Bristol Glass

By David M Issitt Leading Expert, Dealer and Published Writer on glass and glass related matters.

So little is known from reliable sources that the whole matter of identification and attribution can be a minefield for the amateur collector. Some of the content of this article is fact but much can only be surmised, not only about the kind of glass but also about some of other kinds of coloured glass which have been over the years have been mistaken for Bristol.

Opaque glass is basically a glass, which has been made in such a way that you cannot see through it, although you may be able to see light through it. So what made English glassmakers enter this field of Opaque glass? There are numerous reasons why this style of glass was made during the middle to late eighteenth century. The main reasons were the introduction from Germany and Italy of milk-white glass painted with enamels. England during this period was like many other Western countries receiving shiploads of fine porcelain from the Chinese continent. But possibly one of the most plausible reasons was in the fact parliament in 1746 had levied a new Excise Tax on clear crystal glass but not on opaque glass. Hence place like the Bristol area commenced production of opaque glass and in no time it became very popular and was relatively cheap.

In Germany glassmakers had already made attempts to rival the new hard-paste porcelains of Meissen and Vienna and those of soft-pastes produced by Saint Cloud and Chantilly. During this period we also saw and emergence of early porcelain factories in England, namely Bow, Chelsea, Worcester and Bristol. Bristol was soon to adapt from the delftware products to that of the opaque glass pieces, which could be decorated in the same way as porcelain and by the same workers. Even during those early days in the glassmaking industry, it was understood that glass could so often mimic porcelain but porcelain could not mimic the properties of glass.

We must start somewhere and where better than looking at the kind of glass, which, though it may also have been made elsewhere, seems upon evidence of testimony and reason to have been made at Bristol. We know this form of opaque glass was developed at Bristol and therefore it is so easy to understand why some pieces are mis-attributed. This form of glass is a dense opaque material, soft and smooth to the touch and as white as porcelain, which has lead in the past for some to mistake it for porcelain. The ancestor to Bristol glass was a glass made by the Venetians. It was well known all over the European continent, and according to Neri L'Arte Vetraria, published in Florence in 1612, it then included 11.75 per cent of tin oxide in a typical mix of the Venetian lime soda glass.

Delftware makers in the Bristol area were already using tin oxide and it was not surprising that the glassmakers soon followed in their practice. The delftware makers use tin oxide to provide an opaque white glaze on earthenware, upon which they painted gorgeous polychrome tulips as well as blue and white landscapes. Decorators working in the Delftware industry also were use by the local glassmakers and therefore similar designs appear on both Bristol glass and delftware.

Venetian lime soda glass was a very different type of glass from the heavy English crystal glass. It was soon discovered that the Venetian formula for opacity would not work with the English variety of glass. Hence, the English glassmakers evolved a lead potash glass, which needed less that one per cent of tin oxide to look like porcelain and at the same time retains the fine smooth heaviness of the English lead glass. To make this form of glass tougher and more durable, they gave it a double annealing, whereby the glass is slowly cooled and strengthened by being drawn through a leer tunnel.

This form of tin oxide opacified glass has often been dubbed with the word enamel, which also adds confusion to identification. At this point I feel one should explain what confusion the word enamel can create within the realms of the glass collector. The main reason why this word is used to describe this form of glass is mainly due to the fact the early makers advertised it under that name. All the same it is a confusing tern, for the glass is neither true enamel nor true glass. The word enamel is already used in connection for painting with enamels, which is a combination of glassy flux and pigments. Enamelling may be done on glass, as is the case with the famous Beilby glassware, on porcelain as in Chelsea and Worcester examples, on pottery as is the case with Staffordshire salt glazed stoneware and also on metals. So we are left with this descriptive legacy and must therefore remember this when describing Bristol Opaque White Glass.

We now know the fact what Bristol glass is, but what kinds of objects were made in this new glass?

Obviously when comparing Bristol glass objects with those of unqualified success produced by the leading porcelain makers, certain objects are conspicuous by their absence. Teapots, cups and saucers to name but three items. What we now have to look at is why these items were not produced in Bristol glass or if they were no documentary evidence can be found. Perhaps the best answer to this question is that Bristol glass was not very good at resisting heat, although I doubt if we will ever know this for sure. For if a teapot had been made in Bristol glass I very much doubt if anyone now owning one would test it with boiling water.

