The special exhibition In Sparkling Company: Glass and the Costs of Social Life in Britain During the 1700s opens with the story of lead glass. The first display case that visitors encounter holds two goblets, both made in England about a century apart. Our Curator of Early European Glass, Dr. Christopher “Kit” Maxwell, invites you to notice the differences between the two goblets, and learn how the introduction of lead glass put Britain at the top of the glass game in the 1700s.
By the end of the 1600s, the British had perfected a recipe for lead glass. High levels of lead oxide included in the glass batch (upwards of 30%) gave the finished objects desirable properties that surpassed any glass that had come before it. The goblet on the left is made of an alkali lime glass and the one on the right is lead glass.
When put side-by-side they highlight these drastic improvements. First and foremost, the high refractive index of lead glass made it bright and sparkly. Light passes through lead glass quickly, and when combined with cut facets, it sparkles. Lead glass is strong, withstanding domestic use and shipping all over the world. It is also free of color, which was beneficial when the taste for thick, substantial vessels eclipsed that for delicate vessels with thinly blown walls. Thin walls enjoyed the added benefit of disguising unwanted color in the glass, but with varying levels of success. If you look at the goblet on the left, you can see a slight dirty dishwater tinge to the glass. Lead glass was also softer and less brittle. We can see many of these properties in the goblet on the right: clarity, brightness, sparkles, and thick walls. The ability to create perfectly clear thick-walled vessels combined with the softness of lead glass made it ideal for cutting and engraving, helping these decorative techniques take off in popularity in the 1700s.
At this time, there were two techniques of glass engraving: diamond point and copper wheel, both of which are represented in the exhibition.
Diamond Point Engraving
Diamond point engraving is the technique of scratching lines into a glass surface with a diamond. This technique began in Venice in the early 1500s and made its way into the decorative repertoire of English glass decorators by the end of that century.
Diamond point engraving is featured on a remarkable goblet displayed in In Sparkling Company—a goblet whose engravings were treasonous. Diamond point engraving was the decorative technique of choice for a type of wineglass known as an “Amen” glass, a toasting glass that announced the allegiance of its drinker to the Jacobite cause. In the 1600s and 1700s, the Jacobites supported the restoration of the Roman Catholic House of Stuart to the British throne. “Amen” glasses were covered in Jacobite imagery and verses from their anthem. The decorations on this glass include a crown, the monogram JR (Jacobus Rex, or King James) reflected and overlapping, a numeral 8 (evoking the potential King James VIII of Scotland), and curling and looping scrollwork. The act of engraving or owning a goblet with such imagery and words was an act of treason. Glass engraving was used not only to create beautiful decorations but also to convey allegiances and ideas, even dangerous ones.
Wheel engraving is the decorative process of cutting away at a glass surface with the edge of a spinning disk. The disks come in differing sizes, thicknesses, and edge shapes to create different cuts. They are typically made of copper and covered in an abrasive material suspended in oil. Each disk is mounted to a steel shaft that is fit into a table-mounted spindle. In this woodcut print from the late 1600s, we see an artisan wheel engraving a goblet with a treadle-powered spindle. Ancient Egyptians first practiced this technique 3500 years ago. It was revived by Bavarian stone carvers in the 1500s and made its way to England in the early 1700s. It took about fifty years to come into popular use there. Wheel engraving is much the same today as it was in the 1700s, as you can see in this video of master engraver Max Erlacher teaching at The Studio at The Corning Museum of Glass in 2020.
My favorite use of wheel engraving in the exhibition is on a goblet likely made sometime between 1750 and 1770 covered with intricate Chinese-style motifs. Imported Asian goods like textiles, porcelain, and lacquer had a great impact on English design trends in the second half of the 1700s. The taste for Chinese goods was so great that English artisans began incorporating Chinese-style motifs. This lead glass goblet was made and engraved in England and features a landscape with two figures, plants, trees, a hut, and two pagoda-like structures, in what was known as the “Chinese taste,” a decorative style that was often more indebted to the European imagination than to an interpretation of Chinese design. Although the skill of this engraver is undeniable, wheel engraving gave an artisan greater control over their mark-making and made possible illusory depth and visual texture, both features expertly displayed on this goblet.
Engraving imbued a glass with personal meaning. Beautiful and functional, engraved goblets could also carry messages important to their owners. It could identify their familial or political allegiances, like the family crest or the Jacobite imagery on the goblets discussed above. Engraving integrated lead glass with the latest design trends, such as the Chinese-style goblet. The engraved scene identified its owner as fashionable and worldly, an important statement as Britain grew to become Europe’s most prominent imperial nation. The codes of politeness that governed elite social life in Britain during the 1700s emphasized conformity over individuality. Although engraved glass could pledge allegiances, support, and membership, it could also express rebellion and dissent. Looking closely at these engravings gives us a fascinating glimpse into the psychology of the 1700s.
In Sparkling Company: Glass and the Costs of Social Life in Britain During the 1700s is open at The Corning Museum of Glass through January 2, 2022.
For more about glass engraving and social life in 1700s Britain:
- Lanmon, Dwight P. The Golden Age of English Glass, 1650-1775. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2011.
- Maxwell, Christopher, ed. In Sparkling Company: Reflections on Glass in the 18th-Century British World. Corning, New York: Corning Museum of Glass, 2020.
- Murray, Ian J. D. Eighteenth Century English Glass. Paddington, NSW: Jane Curry Publishing, 2003.
- Seddon, Geoffrey B. The Jacobites and Their Drinking Glasses. Woodbridge, Suffolk: ACC Art Books, 2015.