Saturday, 22 January 2011

Glass, glass, glass

Anyone who is half-interested in antique drinking glasses always has a copy of this book - here is mine. We all have dozens of books on glass, but none of them equal this one by Bickerton, for sheer comprehensive help on identification and dating, etc., augmented with spectacular photos of pretty much every type of glass you are likely to see in one fevered lifetime.

Also, anyone who is 'half interested' has usually developed the initial interest into a full-blown obsessive compulsion, from which it is impossible to be cured without radical brain-surgery. Many people have gone to the wall by spending every penny they do not have on beautiful glasses. If I know there is to be an auction of good glass which I will never be able to afford, then I would rather not even think about it, let alone attend, just so I can sleep at night.

I have three friends who are world experts on antique glass, and they regularly fall out with each other over one glass, sold to the other at auction. One of these dealers actually bought all the original photos in the book, direct from Mr Bickerton, who is still alive. He also bought the glass below...

There is no way that he could have walked away from it when it came up for sale, but there was no way he could afford keep it either, so after a few weeks of gloating over it like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, he had to sell it. I think it fetched about £50,000 or more.

Another mutual friend spent all day taking these photographs of it, using s special lighting system which he had developed. Seen in ordinary light, this diamond-point, stipple engraving (done by a man called Wolfe - the most famous engraver of his time) just looks like a wisp of smoke on the side of the glass. It is only when you examine it closely that you can appreciate the sheer skill and beauty involved in it's making by the master artist.

The man who owned this glass is Scottish, and he is also a leading expert on the famous 'Jacobite' glass from the rebellion (and after) of the same name. Bickerton has also produced a pictorial guide exclusively for Jacobite drinking glasses, which I also have. The historical text in it reads like a Sir Walter Scott novel, and makes bloody good, exciting bed-time reading, as well as being packed with pictures of fabulous glasses.

As my friend puts it, Jacobite glasses are a 'minefield'. It is estimated that about 70 or 80% of all 'Jacobite' glasses are either fakes, or what are known as 'commemorative' glasses - i.e. copies in the true spirit of rebellion which can date from the mid 18th century to the present day. A true expert (which Bickerton was/is) can identify the engravers of these glasses purely by the style of the engraving, and can choose from about 6 or 7 engravers, known as 'engraver A, B, C' etc. To make matters worse, one of these engravers is reputed to be still alive and working, stippling or wheel-engraving Jacobite images on genuine 18th century glasses for re-sale to the unwary. Many auction houses will not deal in Jacobite glasses for this reason alone, so they change hands in the private market. When you remember that to be found drinking from one of one of these glasses in 18th century Scotland by the English, it would mean certain death, then it only adds to the romance and glamour that they evoke today.

I manage to keep a lid on my glass obsession, but all of the people I know who deal in glass, had to become dealers in order to handle as much of the stuff as they could afford. My Scottish friend is occasionally dragged off on holiday by his wife, who insists on a 'glass free' holiday at least once a year. This involves going to somewhere so remote, that there are no antique shops within about a 4 hour drive of where they stay. The Scottish Highlands....


  1. There is a fine line between "obsession" and "passion". Obsession can pull you down and kill you, where passion drives you on to a higher level of life intellectually.

    You're ok! Fascinating stuff!

  2. Good point, Grouch. I just went out to our saturday flea market and bought two 1820 'rummers' - I just had to get something after the turkey!

  3. I've just read both your posts on glass, Tom. That is a stunning glass in the above picture - £50,000 - a lot of money to have slip through your fingers! On the previous post, I definitely like the original glass best. Your video was good. Liked your voice.

  4. Yes, Moll - I tend to sweat when handling stuff like that. I'm quite happy bashing away at £100,000 sculptures for restoration, but there's something impermanent about a glass - that's why we all love them.

  5. What the hell is a "rummer"? Photo please.....

  6. OK, I'll put up a photo for you Groucho - the others must just bear with me. Next post coming up.