News from the Corning Museum of Glass on its 2020 Spring Exhibition
Sourced from CMoG press releases on the exhibit and its accompanying book
In Sparkling Company, Reflections on Glass in the 18th Century British World
The Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) announced its spring exhibition In Sparkling Company: Glass and Social Life in Britain during the 1700s will open May 9, 2020. With exhibition design by Selldorf Architects, In Sparkling Company will present the glittering costume and jewelry, elaborate tableware, polished mirrors, and dazzling lighting devices that delighted the British elite, and helped define social rituals and cultural values of the period. Through a lens of glass, this exhibition will show visitors what it meant to be “modern” in the 1700s, and what it cost.
On April 22, 2020 we received word from the Museum that due to current circumstances the exhibition will now open in May 2021.
Establishing the Groundwork
As Christopher L. Maxwell, the curator of European glass and creator of this exhibit noted in the introduction of the accompanying book In Sparkling Company, Reflections on Glass in the 18th Century British World,
“For scholars of European architecture, art, design, and material culture, the 18th century is considered to have been a golden age. In Britain, architects such as William Kent (about 1685–1748) and Robert Adam (1728–1792) undertook projects for a reinvigorated aristocracy, transforming their country estates into thriving resorts of politics and sociability while bringing order and dignity to burgeoning towns and cities; painters such as William Hogarth (1697–1764), Joshua Reynolds(1723–1792), and Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) immortalized the age in paint and print; and furniture makers such as Thomas Chippendale (1718–1779) and Thomas Sheraton (1751–1806) gave their names to designs that remain familiar today. Goldsmiths including Thomas Pitts (1723–1795) and Paul Storr (1771–1844) produced dazzling wares to suit new practices in dining and the consumption of fashionable “hot liquors,” while the British ceramics industry defied the odds in competing with its European and Asian counterparts, rendering equally ingenious designs in a native porcelain. The success of international mercantilism and colonial expansion brought a plethora of new commodities to the market—consumable, material, and human. Arriving in a climate of increasing industrialization, technological advancement, and scientific inquiry, these wares were joined by a multitude of innovative British-made goods conveying modernity, pleasure, and sociability.”
With this introduction, Maxwell lays out the founding elements that drove the creation of this important exhibit that shows how glass became much more than a utilitarian accessory for this manner of living and transformed into veritable works of art designed to enhance the overall life experience of this era. Maxwell goes on to discuss how the British glass industry exploded during the 1700s as part of a recreation of society following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The 1700s were a time of reconstructing the luxury and society of times past as well as setting the tone for the future. Glass sellers continued to import from the established areas including Venice and Bohemia, but the introduction of lead glass “crystal” in the latter half of the 1600s helped to establish the success of glassmakers in the 1700s. By the start of the 18th century, almost half of the glassmakers in England were producing leaded glass.
The absence of lead glass manufacture in much of continental Europe gave the British prime position in the export market, bolstered by the demand from their colonies. By 1694, one-third of the annual English production was exported. In the first half of 1714, 23,000 pieces of glass were exported to France, which did not develop its own lead glass until the 1780s.
Glass in the Age of Politeness
“In Britain, developments in glass formulas and manufacturing techniques resulted in new and better types of glass, from windowpanes and mirrors to heavy, clear ‘crystal’ tableware, perfectly suited to the tastes and needs of Britain’s growing urban elite whose wealth derived from new enterprises in finance, manufacture, international trade, and colonial expansion,” explains Maxwell.
The smooth, “polished” and reflective properties of glass perfectly embodied 18th-century ideals of sociability. As urban centers grew in size and prosperity, sociability became ever more sophisticated. The terms “polite” and “polished” were often used interchangeably in the numerous etiquette manuals eagerly read by those wishing to take their place in the polite world. Examples of such literature will be displayed alongside fashionable glass of the period, including embroidered costume, mirrors, a chandelier, cut glass lighting, and tableware, and paste jewelry that accessorized and defined the lives of the “polished” elite.
And the Not So Polite
It was not just in the market for luxury goods that highly regarded European glass, such as Venetian, held a place. An article in the St. James’s Chronicle titled “Browne’s Discoveries in Africa” reported on the various “currencies” that fueled the slave trade: “Among the Southern countries, to which the Jelabs, or Slave Merchants, of Dar-Fur travel, Dar-Rulla is one of the most considerable. The natives of Rulla sell a male slave of 14 years of age for 12 pounds of salt; a female slave of the same age, nearly brings 15 pounds of the same commodity. Venetian glass beads and tin rings are in general esteem among them.” Such an account reminds us that at the heart of Britain’s international mercantilism was an abominable trade in human life.
While glass played a prominent and magnificent role in accessorizing the lives of the elite, it played a more illicit role in generating the prosperity that supported the diversification of material culture during that time. From the aristocratic shareholder to the humble tea merchant, slavery and colonialism were woven into the fabric of the country’s economy, and glass was not immune from this association.
