Portraits Floating in Glass:   Crystal Cameos

Though we most often associate cameos with jewelry, a special type of cameo which became popular during the Regency was to be found primarily on very fine glassware. Such pieces were very expensive and were typically to be seen only in the homes of the most affluent. Originally developed on the Continent, these remarkable objects were perfected in England as the Regency came to a close. Nevertheless, they went out of fashion not long after Victoria became queen.

When silvery cameos floated in glass . . .

Cameos have been popular since ancient times, being worn by both men and women in Ancient Greece and Rome. Traditionally, most cameos were carved from stone, often agate or onyx, with the image in pale relief against a darker colored background. The Romans also occasionally made cameos from glass. By the Renaissance, shell was also used to make cameos. Shell was softer, so it was easier to carve and offered a wider range of colors. One of the most common motifs for cameos in ancient Greece and Rome was portraits, most often gods and goddesses and famous generals and rulers. Some Roman ladies are known to have had their own portraits carved into a cameo. By the Renaissance, even more ladies had their portraits carved into cameos.

Through the centuries, cameos went in and out of fashion. They were once again in fashion as the Regency opened, with their powerful association with ancient Greece and Rome. At that time, women, in particular, were wearing clothing inspired by that same period and cameos were ideal accessories. Even Napoleon found a use for cameos to reinforce the perception of his new, neo-classical empire, having the imperial crown used at his coronation decorated with several of them.

Near the end of the eighteenth century, probably first in Bohemia, a few craftsmen began experimenting with the most innovative cameo technique since Roman times. Instead of carving the image in relief from stone or shell, they were embedding ceramic shapes within molten glass. Once the glass cooled, the ceramic image appeared to be floating within crystal. Early attempts at this process revealed that only ceramic shapes made from the same components as porcelain clay would successfully survive the very high heat of molten glass, since porcelain was fired at similar temperatures.

Initially, the ceramic inserts were modeled using techniques similar to those a sculptor would use to make a cameo from rock or shell. But craftsmen soon realized they could get even more detailed and consistent results using molds to make the ceramic inserts for their crystal cameos. Once molds began to be used, many craftsmen used the relief portraits on coins and commemorative medals to develop their molds of popular figures. Porcelain clay is a slightly grayish white and once these cameos were embedded within glass, they had an almost silvery appearance.

In order to embed a ceramic cameo in glass, a glass blower would capture a gather of glass at the end of his blowpipe. He would then blow a bubble the size needed to surround the ceramic cameo. An assistant would cut a slit into the glass bubble and the ceramic cameo would be slipped inside. The hot air inside the bubble would be withdrawn up the blow pipe and the glass bubble would collapse around the cameo. Molten glass is so malleable that the slit would disappear as the glass was shaped around the cameo. Additional layers of molten glass might be applied to the embedded cameo. The thicker layers of glass would not obscure the cameo, but the thicker glass could be cut and/or engraved to produce a decorative frame around it.

These silvery crystal cameos were most often used to ornament fine glassware. Decanters, goblets, tumblers, cups, bowls and vases might be decorated with crystal cameos. Candlesticks, wall sconces and candelabra have been found with applied crystal cameos. Smaller objects which were adorned with crystal cameos included scent and vinaigrette bottles, snuff, trinket and comfit boxes, paper-weights and decorative plaques. Crystal cameos of religious figures or subjects were used to decorate items such as reliquaries, altar and church furnishings.

Unlike traditional stone and shell cameos, which tended to portray gods, goddess and other ancient figures, crystal cameos were more often portraits of current popular figures. In England, the royal family were often rendered in crystal cameos. The Prince Regent and his daughter, Princess Charlotte were among the most popular, though cameos of King George III were also made in large numbers. In England, portraits of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington rivaled those of the royal family in popularity. In France, cameos of Napoleon were popular, until he was ousted. Then, cameos of Louis XVIII and members of his family were most common. Other public figures were to be seen in crystal cameos from time to time across the Continent.

Fine glassware decorated with crystal cameos was very costly, but some glass sellers sold unattached crystal cameos at quite reasonable prices. These cameos typically portrayed the popular celebrities of the time. In this modern age, when both still and moving images of public figures and celebrities are to be found everywhere, it is hard for us to understand how rare and precious images of such people were considered before the advent of the camera. Though the average middle class person during the Regency would not have been able to afford a decanter or set of candlesticks decorated with crystal cameos, they would have been able to afford a detached crystal cameo of their favorite celebrity or public figure.

Though most crystal cameos were of public figures, there were some among the affluent who had crystal cameos made of themselves. For example, the Prince Regent is known to have commissioned at least one crystal cameo of himself in the guise of a Roman Emperor. Other people also had cameos made of themselves to give as gifts. In such cases, these small portrait crystal cameos were made into pendants, brooches, ear bobs and rings. The most wealthy, and perhaps most arrogant, had crystal cameo portraits of themselves placed on their glassware and glass furnishings. Others chose to have crystal cameos made of their coats of arms or their family crests to decorate their glassware.

