The Corning Museum of Glass has a mission to “inspire people to see glass in a new light.” This is definitely what I needed when, in 2016, I arrived from London as the Museum’s new Curator of European Glass. Typical of most historians and curators of decorative arts and material culture, I had little previous experience of glass and, as I stood in the galleries, looking at the serried ranks of English drinking vessels, I confess I struggled to summon enthusiasm. With the exception of some brightly enameled pieces, it seemed these vessels were intended, by their very clarity and understated design, to be inconspicuous. However, I knew this was an important period in glassmaking; the 18th century was a golden age for the perfection and production of British lead glass or “crystal” (an innovation introduced in the late 1670s that used lead oxide to create a particularly bright and clear glass, with a notable heft). From histories of dining and drinking, I also knew that the contents many of these vessels were intended to hold were not available to everyone. The types of glass most frequently found in museums would have been present only in the wealthiest of households, alongside expensive and desirable materials like silver, porcelain, lacquer, and mahogany. What place, then, did glass hold within the rich material culture of the British elite during this period?
I began to read 18th-century diaries and accounts, scouring the pages for references to glass. Before long, I found myself immersed in the courtesy literature of the period and began to note the common usage and interchangeability of the terms “polite” and “polished” and comparisons between well-polished individuals and a variety of glossy surface finishes. This, in turn, led me away from the more obvious realm of tableware and lighting to technological developments in the production of polished plate glass, used for windows and mirrors, and the transformative effects this type of glass had on architecture, interiors, and sociability. Finally, I began to understand the latent significance of the material during this period and was amazed at how glassy the 18th century really was. Glass, it seemed, symbolized the modernity (for better or for worse) of the British nation.
Eager to test this hypothesis, I sought the opinions of colleagues in different fields of 18th-century studies. Conversations sparked and, before I knew it, an exhibition and accompanying publication were underway. In Sparkling Company: Reflections on Glass in the 18th-Century British World is the result. The exhibition is slated for next year, 2021, but the book is complete. In it eight contributors, myself included, explore their areas of expertise through a lens of glass. Architecture, slavery, portraiture, fashion, science, dining, and even Federal American furniture are all addressed. Spectacular new images of objects in the Museum’s holdings combine with specially commissioned photography from other collections, to make this a gloriously visual as well as an enlightening read.
In this blog, I would like to introduce each of the authors and acknowledge their keen insights and enriching new perspectives on glass.
Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell’s chapter, “The Glass of Fashion,” addresses the production and use of glass in 18th-century costume and its stunning visual effects. Kimberly is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. Her book Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was published by Yale University Press in 2015 – every bit as fascinating and sumptuous as it sounds.
Jennifer Y. Chuong contributes “’A Gloss Equal to Glass’: The Material Brilliance of Early American Furniture,” which considers the glossy and glassy surface effects of American Federal furniture. Her research focuses on the artistic, scientific, and philosophical fascination with the transformative qualities of different surfaces in the 18th-century transatlantic world.
Dr. Melanie Doderer-Winkler’s chapter, “L’Officier sableur: Sand Painters as Decorators of the 18th-Century Dining Table,” is an original and intriguing account of a brief fashion for sparkling pictures made of sand (a key ingredient of glass) and crushed glass on courtly dining tables in Britain and Europe. Her book Magnificent Entertainments: Temporary Architecture for Georgian Festivals was published by Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in 2013.
Dr. Anna Moran provides an important account of Irish glass and dining practices in “’The Eye as Well as the Appetite Must be Car’d For’: Glass and Dining in Ireland, about 1680–about 1830.” Anna is a lecturer in the School of Visual Culture at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin. In 2014 she co-edited Love Objects: Emotion, Design, and Material Culture, published by Bloomsbury Academic Press (with a Chinese edition in 2018).
Dr. Marcia Pointon offers a comprehensive survey on how glass was represented (and what it represented) in her chapter: “Glass in 18th-Century British Portraiture.” Marcia is author of numerous important publications, including Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England, published by Yale University Press in 1993; and Portrayal and the Search for Identity, published by Reaktion Books in 2013.
Dr. Kerry Sinanan’s chapter, “Slavery and Glass: Tropes of ‘Race’ and Reflection,” is a powerful and robust examination of the relationship between slavery, “race,” and glass. Kerry is assistant professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she teaches courses in transatlantic literature, slavery, and race. Her forthcoming book, Slave Masters and the Language of Self: Traders, Planters and Colonial Agents, 1750–1830, focuses on the letters, diaries, and captain’s journals of several 18th-century slave masters.
In addition to this stellar line-up, the Museum’s own Dr. Marvin Bolt, Curator of Science and Technology, offers a rare connection between the worlds of science, art, and culture in his chapter, “The British Scientific Enlightenment during the Long 18th Century,” while I contribute a chapter on the cultural significance of glass in “People in Glass Houses: The Polished and the Polite in Georgian Britain.”
It took just over two years to prepare this publication and I think I can say that we all learned an enormous amount in the process. Thanks to the support of several private donors and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, I am certain this book will delight, inform, and surprise readers. Showcasing eight of these original perspectives in this beautifully designed volume is truly helping the Museum in its mission to “inspire people to see glass in a new light.” It proves that there are many perspectives from which to understand and appreciate glass, and I hope the conversation will continue!