Golden Age of English Glass reflects artform’s history

A new book, 'The Golden Age of English Glass,' focuses on four types of antique glass: tableware, cut glass, bottles and window, plate and mirror glass.

By R.M. Healey

Lovers of English glass should always be grateful to the American John H. Bryan, whose internationally acclaimed collection is the focus of “The Golden Age of English Glass: 1650-1775,” a scholarly and sumptuously illustrated survey by a former head of the Corning Museum of Glass, Dwight P. Lanmon. However, the collection might never have come about but for a bizarre twist of fate that bedevils certain collectors from time to time, and from which valuable lessons may be learnt. A devotee for many years of English Delft until the market was cornered by an even richer rival collector about 20 years ago, Bryan, always an enthusiast for all things Elizabethan and Jacobean in English applied art, turned instead to English glass and luckily, thanks to a trained eye and seemingly endless funds, soon began to assemble what would become an even more exceptional collection.

Golden Age of English Glass

The Golden Age of English Glass, 1650 – 1775, by Dwight P Lanmon, Antique Collectors Club, 2012; 376 pp, many b& w and colour illustrations. ISBN 978-1-85149-656-3.

Bryan could not have had a more expert explicator than Lanmon. We begin, for instance by learning that although Romans made receptacles of glass in Britain and a few crude glass drinking vessels have survived from Saxon times (which was certainly news to me), production ceased for centuries afterwards and any domestic glass in use from the early Tudor period was imported at great expense from Venice.

It was only when a Venetian émigré brought his secrets over to England around 1567 that large-scale glass production became feasible in England. As the nation prospered in the seventeenth century and a demand increased accordingly, glassmakers proliferated and before too long, a middle class, which previously had to be content with crude pottery and pewter vessels, could now decorate their tables with shimmering displays. From being a major importer in the mid 17th century, England had become by the early 18th century, a net exporter of glass.

The book, which is essentially a cataloge of 127 artifacts in the Bryan collection, focuses on four major areas—tableware, cut glass, bottles, and finally window, plate and mirror glass. Beginning with the rather basic glassware of the Commonwealth period, we are shown the significance of the pioneer George Ravenscroft in the later seventeenth century, then move on to early diamond point and wheel engraved drinking glasses and other aspects of decoration. The chapter on black bottle glass is useful, especially when one considers that for many collectors, rivers, shorelines and rubbish tips are more likely to contain such items than any other type of glassware. The accounts of window and mirror glass—so infrequently treated in other books—is a welcome feature too, especially regarding the technology of production.

The photographs of the glassware are truly breathtaking, and we are also shown trade cards and other ancillary ephemera that illustrate the story of this golden age. The book is a veritable treasure house of information; however, for all this, it would have been instructive and entertaining, even in such a scholarly work, to know how Bryan managed to assemble his collection in such a short time. If part of the appeal of collecting is the thrill of the chase, a short memoir by Bryan himself revealing how he came across some of his treasures, and even what he paid for them might have inspired some collectors with more modest pockets to follow his example.

But, I dare say, we are all just a little bit envious of him.

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