In 1818, in France, the sculptor, Barthelemy Desprez, took out a patent on an improved method for making crystallo céramie, or "crystal ceramic." The following year, in 1819, in England, Apsley Pellatt, the son of the founder of the Falcon Glasshouse in Southwark, independently developed an improved process similar to that of Desprez. This new process enable Pellatt to produce crystal cameo ornaments for all types of glassware which were even more delicate and sophisticated than those that had come before. From the end of the Regency and through the reign of George IV, crystal cameo glassware continued to be made. During the reign of William IV, the fashion for crystal cameo glassware began to fade. By the time Victoria came to the throne, it was essentially over.

However, near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, with the introduction of mechanization in the making of glass, a new form of crystal cameo was mass produced. These less expensive and less elegant objects remained popular into the early twentieth century, but they did not have the quality of those which had been made during the Regency. In fact, many of these cameos were no longer made of ceramic. Instead, a glob of molten glass was pressed into a mold which forced the portrait cameo into the bottom of the glass shape. This was treated with hydrofluoric acid, which clouded the glass of the image to give it the effect of a cameo without the need for a ceramic insert. These pieces were made in great numbers and could be sold cheaply, since, by that time, the glass tax had been repealed. But this all happened long after the Regency was over.

Dear Regency Authors, might you find a use for a crystal cameo in one of your Regency stories? Perhaps an impostor is trying to usurp the family title and estate, claiming to be the missing title-holder. But, unbeknownst to him, there is a decanter in the book room decorated with a crystal cameo of the true title-holder, made before he left on his long journey. Of course, the impostor looks nothing like him. Maybe a spy is betrayed because he, or she, carries a crystal cameo of Napoleon hidden in their belongings. Imagine how annoying it would be for the heroine, a poor relation, taken in by a wealthy, arrogant aunt who has her portrait in crystal cameos all over her glassware. How else might crystal cameos find a place in a Regency romance?

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 Portraits Floating in Glass:   Crystal Cameos

  1. Ah, great plot bunnies. I like all of them.
    As you mentioned that perhaps most arrogant persons had crystal cameo portraits of themselves, why not using this as a plot bunny: Miss C. is supposed to marry Sir B. They don’t know each other personally, but when Sir B. comes to pay a longer visit to Miss C. and her family, he turnes up with a huge entourage of servants and valets. He would liked to be recognized as a dandy (though is lacking in taste; Miss C. younger siblings laugh at Sir B. behind his back), and he had serveral cameo portraits made of himself. He presents one to Miss C., of course. She takes an instant dislike in her suitor. How can she get rid of vain Sir B.?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      A challenging plot bunny, at least for the heroine. Sir B. sounds like a self-centered jerk!! I hope Miss C. can find a way to escape his clutches. Perhaps she could insult his appearance, or, horrors, maybe she takes a pet and smashes one of his precious crystal cameos right in front of him? It would serve him right!


  2. I can’t find any images of this… which is disappointing! I could see a wealthy person sending a set of goblets to someone he dislikes in which the cameos are caricatures and not kind ones at that… I can also see a rather frisky gent having some quite frisky scenes made for the use of himself and his gentleman friends, and maybe the odd paphian at a party. What happens when the heroine goes to get out glasses and gets out the wrong ones can only be imagined if she has not looked closely [or has long sight and can’t see detail without reading glasses] and some stiff rumped dowager is offered a glass of wine with naughty nymphs and scandalous shepherds….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I tried very hard to find some images online to which I could provide links, but had no luck. All the images I saw were in actual books, none of which are available online. The cameos did look like slightly translucent silver floating in crystal, since they were made of a rather grey clay and in all the pictures I did see, the glass was always clear. I would estimate that most of the cameos in the photos I saw were more than 2 inches high and maybe 1 to 1 1/2 inches across. So they were fairly small, except for a few done for the Prince Regent, which would cover a 3 inch square area. One set showed a bust of him in profile, in the guise of a Roman Emperor, with toga, laurel wreath and all.

      I like your plot bunny, however, based on my research, anything but head-and-shoulders portraits or the odd family crest or coat-of-arms was extremely rare. Based on that fact alone, the heroine would not be expecting anything like you describe. It is possible, if she were not familiar with that set of glasses, she might overlook the subject matter, even if her vision was 20/20. Since most cameos were so small, the dowager would have to have very good sight indeed, or she might not be able to make out the cavorting characters.



      • that’s a good point, because one doesn’t peer at decoration on glasses when getting them in a hurry… it’s going to have to be done! [and they’d be very, very expensive, so if the dowager smashed hers in disgust, the owner wouldn;t half be peeved

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