The Allure of Glass 18 Years Later
by Maxine Carter-Lome
For 18 years the Journal of Antiques & Collectibles has published an annual April Glass Issue. Although we pride ourselves on exploring a wide range of changing topics, we continue to come back to glass – not only because the topic provides for never-ending inquiry but because glass, in all its forms, facets, and colors, is relatable and universally appreciated.
Glass has a serious back-story, with a history that dates back to the Stone Age. Early societies used naturally occurring glass, and volcanic glass in particular, in the making of tools. By the mid-third millennium BC, glass was being used as decorative objects, mostly found in the form of beads. By the 15th century BC, extensive glass production was occurring in Western Asia, Crete, and Egypt. While our editorial over the years has tended to focus on the makers and techniques of antique glass, in this issue we start with a look at ancient glass from The Allaire Collection, which spans nearly 3000 years of glass making from the Roman period to the present.
The start of modern glass production dates back to the late-17th century and is widely credited to George Ravenscroft, who was the first to create clear lead crystal glassware on an industrial scale. George discovered that adding lead oxide to molten glass improved its appearance and made it easier to smelt using sea-coal as a furnace fuel. This technique had the added side benefit of increasing the “working period” of glass, which made it easier to manipulate. By the turn of the century, there were dozens of glasshouses in operation throughout England, and the country exported its goods throughout Europe, dominating the market and leading the technology. The use of glass as a building material captured the world’s attention at The Great Exhibition of 1851 with The Crystal Palace, constructed to house this first world exhibition. Glass not only played a dominant role in this first World’s Fair, but would continue to do so in subsequent trade exhibitions through the 20th century in the showcase of new design techniques and as popular souvenirs.
New glass techniques, style, wealth, and taste moved utilitarian glass objects into the realm of the decorative arts, and glass into an art form as America moved into the 19th century. Today, although the market for glass experienced a downturn during the Great Recession of 2008, things are turning around a bit says Jeffrey Evans in his article on page 26. On the front lines of the auction market for glass, Evans concedes the market may not bounce back to the vigorous price levels of the 1990s and early 2000s but is heartened by the promising trends he is seeing. The upside? “There are so many great opportunities to acquire things that used to be out of our reach, and if everyone works hard to promote the glass market, the demand will once again be more than the supply.”
The natural beauty of glass in color and form makes it desirable to not only collect but to display. No one showcased the decorative properties of a glass collection more than Henry Davis Sleeper (1878-1934), the nationally noted American antiquarian, collector, and interior decorator, perhaps best known for his home Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, MA, today an Historic New England property.
Sleeper, an interior decorator at heart, broke ground on Beauport in 1907 and over the next 27-years expanded his modest Arts and Crafts-style summer retreat by the sea into a gabled and turreted labyrinth of some 40 rooms filled with vast collections of American and European objects, arranged by Sleeper into compositions of color, light, and evocative meaning. The image on our cover of an amber glass window can be found in the Stair Hall at Beauport (photo courtesy of Historic New England). Sleeper filled the doorway with shelves to hold his 130-piece collection of blown and press amber glass. He installed a skylight to light the window from behind, producing this stunning image.
By the 1930s Sleeper and Beauport were extremely well-known, and Sleeper was called in to decorate the homes of such Hollywood legends Joan Crawford and Fredric March. Henry Francis du Pont was so impressed by Beauport that he asked Sleeper to design his family’s summer home on Long Island. This house, Chestertown, led in turn to the creation of Winterthur, now the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum of American decorative arts near Wilmington, DE.
Beauport was, and through the site’s preservation continues to be, Sleeper’s showroom containing his lifetime collection of glass, ceramics, folk art silhouettes, furniture, and so much more. Although a collector at heart, Sleeper saw the decorative value in displaying his collections, some amassed more for their aesthetic presentation than for their intrinsic uniqueness. It is a reminder that the beauty of glass is best expressed when on display where it can be seen and admired.
No matter where you live, chances are you won’t have to drive far to see glass on display and for sale, from your neighborhood antique shop to a local museum and art gallery. Also, look through our “Glass Club and Resource Directory” and “Glass News and Notes” in this issue to find a glass club or upcoming event in your neck of the woods.
The Allure of Glass 18 Years Later