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The Eastern Connection

All About Glass

In the 19th century, at the very time when glassmakers were improving their skill in fashioning and annealing the large pieces that would be needed to create furniture, the number of contacts between Europe and countries to the east was increasing, and both England and France were expanding their empires to the east. Many European manufacturers were seeking world markets, and many Asian countries were eager for Western goods. In the latter half of the century, several glass companies began to make large, colored objects — including chandeliers, candelabra, fountains, and furniture — that were specifically designed for the very wealthy rulers of the Near East and India.

Sultans Mahmud II (r. 1808-1839) and his son Abdülmecid I (r. 1839-1861) wanted to open the shrinking Ottoman Empire to European trade. A trade agreement was signed by the Ottoman and British governments in 1838, and shortly after his accession to the throne, Abdülmecid promulgated a reformed dress code that banned the turban in favor of the more modern fez. In 1839, he instituted the Tanzimat reforms, which modernized schools and the Turkish infrastructure, and during his reign he built roads and railroads to make the country more accessible. In 1856, Turkey was allied with England and France against Russia during the Crimean War. Abdülmecid's brother and successor, Abdülaziz (r. 1861-1876), visited Europe as the first Ottoman sultan to leave Turkey on a peaceful mission. In 1867, at the invitation of Napoleon III, he traveled to Paris to visit the world's fair, and then he went to London, where he was received by Queen Victoria.

Fig. 1: Print showing the sultan's dining room in the Dolmabahçe Palace. From The Illustrated News of the World, January 28, 1860, p. 60. Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Research Library of The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York.In embracing modernity and Western ideas, Abdülmecid decided to move from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul to a new palace constructed in a Western architectural style. This was Istanbul's Dolmabahçe Palace (Fig. 1), which was built between 1853 and 1856. Its Turkish features, such as its dome, are combined with a wide range of European motifs, including triangular pediments. The decoration was designed by Charles Séchan (1803-1874), the Frenchman who created the new Paris Opera House. The palace also contained a considerable number of large lighting fixtures and other glass objects. Among them was a fantastic set of eight mirrors produced by the London firm of Jonas Defries & Sons.

The best description of these mirrors, which are still housed in the palace, comes from a publication of the 1862 world's fair in London, where Defries exhibited one of them. It noted that “the greatest curiosity” in this firm's display

is the Prismatic Mirror, one of eight designed and manufactured for the Sultan of Turkey, to adorn two of the principal saloons of the Imperial Palace on the Bosphorus. The apartments in question are called the Saloon Mehben and the Saloon Zwhlbech, the walls of which, on the side overlooking the Bosphorus, are of circular form. Both are furnished in the European style, with stoves and lofty mantelpieces; but a great difficulty arose in fitting the curved space over the fire-place with mirrors, as it was impossible to make mirrors of such a form and of the immense size required. To overcome this difficulty, which for a time was considered almost insurmountable, Messrs. Defries and Sons designed the prismatic mirrors …Each of the Sultan’s saloons is to be decorated with four of these mirrors, fifteen feet high by eight broad, and containing 1,000 prisms. All the prisms join each other at the sides, so as to form almost one piece, and at the ends are dovetailed together, and held into the frame by a system of copper rods, which fit into grooves cast in the glass. By this means the mirror is made concave, to suit the form of the wall. The weight of pure crystal glass in each mirror is one ton, and the weight of the metal back is one ton more. They will[,] of course, be dispatched to the Bosphorus in pieces, and on arrival at their destination the backs of the prisms will be silvered, and all put together — each mirror in a gilt Turkish frame of great breadth and richness. To show the effect, one has been silvered and put together at Messrs. Defries' warehouse; and the play of colour and brilliancy of light reflected upon the whole mass of prisms is something inconceivably beautiful. In the palace, the mirrors will be placed opposite each other, with a hundred-branched light before each … The whole design, arrangement, and manufacture of the mirrors reflect the very highest credit upon the enterprise and skill of Messrs. Defries; and from the interest which has been evinced in them since their exhibition, there seems little doubt that, in spite of their great cost, they will soon become fashionable enrichments in the palaces of the wealthy.1

Another publication, however, described this same mirror as “singularly ugly and of equally bad taste.”2 Good taste was considered to be one of the most important criteria for judging “art manufactures,” which modern critics call the decorative arts.

