Lessons from a Lampmaster column
Colored glass looks beautiful when it’s illuminated, and therein lies the problem. In the case of leaded glass, or stained glass lamps, even poorly designed, cheaply made examples look attractive when the lights go on, making it critically important to be able to look beyond the pretty colors when determining any lamp’s aesthetic, structural and intrinsic value. In this article, we will discuss a number of lamps’ physical properties and how to better identify what constitutes a well made example as opposed to a poor one, in addition to pointing out telltale signs that a lamp has been tampered with to its detriment. Exceptions do apply to certain lamps.
Despite their less than acceptable condition, some will retain a good portion of their value due to their pedigree: a rare Tiffany or Duffner & Kimberley lamp, for instance, would still hold great value despite conditions that would otherwise render an unknown maker’s lamp depreciated.
To make it easier to categorize, I’ve identified 10 items you should consider when looking at or buying a leaded glass lamp. These are not the end all and be all of qualitative evaluations, but should form a reliable framework to better recognize quality in leaded glass lamps.
This may seem obvious, but a lamp can display beauty in any number of ways; it can be colorful (the most disarming of qualities); it can be pretty (again, sometimes disarming); it can be fascinating (due to the glass pattern or design); or it can be downright stunning when all of the visual characteristics of its shape, design, color, pattern and aesthetics gel into one harmonious delight.
Conscientious lamp designers instinctively address certain design conventions when
outlining artwork to be translated onto a three-dimensional lamp mold. One primary consideration is how the design assumes the shape of the lamp. Are large, flat pieces of glass expected to span a tight curvature of the form, or are the pieces sized to assume the shape gracefully, giving the impression that the glass is bent? Poor designers overlook this condition resulting in lamps whose surfaces seem rough, jagged and harsh to the touch.
Lamp designs are based on components such as border, background, primary image, secondary image, support elements (stems and flower buds, for instance) and geometrics. Any number of these can be combined to create a design. The more intelligent the use of these elements, the more elegant the result, be it a pure geometric or an intensely naturalistic design (Illus. 1.)
Another design factor to consider is flow. Does the design sit comfortably on the shape of the lamp? Are lead lines jagged or out of character with the rest of the design? Are there areas of awkward dead space between design elements? If the design repeats itself, which many do, are the repeats balanced and seamless? A simple spinning of the shade on its base will tell. In more elaborate designs, do the elements such as borders and geometric areas enhance the viewing experience or do they compete with the primary imagery, whatever that may be? A basic sense of these relationships is helpful when evaluating the many aesthetic properties of lamp design.
Choice of Glass
Strong, contrasting colors can be attractive. For the longest time, production lamp manufacturers were aware that combining a neutral background glass such as a bone, beige or amber, some pretty opal colors for flower or image glass and a strong leaf green was a slam dunk of successful color selection. I can’t begin to tell you how many leaded glass lamps have been crafted over the last century using this simple recipe of coloration. Compare a lamp of this caliber
(Illus. 2) with one where the selection of color, tone and texture is sensitive and painterly (Illus. 3).
Types of Glass
Two major types of glass dominate the leaded glass lamp landscape: mass-produced, machine-made glass and hand-rolled or art glass. Both are opalescent rather than translucent. Machine-made glass appears very uniform and consistent in color. It portrays very little variance of depth, tone or movement; it tends to look flat. Although some examples have good light to dark areas, machine-made glass provides a very two-dimensional visual experience. Hand-rolled art glass, in which case no two pieces of glass can ever be the same due to their handcrafted nature, when carefully selected portrays all of the values and visual excitement of a well executed painting. Depth, shadow, intense light to dark transitions and strong movement of color within the individual pieces of glass prove a very satisfying, dimensional visual experience. At its best, you can easily forget that you are looking at glass.
You must judge a lamp not only when it is lit and at its most disarming, but also when it is unlit and off its base, when all of its scars, warts and flaws are visible and tangible. A well-crafted lamp should feel sturdy and substantial when in hand — not flimsy. If light pressure to the widest expanse of the shade results in flexing, it is reasonable to believe that the shade has not been properly reinforced during construction. Proper reinforcement here would consist of a rod or thick wire of brass or copper set and soldered onto the bottom edge. This also applies to the upper opening or aperture of the shade. If the lamp is built to sit on a ring or base support, and has a opening at the top to accommodate such, this area of the lamp should be properly reinforced with a strong band of metal preferably made of copper or brass and be intact. The aperture of the lamp should also be free from any damage that may render the opening a threat to the safety of the lamp (Illus. 4).
