called the pontil mark. This is a small lump of glass on the base to
which an iron rod or pontil was attached. The blower held the piece by
the pontil while he was decorating it and then simply broke it off afterwards. After 1850 this was generally ground out leaving a small hollow.
It is best to avoid damaged pieces as even small cracks weaken the
glass considerably. It is possible to have shallow chips polished
out. Heavily cut glass is easily chipped so always check a piece by
running a finger over the rim and over the cut areas.
Never buy a decanter if it's clouded inside as this is condensation
damage and cannot be removed. Protect any decanters you may have from
this by drying them thoroughly after washing using kitchen paper.