Defries registered the design for the prismatic mirror on May 14, 1857, and it was probably supplied to the palace that year. Thus it was not new when Defries displayed it at the 1862 fair. However, because it afforded a unique solution to the problem presented by the design of the space in which it was to be located, the company was justifiably proud of it.

Another remarkable design from the Dolmabahçe Palace is a staircase with glass banisters that must have been installed during its construction. The design for this staircase was registered by the London chandelier makers Hancock, Rixon and Dunt on March 12, 1852. There are two slightly different versions of the staircase in the records of The National Archives U.K., but both of them were registered on the same day. According to one modern historian, “The manufacture of a baluster of this kind, which entailed joining together a number of quite separately produced individual pieces, was a matter of no great difficulty, but its importance lay in the choice and simple but effective realisation of a design that would introduce something utterly new to the architectural setting.”3

The palace's 285 rooms were illuminated by 82 chandeliers (52 of them were made of glass) and nearly 400 candelabra, including 60 glass examples. Although the palace was not yet under construction in 1851, some of the glass is supposed to have been purchased at London's Great Exhibition, the first world's fair, which was held that year. Turkey had sent displays to this fair, so it would have been surprising if Turkish officials had not brought back furnishings from London. Indeed, the influence of the exposition can be seen in the fact that there was a glass fountain in the palace similar to the one that had been shown at the Crystal Palace, although it was smaller. At most of the subsequent world's fairs, Turkey presented displays of traditional crafts and its developing technology.

Hancock, Rixon and Dunt also supplied the palace with a mammoth chandelier containing 644 lights, which hangs in the throne room. It is signed by the firm and dated “June 1853” on the metalwork. This chandelier weighs four and a half tons, and the design for this object, or a very similar one, was registered on October 21, 1851. According to palace records, this was a gift to the sultan from Queen Victoria. The firm also registered two designs for glass fireplaces on March 3, 1852, just a few days before the banisters were registered. These are thought to have been made for the palace. There are four glass fireplaces in the corners of the entrance hall, four more in a reception room, and two made of red glass in the small audience chamber. Although the fireplaces in the palace are not a perfect match for the registered designs, many elements are similar, and it therefore seems probable that Hancock, Rixon and Dunt created the fireplaces.

More than 100 large glass lighting pieces are housed in the Dolmabahçe Palace. At least two of them are Venetian, and others are clearly French. However, ruby­cased chandeliers that were probably made by the English firm of F. & C. Osler are found in the Halife Staircase, the Blue Salon, and the dowager sultana's reception room, and there are several Osler candelabra in the palace. The Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul also has Osler lighting, including a large green-cased chandelier and a candelabrum.

Finally, the Dolmabahçe Palace has a glass piano made by Gaveau of Paris about 1900. The piano was encased in glass for no conceivable functional reason, but probably just to inspire amazement. Today, it is displayed with a glass chair that was made in the 1890s by the Bohemian firm of Elias Palme (see chapter 7, figures 7 and 8). Although these two objects were produced in different countries, they were probably purchased at the same time.

Most of the furniture for the Dolmabahçe Palace was ordered during and shortly after its construction, although new pieces were periodically added later in the 19th century. Istanbul's Beylerbeyi and Çirağan Palaces were built shortly after the Dolmabahçe Palace, and they evince a similar Western influence and use of glass.4 All of these palaces continued to be used into the 20th century, and they are now museums.

Another Asian country that was much influenced by Europe during the 19th century was India. Trading companies from both England and France had established outposts in India in the 17th century. When the British defeated the French at Plassey, northeastern India, in 1757, they began a two-century-long rule of the Indian subcontinent, and the British East India Company enjoyed a virtual monopoly on trade in that region. Following the Indian Mutiny (1857-1859), most of the country came under the direct rule of the British government. Areas that were not under British control were protected by native hereditary rulers, who exercised various degrees of autonomy. There was a substantial British population in India, and many of the native rulers, following the Turkish example, chose to build palaces that were, at least in part, based on Western styles. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 facilitated both shipping and travel between England and India. Europeans desired Indian fabrics and other goods, and large quantities of English and French furniture, lighting fixtures, and glassware were exported to India.

