Glass of the Maharajahs: European Cut Glass Furnishings for Indian Royalty
The very idea that a chair could glitter like a diamond, catch light like a colored gemstone, and still function as seating must have astounded those who first encountered glass furniture in the mid- to late-19th century.
Visitors to Glass of the Maharajahs experienced that same sense of bedazzlement. The exhibition examined a little-known chapter of design history, when European glass manufacturers tailored one-of-a-kind and limited-production glass furniture to the tastes of the wealthy Indian elite.
The earliest glass furniture, which was made in Russia and France, consisted of cast and cut glass pieces assembled on %%metal%% frames. The concept was so new that, when the French glass engraver Philippe-Auguste Charpentier applied for a patent for the manufacture of glass furniture in 1813, his petition was denied because French officials believed that production of glass furniture was impossible. However, Charpentier made several pieces that were shown in Paris. One of these was included in the Museum’s exhibition.
The production of large-%%scale%% glass pieces increased when F. & C. Osler of Birmingham, England, decided to make a 27-foot-high crystal fountain for the first world’s fair, which was held in London’s %%Crystal%% Palace in 1851. It became the centerpiece of that exhibition. Osler also showed two candelabra that had been made for Queen Victoria, and this opened the door to larger and larger glass fixtures, many of them colored.
For the rest of the 19th century, world’s fairs continued to display chandeliers, glass cabinets, and chairs designed by Osler, Jonas Defries & Sons of London, and Baccarat of France. Eastern customers appreciated color, so furniture was upholstered in bright velvets, and many of the chandeliers were made of colored glass. One of the most %%striking%% pieces in the exhibition was an Osler gueridon (a small, round table) in deep blue glass that was made in the 1880s. An Osler design book, lent by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, was on display, as were several catalogs and other archival material. There was also an advertisement for glass furniture that affords the only pictorial record of this production. This document is preserved in our Rakow Research Library.
Among the highlights of Glass of the Maharajahs was a unique 11-foot-tall mirrored and intricately faceted glass wall cabinet, on public view in the United States for the first time. There were massive chandeliers, side tables, chairs, a towering candelabrum, and even a crystal and horsehair fly whisk. Also on view were detailed design drawings, printed catalogs, copies of period advertisements, and historical photographs of palace interiors.
Some of the furniture and printed materials are drawn from The Corning Museum of Glass and Rakow Library collections; others were borrowed from Indian palaces, private homes and archival collections.