The Romans brought the closely-guarded secret of glassmaking to Britain during their occupation of those fair isles. But they did not share the arcane knowledge of the craft with the indigenous population. The first evidence of a native glass industry in England is in 680 AD, in the area of Jarrow and Wearmouth. There is evidence of other glassmaking centers in operation by the thirteenth century in several areas throughout England.
The first major milestone in the development of glass since Roman times occurred in London in 1675. George Ravenscroft, an English merchant who had spent some time in Venice, and had traded in glass from the island of Murano, began to experiment with new formulas for glass. His intent was to improve English glassware to compete with European, especially Venetian, products. He set up his glassworks on the north bank of the Thames at the Savoy in 1673. There he began his experiments, and eventually discovered that replacing part of the volume of silica in the glass with lead oxide, called "red lead," enhances the properties of transparency, purity and lustre in the glass. Thus was born English lead crystal, called so because of it similarity to the natural quartz stone commonly known as "rock crystal."
It is the considered opinion of most experts on glass that the cut glass made during the Regency is some of the finest ever produced by English glassmakers. Within the study of glass, the stylistic "Regency" period is loosely defined as the years between 1800 and 1830. Why were these years so influential in the history of glass?
Technical innovations in the glass industry over the decades immediately preceding the dawn of the nineteenth century came together to make possible the splendid extravagance of Regency cut glass. By the 1740’s the furnaces have been improved so that large batches of glass could be heated to higher temperatures, yielding a finer, clearer glass. About the same time the "tunnel lehr" was introduced, which significantly improved the annealing, or controled cooling process, which reduced loss due to thermal shock and resulted in finished glassware which was much more resistant to the cutting wheel.
But for the remainder of the eighteenth century, the cutting wheel, or lathe, used to cut glass was most often driven by hand. But this low-powered, low-speed lathe did not allow very deep cuts in the glass. The labor-intensive nature of the usual power source for the lathe, a large flywheel operated by women or boys, also meant that the glass cutters tended to be fairly sparing with the number of cuts they made in each object. A very few of the larger glass houses did have water-powered lathes, though that did not provide much more power or speed than a hand-driven lathe. But that all changed when the steam-powered glass-cutting lathe came into use at the end of the eighteenth century.
By 1800, the glass making and cutting technologies had all coalesced just in time to meet the Empire style. Cut glass in the Regency was the natural and logical progression of the sparse, shallowly-cut glass of the previous century. Stylistically, its surface brilliance and squat, solid form expressed the dignity and ostentation characteristic of all the arts in the British interpretation of the continental Empire style. Since Ravenscroft’s time, the formula for lead glass had been continually perfected. The glassware produced during the Regency, in addition to its higher refractive index, which added to its brilliance and clarity, was softer and easier to cut. Steam-powered cutting wheels allowed for more and deeper cuts into the glass than had been practical in previous decades. It was then possible to cut deep prisms, fans, strawberry diamonds, hobnails and sprigs into the clear glass. The increased number of deep cuts over the surface of the glass released the radiant fire in its depths, taking such objects to the pinnacle of English cut glass work.
Despite the increase in the Glass Excise, which was based on weight, most cut glass objects made during the Regency period were fairly heavy, to accommodate the deep cutting of the ornamentation. But most of these objects were made for the high-end market, which could afford the additional cost of the tax. One of the most spectacular monuments of the glassmaker’s art was the Warrington service, made for the Prince of Wales between 1806 and 1810. On 18 September 1806, the Prince attended a lavish dinner organized by the Liverpool Corporation. An ornate cut glass service was provided for the dinner by one of the local glass houses, Perrin Geddes and Company. Prince George was so taken with the elegant service that he asked the Mayor to " … order him a few dozen glasses of the same sort." The original order for twelve decanters, thirty-six coolers, six carafes or water jugs, six dozen claret glasses, and six dozen port glasses was placed with Perrin Geddes and Co. at the Bank Quay Glass Works in Warrington. It was later decided that this was too small a service for the Prince’s table and an additional order for twelve decanters, four dozen wines, four dozen claret glasses and three dozen goblets was placed. All the pieces were engraved with the Prince of Wales’ feathers .This royal gift, as one might imagine, was of the finest quality, and both the cutting and engraving of the glass are exquisite. This service is still mainly intact, and is held at Windsor Castle. An illustration of one of the decanters from this service can be seen at the V&A Images site.
The Prince of Wales’ Warrington service set a standard to which the more affluent aspired throughout the Regency. Many fine articles of cut glass could be found in the great houses of the Beau Monde even into the reign of Victoria. Another major landmark of English cut glasswork came in 1824, when the newly minted Marchioness of Londonderry commissioned a great service from the Wear Flint Glass Company, at Deptford in Sunderland, to commemorate her husband’s elevation as Third Marquess of Londonderry in 1822, and Earl Vane in 1823. This magnificent service consisted of two hundred pieces, which included decanters, claret and water jugs, goblets, tumblers, honey jars, finger bowls, ice buckets, butter jars, almond dishes. In addition, there was a set of plates and bowls which formed a dessert service and a separate wine service. The deeply cut patterns of diamonds, fans and stars would have sparkled and glittered in the candlelight of any elegant dinner party which they graced. The Londonderry service survived intact into the late twentieth-century, and as of 1991, was known to be at Wynyard Hall, once the family seat of the Vane-Tempest-Stewart family.
Though the techniques of making colored glass were known during the Regency, with the exception of bottle glass, inexpensive tableware and stained glass, very little colored glass was produced. There are few examples of colored cut glass from the Regency period, as color diminished the brilliance of the glass and tended to obscure the cut ornamentation. Clear, "water-white" glass was the preference for elegant cut glass tableware well into the nineteenth century.
For all its ostentation, glass cutters of the Regency period were still restrained in their designs when compared with the cut glass produced during the Victorian era, particularly after the Great Exhibition of 1851. By then, the Glass Excise had been repealed and heavy decoration was emphasized to the detriment of the form of the vessels which carried it. Novelty for novelty’s sake resulted in the manufacture of extremely ornate objects with little utility. The mechanization of glass production in the later half of the nineteenth century made cut glass available to a wider market. This resulted in a loss of individuality of design and lowered the standard and quality of the cutting, reducing the appeal of cut glass to the discriminating. The advent of pressed glass still further devalued cut glass. John Ruskin eventually lead an intellectual revolt against it, stating that " … all cut glass is barbaric." This prejudicial attitude eventually led to the eclipse of the popularity of cut glass.
Though British cut glass had jumped the shark by Victorian times, it was at the height of its sublime perfection during the Regency period. Glass cutters all over Europe aspired to produce wares of the same elegance and brilliance as those from the wheels of English craftsmen. So, the next time the hero of the Regency romance you are reading pours a round of drinks from the decanter on his sideboard, know that in all probability this set is not a simple bottle with glasses, but an example of the culmination of the English glassmakers art.
For further reading:
Wakefield, Hugh, Nineteenth Century British Glass. London: Faber and Faber, 1982.
Hajdamach, Charles, British Glass 1800–1914. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Antique Collectors’ Club, Inc., 1993.