Fig. 2: Mirrored walls in the Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), Motibagh Palace, Patiala, India, 18th century.Most of the Indian rulers were extremely wealthy, and they usually displayed their wealth in the form of luxurious palaces and furnishings. The older palaces were often decorated with inlaid walls that sparkled with colored glass and mirrored inserts. A room ornamented in this style was known as a “Sheesh Mahal” (Fig. 2),5 and it was frequently found in the women's quarters. From the mid-18th century, English and French glass chandeliers were popular fixtures, and some palaces were decorated with European-made glass finials as well. It was probably this love of color and sparkle that later prompted the Indian rulers to embrace the idea of colored glass chandeliers and glass furniture — a taste that was not shared in Europe. Furniture made of glass or silver was especially popular in India, since it did not deteriorate in the hot and muggy climate, as Western wooden furniture did.

With the exception of Rajasthan in northwestern India, the princely states did not have lavishly furnished palaces before the late 19th century. Furniture in the Western sense — tables, chairs, and beds — was not used there. Instead, the residents sat and slept on floor cushions and mats. The only necessary article of furniture was a chest for storage. However, as the British extended their influence, the Indians sought European tutors and foreign travel for heirs to the throne, and the nation's wealthy princes began to adopt Western ways and to build Western-style palaces. Some princes hired European architects, while others employed British army engineers. Most of these palaces combined classical or Italianate architecture with elements of Indian design. Both of these styles used domes and colonnades, as well as clusters of arches.6

Fig. 3: Detail of mirrored wall in the Sheesh Mahal, Motibagh Palace.
Fig. 4: Portrait of the maharajah Mohinder Singh (r. 1862-1876), Motibagh Palace.

The Motibagh Palace, located at Patiala in the Punjab, northwestern India, was one of the largest of these palaces. Built by the maharajah Nerindera Singh (r. 1845-1862) in the 1850s, it is said to have been one of the grandest private residences in Asia (Fig. 3). The Qila Mubarak (fort) had been the royal residence before that time. Its durbar7 hall has a collec­tion of more than 20 Osler chandeliers purchased by Mohinder Singh (r. 1862-1876; Fig. 4) in the 1870s.

Gwalior's Jai Vilas Palace was constructed by Jayaji Rao Scindia, one of India's richest rulers, in the early 1870s. It was built in anticipation of a visit to India from the Prince of Wales, which lasted from November 1875 to January 1876. The palace's durbar hall includes two of the largest chandeliers constructed by Osler. Each of them is more than 40 feet in height. According to palace records, elephants were hoisted onto the roof to make sure that it could support the weight of these colossal chandeliers. Another outstanding feature of this palace is the banisters on the staircase that ascends to the durbar hall. A particularly Indian feature is a swing that is heavily decorated with glass, including prisms from broken chandeliers.

Fig. 5: City Palace, Udaipur, India. This complex, consisting of several palaces, was built over three centuries.The City Palace in Udaipur, northwestern India, was started in the 17th century, and it is now a complex that includes buildings added in the 18th and 19th centuries (Fig. 5). It houses the largest known collection of glass furniture (Fig. 6). Most of these pieces were made by Osler, and they were acquired by Maharana8 Sajjan Singh (r. 1874-1884) between 1878 and 1882 and by his successor, Maharana Fateh Singh (r. 1884-1930), until the 1920s. During this time, the maharanas bought two settees, a bed, numerous tables and chairs, a small fountain, lamps, a shrine, and other pieces that were used in a variety of locations within the City Palace complex. Some of the later purchases were never unpacked because they arrived after Fateh Singh's death. However, the present maharana has gathered all of these pieces together in a crystal gallery in the durbar hall, where they make a stunning display.

Fig. 6: Cut glass bed in the City Palace. F. & C. Osler, 1890s.
Fig. 7: Colored glass window in the City Palace, 19th century.

The palace also features some of the most elaborate mirrored inlay work in India, as well as colored glass windows (Fig. 7). It includes a chair inlaid with glass (Fig. 8) that fits the style of the palace's Sheesh Mahal.

Fig. 8: Wooden chair with glass inlays in the City Palace, 19th century.The Faluknuma and Chowmalla Palaces in Hyderabad, southern India, also have large quantities of English glass chandeliers and candelabra, as well as some examples of French and Bohemian glass. The former palace was constructed in 1872 and purchased by the nizam (ruler) in 1897. The palaces at Jaipur, Jodhpur, Baroda, and Bikaner each contain chandeliers and a few pieces of glass furniture, mostly tables and chairs, and there are some examples in other palaces as well. Most of the royal families purchased this furniture in small quantities. The rulers of Patiala, Gwalior, and Udaipur were the principal buyers of both chandeliers and glass furniture, and many examples are still on display in their palaces.

