Painting Front to Back — Painting on Glass

Embroidery, drawing and the playing of a musical instrument are all accomplishments of young ladies who figure in Regency novels. But there was another accomplishment practiced by many of the young ladies who lived during the Regency which I have never seen mentioned in the pages of a novel with a Regency setting. In addition to being a pass-time for talented young ladies, this particular art form was also practiced by a number of professional painters and decorators from the eighteenth century into the twentieth.

A few strokes of the brush regarding the art of painting backwards …

The art of painting on glass dates back at least to Roman times, and in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance it was heavily used in the production of various religious objects. There were actually two types of painting on glass, one using powdered ceramic colors which were then fired in a kiln to permanently adhere them to the glass. The other type was known as cold painting, in which opaque oil paints were used to create the image on the back of a clean, smooth, transparent panel of glass. It was this second painting technique which was re-popularized in England during the eighteenth century. Thomas Gainsborough was one of a number of British artists who painted in this style. He painted several landscapes on glass panels using the cold painting technique which are now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This same technique was also employed by many decorative painters begining in the mid-eighteenth century through the Victorian era.

The basic technique of the cold painting style on glass was to paint the image on the back of a clear panel of glass so that when the painting was completed, the image would be viewed from the unpainted side of the glass panel. This required that the image be painted backwards or in reverse order, since the foreground would have to be painted first, then the middle ground and finally the background. First, a drawing would be made of the subject to be painted. The glass panel which was to be painted would be placed over this drawing, and the fine details and highlights of the foreground would be painted first. Once that paint was dry, the middle ground of the image would be developed around these foreground points. Unlike a painting on canvas, corrections could not be made by painting over errors. They would have to be scraped off the glass and the painting begun again. Once the foreground and middle ground painting was complete and the paint was dry, the background would then be laid down and allowed to dry. Then the glass could be turned over to reveal the finished painting, which would remain fresh and bright because it would be protected by the glass through which it was viewed.

Though some fine artists, such as Gainsborough, did some painting on glass, this technique was something of a novelty for them. Painting on glass was employed more regularly by decorative painters, who used it to embellish many luxury furnishings for the homes of the affluent. Pier-glasses, the large tall mirrors which were placed between windows in important public rooms such as drawing rooms and ballrooms, often had an upper panel above the mirror which was a painting on glass, most often a landscape. In America, the lower pendulum box of banjo clocks often included a painting on glass in the door. In both England and America, the pendulum door of a tall- or long-case clock occassionally included a painting on glass, again, usually a landscape. From the late eighteenth century right through the Regency, card tables might be covered with a decorative panel of painted glass. These panels might depict political or sporting motifs which were intended to appeal to the gentlemen who used these card tables. During this same period, ladies’ dressing tables might also have painted glass tops, although these feminine pieces were more likely to depict floral, mythological or classical motifs. Many of these paintings on glass were heavily embellished with gilt or gold leaf to further enrich their appearance, which natually also added to their cost.

By the mid-eighteenth century, painting on glass was considered to be an acceptable activity for well-bred young ladies, and it was taught at many girls schools in both England and America, along with needlework, drawing, watercolor painting, music and dancing, right though the Regency. It was also a skill which was often expected of a governess who would teach young ladies at home. This type of painting required significant patience and concentration, since the image on the glass panel had to be painted in reverse order from a painting on canvas or a watercolor. Some young ladies never mastered the technique, while others excelled at this art form. Most young ladies would be expected to complete at least one painting on glass, just as they would be expected to complete at least one sampler, before their education could be considered satisfactory.

Affluent young ladies who continued painting on glass once they left school might use their skill to create decorative items for their homes. They might have a glass panel cut to fit the top of their dressing table and paint it in motifs and colors which suited their bedchamber or dressing room decor. Or, they might paint a landscape to be set into a frame above a pier glass in the drawing room or the foyer. Naturally, the doting mamas of these talented young ladies would be sure to bring their daughter’s art to the attention of potential suitors. Alternately, these young ladies might create gifts for friends and family members. Landscapes were particularly popular during the Regency, though many ladies also enjoyed painting still lifes, especially those with arrangements of flowers or other ornamental plants. Neo-classical and mythological themes might occasionally be seen as well. These glass paintings might simply be framed to hang on a wall, or the painted glass panel might be set into the top of a trinket box or a into a tray for a dressing table.

