Article and photos by Donald-Brian Johnson
“Bend me, shape me, any way you want me …”
Glass. You can bend it and you can shape it. You can also mold, slump, fuse, or crackle it. Pressed glass? Check. Blown glass? That’s on the list, too. Plus, there’s sculpted glass, engraved glass, woven glass, and, of course, cut glass.
But that’s just for starters. There’s lots, lots more that can be done with glass. And folks have been doing it for a long, long time.
La Vie Boheme
The earliest glass objects date back to ancient Egypt, with glassblowing making its debut in classical-era Greece. By at least the third century B.C., glassmaking was common knowledge in Mediterranean countries, the technique utilized primarily for functional objects, such as decanters, goblets, and carafes.
At just about the same time, the first glass imports made their way to the region that would eventually come to dominate the glassmaking industry: Bohemia, which today comprises much of the Czech Republic.
Added to that was the native talent. Among the most notable: gem cutter Caspar Lehmann, who, in the 1600s, discovered that the copper and bronze wheels utilized for gem engraving could be adapted successfully for similar work with glass, expanding its artistic horizons. In the early 1800s, even greater innovations came courtesy of Bedrich Egermann, known as the “magician of glass.” With the rest of Europe focusing on the possibilities inherent in clear cut glass, Egermann turned his talents to experimentation with colored glass. Glaze-decorated, opaque colored glass was introduced by Egermann, and has continued into the present as an important form of artistic expression.
By the mid-1800s, the Bohemian reputation for fine glassmaking was such that formalized training in “the Bohemian style” was made available to craftsmen from other countries. Bohemia became the go-to destination for the study and refinement of glassmaking techniques.
And there was, of course, all that exquisite glassware which quickly found fans worldwide. Popular Bohemian exports included glass items decorated with colorful enameled flowers (useful for concealing minor flaws in the glass); reverse-glass paintings (the image painted on the reverse of the glass, then framed); hand-cut crystal; and hand-blown figurines and ornaments. But among the loveliest examples of Bohemian glass were unique cased glass vessels. The glory days of this glistening glass specialty came in the mid-1800s, bringing color and elegance to Victorian homes. Cased glass objects kept customers in thrall then, and continue to entrance collectors today.
Cased glass is a very specific type of decorative glassware. Its look can easily be captured in the mind’s eye. Contrasting layers of varied glass colors-often cranberry and white, cobalt, and white, or either with clear-are fused together. Patterns in the exterior layer are cut through to the inner layer, revealing the color variance beneath. But, in keeping with the Victorian taste for embellishment, the gloss goes even further. Often, the pieces include gold detailing on the exterior layer, enameled illustrations (usually floral), and, in especially elaborate designs, dangling clear arrowhead prisms, faceted to catch the light.
But what to call these objects? Their functions are certainly clearly defined by their shapes, from vases and plates to goblets and decanters. But what, exactly, are they? Cased glass? Overlay Glass? Flash? Stained? These descriptors, each trotted out at one time or another over the years, can be copious and confusing, but there are some overall differentiations:
Probably the best-known term for this type of glass artistry, “cased glass” combines glass layers of contrasting color, or a colored layer blown with a clear one. The interior layer is, in effect, encased in the exterior, both layers of equal thickness. The process is repeated for any additional layers. Looking into the interior of a cased object will reveal a color different than that of the exterior. One of the first known examples of cased glass, the Portland Vase, dates from the reign of Roman emperor Caesar Augustus.
Cutaways in the outer cased glass layer expose the inner contrast. The cutaways, achieved through grinding, are often repeated geometric or nature motifs, their edges defined with gold striping. Although sometimes referred to as cameos, that term, as applied to cased glass cutaways, is not technically accurate. A cameo is the raised portion remaining after a surface glass layer, often opaque white, has been hand-carved, acid-etched, or “cut” with the use of mechanical grinding wheel. Glass cameo pieces of the Roman Empire often depict white figural images on a dark glass background. Much later cameo works, by such design names as Gallé and Daum, used a similar technique for creating winding vines and other nature-based elements.
