All About Glass

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Glass Furniture in the 19th Century

All About Glass

Today, it is not at all unusual to find glass tables and cabinets, as well as large glass lighting devices. But in the second half of the 19th century, when glass was first used in furniture on a commercial basis, it would have been truly remarkable to see such objects. The development of glass furniture was dependent, first of all, upon advances in glassmaking technology. During the 19th century, glassmakers learned how to blow or cast relatively large pieces and anneal them so that they would be strong enough to withstand the pressure of cutting tools. This enabled them to manufacture ornately decorated supports for massive candelabra and large, thick slabs of glass that could be used as tabletops. Some such pieces were used in glass fountains and furniture.

Even before that time, however, individual pieces of furniture had been decorated with glass tops or glass inlays, but these were never in standard production. Instead, they were usually one-of-a-kind pieces made for royalty or for the very wealthy, and they were often created in state-operated glasshouses. Wooden objects lavishly decorated with glass are known from the late 17th century, when Louis XIV owned a table with a mosaic glass top and glass legs, probably made in Italy. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762), the indefatigable English traveler, described a set of glass-decorated furniture that she saw for sale in Venice in 1756. She noted, “It is impossible to imagine their beauty; they deserve being placed in a prince’s dressing-room, or grand cabinet ...”1 Catherine II of Russia had glass walls, doors, arches, columns, and pilasters designed by Charles Cameron for three private rooms in the Grand Palace at Tsarskoye Selo in 1780-1783. There were also tables decorated with blue and opaline glass, several with églomisé2 tops (Mahogany writing table with top and side panels made of painted and gilded glass; gilded bronze mounts. Attributed to Heinrich Gambs and Jonathan Ott, St. Petersburg, Russia, about 1795. Hillwood Museum & Gardens, Washington, D.C. [32.31].). A few of these are still in Catherine’s palace, although the opaline glass architectural features were destroyed during World War II and can be seen only in paintings of the period.3

Figure 2. Glass table with gilded bronze mounts. Designed by Thomas-Jean de Thomon in 1808 and made at the Imperial Glassworks, St. Petersburg, Russia. H. 79 cm. (74.3.129), purchased with funds from the Museum Endowment Fund.The production of glass furniture in Russia began in the early 19th century, when the Imperial Glassworks fashioned pieces for the imperial family. Two surviving examples are a pair of tables that have tops consisting of a single octagonal slab of blue glass, a center section of blown amber glass with swirling cut channels, and a cast square base of amber glass so thick that it appears to be black. Gilded bronze was used to hold the sides of the tabletop together and to fasten the central support to the top and bottom, but the tables are essentially made of glass. They were designed in 1808 by Thomas-Jean de Thomon (1754–1813), a French architect who was also the chief designer at the Imperial factory. One of these tables, with its original washbasin and pitcher of blue and colorless cut glass, is still in the Pavlovsk Palace outside St. Petersburg. It is thought to have been made for Czar Alexander I to present to his mother, the widow of Paul I. The other [74.3.129] is in the collection of The Corning Museum of Glass (Fig. 1). It, too, may have been a gift from Alexander to his mother, or he may have given it to his sister. In the late 19th century, this table was probably taken by the empress Maria Fyodorovna (1847–1928), the widow of Alexander III, to Denmark (she was originally Princess Dagmar of Denmark). It was used in the palace at Hvidore Castle, where the Russian imperial family stayed during their visits to that country. Eventually, it was placed on the antiques market.

Fig. 3: Vase of ruby glass, blown, overlaid, cut, polished; gilded bronze mounts. Russia, St. Petersburg, Imperial Glassworks, about 1829, possibly made for the First Industrial Exposition of that year. H. 56 cm. The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York (96.3.22).The Imperial Glassworks also provided a number of large standing vases and lamps for the royal palaces. Many of these objects combined colored and colorless cut glass, often with ormolu (gilded metal) handles and pedestals. Several candelabra with pillars of blue glass made by the Potemkin glasshouse can still be found in the former royal palaces. The Imperial factory produced very large vases supported on tripod bases, as well as massive ruby or colorless vases with ormolu handles [96.3.22] (Fig. 2). Although Russian decorative arts were often influenced by French designs, nothing like any of these pieces was being made elsewhere in Europe at that time.