About the Exhibit
While the stage continues to be set for this immersive exhibit by taking into consideration the history, technologies, refined taste, and circumstances of happenstance, In Sparkling Company: Glass and Social Life in Britain during the 1700s will include important examples of 18th Century British glass, including:
- Glass embroidered costume: a spectacular men’s coat intricately decorated with glass “jewels” made around 1780; a pair of women’s shoes covered in glass beads; shoe buckles set with glass paste jewels; jewelry and other accessories.
- Cut glass lighting and tableware, all made possible through the perfection of British lead “crystal” in the late 1600s and exported throughout Europe and the British colonies in America and beyond.
- Large mirrors, which became the tell-tale sign of a fashionable interior, and reverse-painted glass meticulously decorated in China for the British luxury market.
- Opulent glass dressing room accessories, including a magnificent gilded silver dressing table set, with a looking glass as its centerpiece, made in about 1700 for the 1st Countess of Portland; perfume bottles, patch boxes, and an exquisite blue glass casket richly mounted in gilded metal, used in the “toilette” a semi-public ritual of dressing which was adopted from France for men and women alike and became a feature of British aristocratic life in the 18th Century.
Glass Drawing Room for the Duke of Northumberland
Over the course of the 18th Century, domestic interiors were transformed by the increasing presence of clear and smooth plate glass. A remarkable example is the lavish drawing room designed by the celebrated British architect Robert Adam for Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland (1714-1786) and his wife, Duchess Elizabeth Percy (1716-1776), and completed in 1775. This unique room, measuring 36 by 22 feet, was paneled between dado rail and architrave with red glass panels sprinkled on the reverse with flakes of metal foil, like large-scale glitter. Similarly spangled green glass pilasters, large French looking-glasses, and intricate neo-classical ornament in gilded lead completed the dazzling scheme. The room was altered in the 1820s and finally dismantled in the 1870s, when Northumberland House was demolished. Many of the panels were acquired by the V&A Museum in the 1950s, but their poor condition meant that they could only be partially displayed. The panels on display at The Corning Museum of Glass incorporate newly-conserved elements from the V&A’s stores.
Step Into the Picture
In Sparkling Company will feature a virtual reality reconstruction of the drawing-room, created by Irish production house Noho. Visitors to the exhibition will be transported into the interior, experiencing the original design scheme – last seen almost 200 years ago. The exhibition will include a specially created virtual reality reconstruction of the remarkable and innovative spangled-glass drawing-room completed in 1775 for Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland (1714-1786), and designed by Robert Adam (1728-1792), one of the leading architects and designers in Britain at the time.
“One medium that is often overlooked in scholarly discussions of 18th-century art, design, and material culture is glass,” said Christopher L. Maxwell. “In Sparkling Company will demonstrate the many functions and meanings of glass in the exuberant social life of the 1700s.”
In Sparkling Company: Glass and Social Life in Britain During the 1700s will include loans from: the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; the Museum of London; the Fashion Museum, Bath; Royal Museums Greenwich, London; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); Penn State University Library; Cleveland Museum of Art; and The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog, In Sparkling Company: Reflections on Glass in the 18th-Century British World (The Corning Museum of Glass, 2020). Publication contributors include Marvin Bolt, Kimberly Chrisman Campbell, Jennifer Chuong, Melanie Doderer Winkler, Christopher Maxwell, Anna Moran, Marcia Pointon, and Kerry Sinanan.
About The Corning Museum of Glass
The Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) is the foremost authority on the art, history, science, and design of glass. It is home to the world’s most important collection of glass, including the finest examples of glassmaking spanning 3,500 years.
If You Go
This exhibition is open through January 3, 2021. The Corning Museum of Glass is open year-round, seven days a week (and is only closed on January 1, Thanksgiving Day, December 24, December 25). All Museum galleries are self-guided, and admission tickets, which are good for two days, are untimed. Adults are $20, seniors are $17, and children 17 and under are free. The Museum is open 9am-5pm until May 21. Beginning on May 22 and continuing through September 7, summer hours are in effect and the Museum is open 9am-8pm. Visit cmog.org/plan-your-visit
How to Buy the Book
In Sparkling Company, Reflections on Glass in the 18th Century British World will be available for purchase or for online order through the shop at The Corning Museum of Glass starting on May 9.
About Christopher Maxwell
Christopher (Kit) Maxwell was appointed Curator of European Glass at The Corning Museum of Glass in 2016. A curator and scholar, Maxwell has a varied background in the academic, museum, and gallery worlds.
Maxwell graduated with a BA in History of Art from the University of Cambridge in 2001 and took a post at the Royal Collection, first in the Royal Library and Print Room at Windsor Castle, followed by the Publications Office at St James’s Palace. In 2005, he completed his master’s degree in Decorative Arts and Historic Interiors at the University of London, and became an assistant curator in the ceramics and glass section at the Victoria & Albert Museum. For five years, he worked on the reinterpretation of the museum’s ceramics galleries, developing a specialty in 18th-century European ceramics, with a particular focus on French porcelain.
In 2010, Maxwell left the V&A to pursue his PhD at the University of Glasgow, which he completed in 2014. The topic of his dissertation research was the dispersal of the Hamilton Palace collection. Maxwell rejoined the Royal Collection as project curator during this time, and since 2013, worked with Travis Hansson Fine Art, a private art dealer based in Beverly Hills.