Young women from families of lesser means could also employ their skill in glass painting to produce decorative items for their homes or gifts for their friends, though their finished work might be smaller and less complex that the items created by wealthier young ladies. But young ladies in more straitened circumstances might be able to earn a little extra income by contracting to paint glass panels for a local house decorator or furniture maker who supplied such items to their more affluent clients. Or, a young woman very much down on her luck might work full-time as a glass painter for such a firm in order to support herself.

There is evidence that in the late eighteenth century and into the Regency, a young woman did help to support herself and her husband by painting silhouettes on glass. Records show that in 1764, twenty-year-old Isabella Robinson eloped with her lover, Edward Beetham. They were both from wealthy families, but their relations refused them financial assistance because they disapproved of the match. Edward was an inventor, but became an actor, as did Isabella, and for a time they worked as actors in London. To earn extra money, she began cutting silhouettes in Clerkenwell, at the pleasure gardens and other public venues frequented by people of fashion. As demand increased for her work, she first painted on card-stock, but then switched to glass. She painted her silhouette portraits inside a convex round or oval of glass and when the silhouette was completed, she backed it with wax. In 1791, Edward began advertising his latest invention, Beetham’s Royal Patent Washing Mill, one of the first washing machines ever produced. Soon thereafter, Edward and Isabella purchased a building at 27 Fleet Streeet, where Edward ran a shop and warehouse, and Isabella had her silhouette studio. It appears they made a comfortable living into the second decade of the nineteenth century, due in no small part to Isabella’s glass painting.

Painting on glass was a popular art form though the years of the Regency, and many young ladies acquired this accomplishment while at school, or from their governess. Those who continued on with this art after their school years may have employed it to create items to decorate their homes or as gifts for their family and friends. Those of lesser means may have used a talent in glass painting as a means to earn extra money or to support themselves if they had fallen on hard times. Glass paintings from the Regency era are often quite charming and I hope that some day soon I shall find them once again brought to the notice of modern day readers in a Regency novel.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to Painting Front to Back — Painting on Glass

  1. This article was fascinating. I didn’t know about painting on glass although I worked with a renowned antique and folk art auctioneer for many years, so I’ve probably seen examples of it, and just didn’t think about how that particular work of art came to be. Anyway, it was also very intriguing to read about Isabella Robinson and her husband.
    Thanks for sharing,

  2. Kathryn Kane says:

    Like you, I took glass paintings for granted the first few times I saw them, since such things are so easily done by machine in modern times. Then, many years ago, while I was doing research in Ireland, I had the good fortune to meet a gentleman who was a member of the Irish Horological Society. He introduced me to a number of his fellow “horologicals,” as they called themselves. They were all interested in the study of clocks and watches, including both the movements and the cases. I was privileged to be invited to see their collections, which included a number of wall or case clocks that incorporated glass paintings in their cases.

    One collector, in particular, focused his collection on clocks which contained paintings on glass. He also restored such clocks, and occasionally did a glass painting to replace one which was broken. He allowed me to open the clock case doors in his collection in order to see the paintings from behind, and even allowed me to watch him begin a new glass painting. I have had considerable respect for the art ever since.

    I am glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for stopping by.



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  4. Suzanne says:

    I have a reversed painting on glass which has been handed down to me from my parents and I have reason to believe it is very very old. I would like someone to tell me how and where I might get it appraised by an expert.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are very lucky to have such a treasure! Congratulations!

      If there is an art museum or historical society in your area, they might be able to help you, if they have any art historians on staff. Otherwise, you could ask any museum in your area for the names of a couple of reputable art appraisers. However, do be aware that there will probably be a charge for such a service. But a reputable appraiser or art dealer will quote you the price up front.

      If you do not have any museums in your immediate area, you can also contact a major museum in your region. Most such museums have web sites which typically provide contact information, including phone numbers and email addresses. They should be able to provide you with some reliable referrals.

      In addition, if you have any information about the painting that may provide valuable clues to its history, it would be a good idea to record those facts and provide them to whoever appraises your painting.

      Good Luck!



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