Friday, 20 November 2009

Heart of Glass

People who know me find it hard to understand why - for the last seven or eight years - I have become somewhat obsessed with antique glass - in particular, Georgian drinking glasses. Since I find it hard to understand myself, it is pretty much impossible for me to explain it, so this post is more of an exercise in thinking out loud, like an obsessive who talks in his sleep.

The photo above is of a bowl of a mid-eighteenth century wine glass, stipple-engraved with a diamond point by someone who was at the absolute pinnacle of his profession, over 250 years ago. It belongs to a friend of mine who is a top glass dealer, and he has probably forgotten more about glass than I'll ever know. If you think that someone like me is obsessive, then try talking to him for an hour or two, or my other friend who took the wonderful photo for him.

What makes this particular glass so spectacularly collectable, is not only the sheer skill involved in the engraving, but the subject matter itself. It is a glass within a glass, and I like to think that the glass held by the putti has itself got another glass engraved on it, and so on and so on, into infinity. Without this engraving, a glass of this sort would be expensive enough - maybe around £1000 - £1500, but I doubt that my mate would part with this one for less than about £30,000, and even then it would only be sold to prevent his wife from starving to death.

In one of the many books on antique glass I have, there is a photo of an 18th century, Italian or French glass, made in the style known as Facon de Venise, and a more over-the-top glass you will never see. The bowl is supported by an impossibly thin stem, and emanating from that stem are equally thin, fronds and laces that sprout away from the bowl like so much spun-sugar surrounding a pudding made for consumption by the King of the Faeries. The caption by the author reads: "The survival of this glass is a testimony to the sobriety of the former owner".

That sums it up really. Part of the fascination for me is that not only have these extremely delicate and fragile objects survived two or three hundred years, many wars and natural disasters, but also they have survived - by definition of their use - in the hands of drunkards.

In terms of ownership and collecting, I have had my moments. Earlier in the year I spotted a heavy baluster wine glass dating from around 1720, hiding amongst a pile of tatty modern glasses at a country auction, and this - having sold the tat for more than the whole lot in total - effectively cost me nothing, though (without the couple of irritating chips on the foot) would be worth about £2500.

There are beautiful, 18th century, trumpet-shaped wine glasses everywhere which can be bought for around £140 - £200, which is not much when you see what is being asked for a modern, ugly, hand-blown glass today.

I try my absolute hardest to curb my obsession, so I do not attend auctions where I know that some wonderful glass will be sold for more money than I can afford or justify, and the objects that I do acquire are justified using the logic of 'investment', though these are paltry when compared to most collections. My serious collector friends have long since given up that sort of reasoning with their long-suffering spouses, and are now dealers - each deal financing the next and more extravagant purchase. The trouble is, they hate parting with them - any of them. Believe me, it is absolute torture for them, and they could justifiably be diagnosed with some sort of psychological illness as a result. Some of them have become physically ill, but whether or not this is associated with their obsession or just their pre-disposition is unclear.

Here's a little test for you. Get hold of a copy of 'Eighteenth Century English Drinking Glasses' by L.M. Bickerton (the full-sized, NOT the Shire publication), and leaf through it from front to back. If - after an hour or so of this - you find yourself seeking out early drinking glasses in every antique shop or even charity shop you pass, and are unable to pass by them without doing so, then you may have been bitten. Maybe it comes with age, and is a substitute for the frisson of excitement experienced when embarking on the simultaneous pain and pleasure of a new love-affair? There's no fool like an old fool.



  1. And it all starts off as a pile of unwanted sand from some equally unwanted desert. Ain't humans wonderful.

  2. Actually, it was well before humans, when volcanoes fused sand together after eruption, and meteorites or comets fused sand when they struck the desert floor all those millions of years ago.

    The engravers came later....

  3. I LOVE this blog Tom, while I'm not a collector of antique glass, or am even vaguely knowledgeable of the subject I can completely appreciate the beauty of it and how easy it would be to bcome smitten. But like you say, could it become a torturous love affair? Maybe I should leave it alone, for now.....

  4. Leave it alone for now, maybe, but we'll have a toast in one on the 18th, eh?

  5. Not many good ones, Reggie - I've sold more than I've got. I use some nice, 1790 glasses for every day purposes, and I suppose I've got around 12 -15 of those. I'm collecting a few for a sale coming up in a year, though.