Part 1. Glass Before Lead Crystal (Pre - 1675).
Following the departure of the Roman glassworkers in AD 4, finds, mainly in Kentish pagan graves, revealed the working of imported cullet for the production of both simple and decorated beakers and, notably, claw beakers. This lasted approximately from the 5th to the 8th century when the introduction of Christianity inhibited the practice of installing grave goods.
Documentary evidence indicates that genuine glassmaking had arrived in England from the Continent by, at the latest, the 13th century. By the mid-15th century bottles, tableware and alchemical glass, made from founding a mixture of wood-ash or fern-ash and sand, was probably occurring at a few sites in the south of England.
In the second half of the 16th century several continental glassmaking families set up furnaces, near Guildford in the Surrey Weald and in Gloucestershire. Although their purpose was primarily to make window glass, some simple tableware, such as beakers, was produced. None of this glass survives intact and is not represented in the Fitzwilliam collections. (In the 1920s the Whitefriars glasshouse, in London, produced coloured replicas based on excavated shards. These are now collector's items in their own right). Overall, little drinking glass was used at this time, even by the aristocracy, and most of that, like this shallow wine glass, was imported from Venice or the Netherlands.
As London became more important and grew in stature as the European trading centre across the channel from Antwerp, the demand for glass, both for windows and for tableware, increased. In 1571, to rectify this problem, the Venetian glassmaker, Jacopo Verzelini, who had worked in Antwerp for twenty years, was brought to England. He was granted a licence in 1574 to make Venetian style 'cristallo' (a form of soda glass made with purified materials) at a glasshouse in the "dissolved" (by Henry VIII) monastery buildings of the Crutched Friars near the Tower of London.
Nine examples of his work are recognised from engraving in diamond point, attributed to a Frenchman, Anthony de Lysle. These are the earliest known provenanced English glasses. The Fitzwilliam has the second oldest of this series, dated 1578 and bearing the initials AT:RT. It is thought to be a betrothal glass.(In England, wheel engraving did not come into general use until the first quarter of the 18th century at the earliest.)
When Verzelini retired in 1592 his 21-year licence expired and a second cristallo glasshouse was set up at Blackfriars. One goblet, engraved with BARBARA POTTERS 1602 (my book, p. 32), attributed to this glasshouse, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum along with another of the Verzelini goblets (dated 1585) that has a similar decorative band of animals to that shown here. These are the only intact English made glasses known prior to the Restoration. They are characterised by the beautiful design and balance of their construction.
A large numbers of shards of glass stems of possible English make have been recovered from archaeological sites in London. Their designs range from a simple cigar shape to those with with twisted threads or with mould-blown masks like that of the above wine glass. They can be seen by appointment in the store of the archaeology section of the Museum of London (MoLA).
At the beginning of the 17th century two important changes occurred. First, a new glass furnace was invented that could be heated with coal instead of wood. This enabled the King, concerned over the rapid destruction of the woodlands by the glassmakers, to declare wood-fired furnaces illegal. Then, from 1615, Admiral Sir Robert Mansell, a favourite of the King, purchased the monopoly of glassmaking in England held by the inventor and backers of the coal-fired furnace. His main challenge was to meet the growing demand for window glass. However, some tableware was made at various sites in the country such as at Kimmeridge on the Isle of Purbeck. No intact glasses are known to have survived from this period.
Mansell's patent lapsed when he retired in 1642 and for the next seven years the industry probably continued to flourish. However, with the accession of Cromwell in 1649 and the destruction of coloured church windows under his puritanical reign (partly as a backlash against the anti-puritanical excesses of King Charles I), plain glass became at a premium and drinking glass production is thought to have declined. Then, with the restoration in 1660 of King Charles II from France to England an Italian "cristallo" glasshouse was set up by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, at Greenwich and then another for mirror plates at Vauxhall. Several glasses have survived including the "Four Seasons" glass in the British Museum (illustrated in Glass Collectors and their Collections in Museums in Great Britain. The Glass Circle,1999.) and the "Scudamore Flute" in the Museum of London. The only other English flute of this date is the "Exeter flute" in the Royal Albert Museum, Exeter.
Although the Fitzwilliam does not have any of this glass in its collections it does have Netherlandish (facon de Venise) glasses of a similar type as these were relatively popular on the continent.
The illustration shows two glasses from the Fitzwilliam collection. On the left is a flute with twisted stem. Known English flutes normally have a blown baluster or fluted hollow ball. Ht. 29.2cm.
On the right is a goblet of a similar style to that made at the Duke of Buckingham's glasshouse at Greenwich. The bucket bowl has gadrooning at the base, formed by pincering or moulding a second overlay of glass. Unusual for this early date is the wheel engraved decoration of a bird and fruiting vine, which may be a later addition. Some crizzling (glass decay) has occurred due to an imbalance of ingredients (probably a lack of calcium) in the founding mixture. This was a common problem when purified batch ingredients were first used.