An even more remarkable piece of Russian furniture was the glass bed made for the shah of Persia in 1824. Five years earlier, Czar Alexander I had sent the shah a crystal (colorless lead glass) basin as a diplomatic gift. The shah was so pleased that he requested a glass bed to go with the basin, and the czar consented to order this at a cost of about 50,000 rubles. The bed was designed by Ivan Alexeyevich Ivanov (1779–1848), chief designer at the Imperial Glassworks, where it was made. The original sketch of the bed survives, along with a description by Lieutenant Noskov, the Russian official who transported the object to Tehran and installed it for the shah in 1826–1827.4 It consisted of an iron frame plated with silver and brass and then covered with cut crystal. There were crystal columns at the corners and a crystal headboard that rested on a platform of turquoise glass. Seven crystal vases surrounding the bed were actually fountains. As far as we know, this was the first piece of European glass furniture made for an Eastern monarch. Although glass originated in the Middle East, very little of it was being made there in the 19th century.

At about the same time, the French were creating cut glass furniture that was even more elaborate than the objects made in Russia, although their glass was entirely colorless. The restoration of the monarchy and the accession of Louis XVIII in 1814 popularized luxury wares and resulted in an increase in both the quantity and the quality of French-produced glass items. The furniture and accessories of this period (1814–1848) were often influenced by classical designs. They include porcelain vases from the Sèvres factory, sphinx-like figures that were used as supports in both porcelain and furniture, and classically styled profiles as decorative motifs. Gothic motifs were also popular.5

On April 22, 1813, the glass engraver Philippe-Auguste Charpentier (1781–1815) applied to the Consulting Committee for Arts and Manufactures for a brevet d’invention (letters patent) permitting him to employ glass in the manufacture of furniture. The committee replied that this process could not be protected by a patent, and there is no record that such a grant was issued.6 At that time, Charpentier was the proprietor of a business in the Palais-Royal that would be named L’Escalier de Cristal (The Glass Staircase) by 1814. Some pieces of finely engraved glass have been attributed to this shop, which probably employed several engravers.7 It had a much-admired glass staircase at its entrance that was probably the first of its kind.8 Despite the lack of a patent, Charpentier must have persisted in seeking to make glass furniture. A letter from his sister, Marie-Jeanne-Rosalie Désarnoud-Charpentier, who managed L’Escalier de Cristal, to the royal household reports that “dans ce moment je termine un nouveau meuble tout en cristal” (at this moment, I am finishing a new piece of furniture that is all glass).9 Her shop later produced a cut glass dressing table and matching armchair for the Fifth French Industrial Exhibition, which was held at the Louvre in 1819. The glass parts for this display were supplied by Aimé-Gabriel d’Artigues (1778–1848). He was the manager of the Compagnie des Verreries et Cristalleries de Baccarat in France (a position that he had assumed in 1816) as well as a glasshouse in Vonêche, Belgium. Although it is impossible to know which of his two factories produced the glass, Baccarat seems more likely because D’Artigues was unable to import his glass from Vonêche after February 1818.

In any event, Mme Désarnoud-Charpentier and L’Escalier de Cristal won a gold medal and considerable acclaim for this exhibit, which consisted of six pieces. The catalog describes them as “meubles de cristal, savoir: 1. Une toilette de cristal décorée de bronzes dorés et des meubles qui en dépendent; 2. Une cheminée décorée de bronzes dorés et cristaux; 3. Deux grands candelabres de cristal et bronzes dorés; 4. Deux tables ornés de bronzes et cristal; 5. Une grande pendule et plusiers grands vases ornés de cristal et bronze; et 6. plus, toutes les pièces qui garnissent ordinairement ces divers meubles” (glass furniture, including 1. a dressing table decorated with gilt bronze and the furniture that belongs with it; 2. a mantelpiece decorated with bronze and glass; 3. two large candelabra of glass with bronze decoration; 4. two tables decorated with bronze and crystal; 5. a great clock and several large vases decorated with glass and bronze; and 6. all the pieces that are necessary to decorate these pieces of furniture).10 Accounts of the exhibition also mention that her customers included the Persian ambassador, the royal families of Russia and Spain, and “la Reine d’Etrurie,”11 who was probably María-Luisa, daughter of Charles IV of Spain. She was the former queen of Etruria, and she was known as the duchess of Lucca in 1815.12 Another document characterizes the display as “toutes les garnitures, resplendissent de l’éclat du diamant” (all the fittings shine with the brilliance of a diamond).13

Fig. 4: Design for dressing table. From Nouveau manuel complet du verrier ... , published by Julia Fontanelle in Paris, 1829, pl. 3. Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Research Library.From these accounts, it is not clear who purchased the dressing table. Marie-Caroline, the duchess of Berry and a daughter of the king, bought a table, chair, and tea table soon thereafter. These objects remained in the collection at her château in Rosny until it was sold in 1836.14 However, María Luisa Teresa of Parma, wife of Charles IV, is recorded as purchasing a toilette en crystal (glass dressing table) for 16,000 francs at the exhibition, so we cannot be sure which of these two royal ladies acquired the dressing table. The design for the table (Fig. 3) was published by Julia Fontanelle in 1829,15 and an example matching the design that surfaced in a private collection in 1947 is now in the Louvre (Dressing table and chair. Made at L’Escalier de Cristal, Paris, 1819. H. (table) 169 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris (OA11229; OA11230).).