Not all of this glass was delivered exclusively to palaces, however. The maharajahs were certainly the leaders in terms of taste and fashion, but they were not the only customers for imported wares. Prosperous civil servants, both British and Indian, patronized stores in Delhi, Bombay, and Calcutta that were stocked with European china and glassware.

Most of the lighting devices and all of the furniture and fountains were made by the firms that are discussed in the following chapters. Some other English manufacturers supplied chandeliers to India. As early as 1790, John Blades of London was supplying cut glass lighting fixtures and tableware to India and the Near East. He is said to have made a mausoleum of emerald green glass that was 14 feet high for the nabob of Oude in 1795, as well as cut glass tables for the ruler of Egypt. The shah of Persia and the nizam of Hyderabad were also customers, but no illustrations of these commissions survive.9 At least two examples marked by Henry Greene, also a London maker, were in the Chowmalla Palace in Hyderabad,10 and there are probably others still in India. A.S. Nash, yet another London glassmaker, is known to have provided lighting fixtures to India. Some recent publications on the palaces11 have maintained that most of this glass furniture was made in Belgium, but there is no indication that the Cristalleries de Val St. Lambert, the largest Belgian glass factory in the late 19th century, or any other Belgian firm, made any of these pieces. A small number of these chandeliers seem to have originated in Venice and Bohemia, but the great majority are English and French, and they can be reliably attributed to specific factories.

Only a few of these objects have survived. Nevertheless, they have become popular in Europe and the United States, where examples can occasionally be found in antique shops and auction houses. These pieces were made at a specific time and for a limited market. They are fantastic examples of what the marriage of design and technology can achieve. We are fortunate that their owners cherished and preserved them. With the information on the manufacturers of these objects that is presented in the following chapters, perhaps more of them can be identified.

Jane Shadel Spillman, Curator of American Glass
This article was published in European Glass Furnishings for Eastern Palaces, 2006, pp. 22–49.

1. Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper Exhibitor … of All the Principal Objects in the International Exhibition of 1862, London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin, 1862, pp. 203-204.

2. London International Exhibition (1862), The Record of the International Exhibition, 1862, gen. ed. Robert Mallet, Glasgow: W. MacKenzie, [1862], p. 203.

3. Önder Küçükerman, A 500 Years’ Heritage in Istanbul: The Turkish Glass Industry and Şişecam, [Istanbul]: Türkiye Şişeve Cam Fabrikalari A.Ş., [1999], p. 149.

4. Ibid., pp. 139-140.

5. The Sheesh Mahal (literally “Palace of Mirrors”) was one of the most lavish rooms in an eastern palace. It was decorated throughout with everything from murals to lovely floral designs on the walls that were reminiscent pf Mughal pietra dura. As the name suggests, the decoration also included exquisitely designed glass and mirrors.

6. For more information on the Indian palaces, see the books written by the maharajah of Baroda, Martinelli and Michell, Michell and Martinelli, and Raulet and Garde that are listed on page 144.

7. The durbar was a festive reception given by a maharajah for his subjects, at which they pledged their fealty to him.

8. In her account of a trip around the world, the American writer Dorothy Dix noted that the ruler of Udaipur “boasts the bluest blue native blood in India, and is called Maharana, which makes him one peg higher than a Maharajah. He is absolute lord over a vast section of country and millions of people, and has an income of six million dollars a year” (My Joy-Ride round the World, London: Mills & Boon Ltd., 1922, p. 216).

9. Manufacture of Ornamental Glass, London: n.p., 1823, pp/ 5 and 7.

10. John P. Smith, The Art of Enlightenment: A History of Glass Chandelier Manufacture and Design, London: Mallett, 1994, pp. 36-37.

11. See the books written by the maharajah of Baroda, Martinelli and Michell, and Raulet and Garde that are listed on page 144.

Published on January 15, 2018

Jane Shadel Spillman
Jane Shadel Spillman joined the Museum in 1965 and in 1978 became the Museum’s curator of American glass. She retired from this position in April 2013. Spillman has published numerous articles and books, including European Glass Furnishings for...