Whilst we may not find evidence of Bristol glass being used to make teapots and cups, there is evidence of other tea ware items being produced, including tea-caddies, cream jugs and sugar bowls. However, the main use of Bristol glass was in the production of bottles, for which the area was already renowned, and many different forms of vases. Some of the bottles were made small like those of the Chinese porcelain ones, and were offered in competition with the import Chinese porcelain variety which were not only imitated but also adored by many all through the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain.

We find that opaque glass items are not as varied or diverse as those made in porcelain. This was mainly due to the fact the glass blower was confined to shapes by their own ability to blow and mould the piece compared with the art of the potter who was able to compose their items by throwing by hand or to cast in moulds. However the glass-blowers inability to make all shapes was more than made up for by the richness and the variety of decoration. Too many the decoration is the main interest to many a collector. Much of the decorating of opaque glass was done by transfer printing, in the same way, as were stoneware, earthenware and porcelain pieces. England can be heralded as the pioneers of this form of decorating, either at Liverpool or Battersea, although exact confirmation cannot be established.

Within our look at opaque glass it would be remiss if we did not mention the Liverpool firm of Sadler & Green. The firm was renowned as, black printers and was responsible for all or most of the transfer printing on opaque glass. Bristol cannot be listed as a place where such decorating was carried out, as it would appear that all opaque glass from Bristol was sent to the Liverpool Company for decorating. The firm were originally engravers of prints, either for framing or for insertion into books. It was the founder John Sadler who initially noticed that for a transfer to remain it needed to be fixed by firing the object. Transfer printing had also another advantage to the hand painted items, it was far cheaper to undertake. Transfer printing was achieved by a design from a copper plate being printed on glass, pottery or enamel by means of a paper transfer, much like the ones used by children today. The process was to ink and engraved copper plate with an ink prepared from a metallic oxide, and then transferring the design to paper which, whilst the pigment was still wet, was pressed onto the glass, leaving the desired imprint, this was then subsequently fixed by firing. Henry G Richardson & Sons of Stourbridge were renowned for transfer printing on many of their opaque glassware. Evidence is that this technique was greatly used in the production of Russian glassware.

Whilst transfer printing may have been a cheaper way to decorate Bristol glass enamel painting was also a very favourite way of decorating items. The most common form of decoration in enamel painting was floral and oriental motifs. We find that the Chinese influence was very evident in decoration and often find scenes of oriental ladies and gardens depicted on such glassware. The talent of the painter was for all to see and many fine examples are now in great museums throughout the world. Painters, enamellers and guilders employed within the pottery and porcelain industry, undertook the matter of decorating, as opposed to glassmakers carrying out the decorating process.

Evidence of one of the first decorators of Bristol Glass was Michael Edkins, who arrived in Bristol from Birmingham around 1762. Edkins was renowned for his painting on Delftware pottery and evidence of his work can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Michael Edkins lived to a ripe old age of 98 and during his life was father to thirty-three children.

Bristol Glass or Opaque glass was not just confined to the Bristol factories and soon vast quantities were being produced in the Stourbridge area. The names of such great glasshouses as Richardsons, Northwood and Stevens and Williams all are connected with the production of opaque glass.

Bristol Glass should not however be confused with Milk Glass, which is much collected in the Unites States and incidentally is nothing like the Milchglas of Germany, but is more like slag ware produced in England. Milk Glass within the United States was produced in many shapes and forms, especially animals and the hen on a nest being the most produced item. Most Milk Glass was and is produced in the tradition of pressed glass. Dealers and collectors within the United States appear to classify Bristol and Opaque White glass under the banner of Milk Glass, which is totally incorrect. This may have a knock on affect in as much as Bristol Glass is by no way so desirable or collectable within the US.

To most collectors and dealers the word Bristol is synonymous to a blue coloured glass but when enthusiasts also mention the word Bristol in conjunction with glass, we should also remember Opaque glassware with its lavish decoration.

Dudley Libraries ~ Archives and Local History Department
British Glass 1800-1914 by Charles Hajdamach

This article and all images are Copyright protected and can not be used without prior permission of the Author ~ David M Issitt.
2008 David M Issitt

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