In the strictest glassblower’s definition of cased glass, a piece of one color has already been fashioned, and the new color layer is blown inside it. In the United States, an alternate term for cased glass is plated glass. Common throughout Bohemia from the early 1800s onward, cased glass made its way to France in the 1820s, and to England by the mid-1800s.
The terms “overlay” glass and “cased” glass are often used interchangeably, and there’s really no contradiction in the eventual outcome. In both cases, one layer of colored glass overlays another of contrasting color, casing the layer within. Technically, however, overlay refers to layering glass of different colors during the glassblowing process, resulting in the cased effect. Casing, as noted, refers to blowing a new glass layer within an original completed layer. In both cases, the layers are then fused together.
Whether called overlay or cased, the rest of the decorative treatment, such as the use of cutaways, remains the same. So feel free to call it by whichever term proves easiest to remember!
Dipping clear or colored glass into hot glass of a contrasting color is the blown-glass technique resulting in what’s known as flashed glass. The outer color layer is extremely thin, making it much simpler to cut to the crystal beneath (or to inadvertently chip the surface color!). Less costly than casing, flashed glass gives an overall appearance of solid color. (And, just to make things more confusing, flashed glass used to also be referred to as a type of overlay glass. Although it technically is, these days the additional definition has-thankfully-fallen into disuse.
By far the cheapest way of achieving color contrast in glass, staining involves brushing a color formula on the desired portions of a cooled glass object. When fired, the painted areas achieve the intended color, and become permanent (although stained glass pieces of this type are highly susceptible to surface scratches). Most inexpensive household and souvenir pressed glassware of the late 1800s (particularly all those ruby-and-clear favorites) made use of staining, rather than the costlier, more labor-intensive flashing. Red was the most popular of the stained glass colors, ranging in shade from a rich “ruby” to a pinkish “maiden’s blush.” Also in demand: blue, green, amber, pink, and yellow.
As with many glassmaking techniques, staining is also believed to have made its debut in Bohemia. Its essence as a “painted” technique sets staining apart from casing, overlay, and flashing.
Whatever the term (and, for clarity and ease of reference, we’re sticking with cased), the finished glass product is both elegant and eye-catching. Among the most popular manifestations of Bohemian cased glass: decanters, tumblers, goblets, cruets, bowls, plates, vases, epergnes, dresser boxes, perfume bottles, and even pendants. Most imposing are “mantel lustres” (also known as “spill vases”), oversize open-top vases adorned with prisms. Generally heavily gilded, and often dotted with enameled pictorial medallions, the lustres make as prominent a décor impact now as they did when first introduced.
Cased glass pieces have also been successfully adapted to suit modern needs without sacrificing their innate artistic integrity: spill vases are repurposed as candleholders, and trumpet vases have been strung with electric wiring to serve as lamp bases.
The upper-class Victorian drawing room was chock-a-block with “stuff.” Ornate velvet settees and loveseats jostled for floor space, as did tables crowded with curios of every shape, size, and provenance. Walls were laden with humungous oil paintings, hanging cheek-by-jowl alongside dusty family portraits. Amidst all the decorative clutter, cased glass, a festival of larger-than-life ornamentation, seemed right at home.
More thought seems to be required for the placement of cased glass in the modern living space, where rooms are less thematically decorated, if no less crowded. Fortunately, cased glass objects are “statement” pieces, and seem to naturally find the perfect spot to dominate the conversation. A single, massive mantel lustre (on the mantel, naturally) can be breathtaking. A ledge lineup of ruby-and-white decanters and tumblers can make a novel and effective visual contribution to any décor. Bringing cased glass to the forefront is key; it’s most definitely not a decorating afterthought.
Skillfully executed and lavishly decorated, cased glass objects stand as a historical tribute to a very specialized application of the glassmaker’s craft. These are, quite simply, beautiful works of art. Overdone? Not at all. Decades and decades after debuting, the brilliance of cased glass continues to shine. The ornately rococo styling is both intentional and dazzling. In the giant candy box of Victorian ornamentation, cased glass is among the tastiest, and most appetizing, offering.
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann.
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including Postwar Pop, a collection of his columns, and an upcoming second volume. Please address inquiries to email@example.com.