If the lamp has a finial or heat cap fastened to its aperture, that fitting should be properly
fastened to a metal reinforcement at the opening and not simply to the copper-foiled glass border. The latter usually results in the cap or finial pulling away from the shade in reaction to heat from light bulbs building up at the top of the shade. If this occurs, it is possible that the lead/tin solder used in securing the fitting could gradually soften and fail. The full weight of the shade pulling down on this joint compounds the problem. This type of repair or restoration can prove expensive, especially if the damage includes the upper row of glass. Ideally, support should come from underneath the aperture. It is important to remember that the most vulnerable parts of any leaded glass lamp are its aperture and bottom edge.
Many skills come together in the construction and crafting of a leaded glass lamp: glass cutting, glass shaping, copper foiling, assembly, soldering and finishing, among others. Knowing how to examine the execution of each of these component skills is necessary to evaluate not only the quality of a leaded glass lamp but also its physical condition and the possibility for any restoration or repair.
First and foremost: Are the individual pieces of glass cut and shaped accurately? If examining a geometric lamp, or section of a lamp that includes geometrics, do the resulting leaded lines line up, or are the crossing lines mismatched or carelessly assembled? Are curved lines smooth? Are border pieces either at the top or bottom, or both, set straight? A skillful glass cutter or glazier is careful to create pieces that accurately reflect the pattern or template used without creating pieces that have irregular edges or are bigger or smaller than the template. Additionally, a skillful assembler will position each glass piece carefully – in its proper position according to the established design.
Each piece of glass in a leaded glass lamp has its edges wrapped with a thin copper foil to facilitate assembly. This foil should be applied so the resulting lead lines are consistent in size. Lead lines that vary from thin to wide or are unusually wide throughout are telltale
signs of shoddy workmanship, or areas of poor repair technique (Illus. 5).
A lead/tin based solder is used to join each piece of glass to its neighbor and to fill the gaps between each piece of glass with a smooth, slightly mounded bead of solder. Rough, blotchy, lumpy or inconsistent solder lines are, again, a sign of shoddy workmanship, or if isolated, signs of less-than-professional repair or restoration (Illus 6). The character of the lead lines should be consistent throughout the shade. It should be noted though that many lamp makers favor the outside, or “show” side, of the shade and the quality of the lead lines may vary from the inside to the outside of the shade
reflecting this preference.
Patina & Finish
Patina is the color produced on the metal surfaces of the lamp i.e., the lead lines, top and bottom edges and any added components to the lamp such as filigree or finials. Patina finishes will vary from light to dark brown, to a combination of brown and green (this finish being, historically, the most desirable) to black. On a well preserved lamp, or one that has been professionally repaired or restored, the patina color will be consistent throughout. The color should be uniform and there should be no areas where the patina color is either missing or wrong.
Base and Shade Proportions
The marriage of shade and base should be pleasing to the eye. Most importantly, does the shade sit properly on its base? Does it seem to tilt to the left or right? This could be a sign of damage or the shade’s aperture joint being compromised. Such defects are subject to expensive repair. Beyond that, is the marriage a good one? To paraphrase a Bob Dylan lyric, does the unit look like a “mattress balanced on a bottle of wine,” or the opposite, like a pillbox on a watermelon (my own comparison)? Simply put, the diameter of the shade in relation to the height and width of the base should not look extreme or unsteady in any way (Illus 7).
Comparison to Other Examples
Many leaded glass lamp designs were made in multiples utilizing the same design, templates and mold to make similar models that differed in color and mood. Comparisons to the same models by the same maker are useful in determining whether the item in question lives up to or surpasses those it compares to. A little research through auction catalogs and books is indispensable when making these comparisons.
Finally, where did the shade come from? Can its history be traced? Is it a contemporary shade or a reproduction? Has it bee
n repaired or restored? Was the work done by a well-known craftsperson or a hobbyist? The availability of this information would certainly be valuable.
Developing a working knowledge of leaded glass lamps and how they are designed and constructed is an ongoing process. These few guidelines are a good place to start to insure that your choice and/or purchase of a leaded glass lamp whether privately, through a gallery or at auction will be an informed and intelligent one.
|About our columnist: A craftsperson since 1979. He is the former publisher of Glass Craftsman Magazine, the producer and publisher of the GCTV line of glass instructional videos, and the author of “The Lamp Making Handbook” and “Stained Glass, Jewels of Light.” He is currently a full-time glass artist, whose original lamps and bronze bases have fetched record auction prices for contemporary leaded glass. www.josephporcellistudio.com|