While it is typical for museum exhibitions to show beautiful and functional objects and provide compelling interpretive text to describe the objects and their use, The Corning Museum of Glass decided to throw in an extra treat this summer.
In curating our new exhibition, In Sparkling Company: Glass and the Costs of Social Life in Britain During the 1700s, curator Christopher “Kit” Maxwell hoped to contribute fresh, vibrant, and at times challenging, context to many of the objects on display. Much of the Museum’s collection of English and Irish lead glass (‘crystal’) from this period is tableware associated with the dessert. His vision was to create glass versions of the foods that would have been served at 18th-century dessert tables, bringing the empty vessels to life, and offering visitors the opportunity to consider the tension between these delicate, glittering objects with their colorful contents, and the realities of sugar production through the exploitation of enslaved labor in the West Indies. This approach allowed us to tell a more visual story.
Maxwell first presented this idea to me in early 2019 to prepare the effort for an intended opening of May 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition was postponed and opened in May 2021 instead, giving us more time to perfect these delicacies.
I always love a good challenge in my work, and fortunately our Flameworking Team Leader Caitlin Hyde does too. Her broad skill set in artistic media proved to be essential in pulling off this effort so well.
The first step in making the glass desserts was to research what foods would have been served in such vessels in England in the 1700s. Maxwell shared cookbooks and other resources with me to search for popular items and how they may have been displayed. The primary resource we leaned on was Hanna Glasse’s cookbook The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, published in 1747. It was an important recipe book during its time, and it lists dozens of foods and their preparations in colorful detail. We included several of the recipes from her book within the exhibition.
I searched through the historicfood.com website by noted food historian Ivan Day for images of what some of these foods may have looked like. Images from the website of Fairfax House in County York, UK, also gave me some good insights as to the look and feel of these foods and their traditional display. Fairfax House “was originally the winter home of Viscount Fairfax… Its richly decorated interior was designed by York’s most distinguished eighteenth-century architect, John Carr.” It is now a museum that “transports you to the splendour of city-living in Georgian York, the centre of polite society.”
Once I had identified a good variety of foods to represent, I needed to figure out how to make them. One of the bigger challenges here was to make them look realistic and not too glassy. Surface textures and colors were crucial elements in making this all work. I explored all sorts of implements to create different textures. For the peels of oranges and lemons, I used balls of thick steel wool. Of course, if the glass was too hot, the steel wool would stick to the glass, so I had to find the right temperature range. For the Aniseed biscuits, I needed to create a texture similar to that of a biscotti that would represent small, medium, and large air bubbles in the biscuit. The Millefruit biscuits needed very angular edges. I created these by pressing in angles to the hot glass with a graphite shaping tool, and then grinding the angles sharper with a rotary tool when the glass was cold. For most of the candied foods, I lightly fused clear, granular frit glass to the surface of the fruit for the right look and feel.
I am most comfortable working with borosilicate glass, and I was able to use several different colored glasses to match some of the foods. However, even though the glass color palette has expanded greatly over the past 20 years, it still wasn’t broad enough to get all the shades and tones necessary to make the foods look as realistic as I had hoped. Fortunately, Caitlin Hyde’s crafting talents include painting. After I sandblasted some of the objects, she was able to apply layers of paint to finish them into realistic representations.
The last two items to be completed were the syllabubs (a whipped cream dessert, typically flavored with white wine or sherry) and the ice cream. I found just the right colored glass for the top of the syllabub and made hollow forms to fit their cups. However, it took a discussion amongst a few of our staff to find the right combination of a tinted lighting gel and tissue paper to complete the look within the lower part of the syllabub cup. Our Hot Glass Programs Supervisor, Jeff Mack, created a realistic version of ice cream by blowing and sculpting a colored glass bubble at the furnace to fit the ice cream cooler.
With all the objects created, the next challenge to the project was installing these glass foods into their vessels within the exhibition. A combination of Maxwell’s guidance, input from our Preparatory Team, and the thoughts and hands of our Conservation Team brought it all together culminating in the beautiful display we now see in the show.
This whole experience was a great challenge, and it pushed me and our team to find solutions to make it all work. The dessert table really has come to life as Maxwell had initially hoped, and it took collaboration amongst several players and departments to bring it all together. I hope we can continue to approach our future exhibitions in similar ways as we continue to help the world see glass in a new light and bring our collections to life in all manner of delicious and thought-provoking ways.
Visit The Corning Museum of Glass to experience In Sparkling Company and enjoy these glassy treats for yourself before the exhibition closes on January 2, 2022.