Like the Russian pieces, the French table and chair are supported on glass parts, although they also have metal fittings that connect the glass. The dressing table in the Louvre has an églomisé top, as well as cut glass supports for the mirror that also hold three candles each. Gilded bronze figures of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and Zephyrus, the personification of the west wind, are merely decorative, not structural. The cut glass supports for the back of the chair are in the form of dolphins, and they match the table legs. The chair also has two cut glass legs and a massive square cut glass base. The designer of this tour de force is thought to have been Nicolas Henri Jacob (1782–1871), a student of the painter Jacques Louis David (1748– 1825). A very similar table (in the collection of the Newport Restoration Foundation, Newport, Rhode Island [1999.508].), undoubtedly also from L’Escalier de Cristal and of the same date, has an oval mirror and candle holders (they were electrified in the 1950s) supported by bronze cupids, a rectangular glass top, four straight legs of cut glass, and diagonal glass supports that are like the vertical supports on the other table. Both tables have a flat center drawer. The latter example was in the United States for most of the 20th century. It was in the collection of the late Doris Duke in Newport, Rhode Island, who had acquired it in 1959 from the estate of Thelma Chrysler Foy. This table carries an attribution maintaining that it came from Malmaison, the home of Empress Joséphine. However, because the empress died in 1814, it cannot have belonged to her. It seems likely that the table matching Fontanelle’s drawing was purchased by the queen of Spain and the other belonged to the duchess of Berry, but it is impossible to be more specific.

Five smaller tables with cut glass supports and a cut glass base or top are also known. Three are in the Spanish royal collection in Madrid,16 while the fourth is in a collection in Paris (Table with three-part cut glass base. Probably made at L’Escalier de Cristal, Paris, 1819–1830. H. 83.8 cm. Aveline, Paris.). Another was sold at Sotheby’s New York gallery in 1982.17 All are slightly different in design. L’Escalier de Cristal probably made these tables to order for special customers, and one or more of them may be the smaller tables that were mentioned as no. 4 in the account of the 1819 French exhibition quoted above. At the same fair, a pair of candelabra nearly 10 feet tall also won a prize. These signed objects, each of which featured a marble base, a bronze and cut glass standard, and six glass arms, were made at the factory of Chagot Frères at Mont Cenis.18 The cutting is very similar to that on the furniture from L’Escalier de Cristal, and had these pieces not been signed by another manufacturer, they could well have been attributed to that shop. Although some other French firms may have been making large lighting devices at that time, it is unlikely that any of them were producing furniture. Therefore, if more glass furniture of this type is discovered, it can be attributed to L’Escalier de Cristal.

All of these objects were originally designed to be shown at industrial expositions, which became increasingly important as showcases for manufactured goods in Europe. They provided a forum in which companies from various nations could display the best of their wares. The more elaborate displays drew considerable attention from visitors and critics alike. It was here that many potential customers got their first glimpse of glass furniture.

Fig. 8: Watercolor design for the Crystal Palace, London. Joseph Paxton, 1850. Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Research Library.In 1851, the scale of these exhibitions changed from regional to global. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was the first of more than a dozen world’s fairs that were held in various countries during the second half of the 19th century. The Great Exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria in Hyde Park, London, on May 1. Gaily costumed representatives of foreign nations and British possessions attended the opening ceremony and praised the displays. The number and size of the exhibits—and the remarkable Crystal Palace, the glass structure that housed them all (Fig. 4)—were staggering in their effect. The British press was ecstatic, and visitors flocked to see the magnificent building and its contents. The Crystal Palace made architectural and engineering history. It was designed by Joseph Paxton, estate manager and one-time gardener to the duke of Devonshire. Paxton had designed greenhouses, but no glass structure on the scale of this one had previously been envisioned, much less erected. The building was nicknamed the “Crystal Palace” by Punch magazine, and to everyone’s astonishment, it was completed in just 17 weeks.

The principal exhibitors of glass lighting devices and furniture at the 19th-century world’s fairs were F. & C. Osler of Birmingham (England), Jonas Defries & Sons of London, and the Baccarat firm of France. The excitement generated by these display pieces prompted other companies to create such works. For example, the 1851 exhibition included a “large chandelier of white[,] ruby and blue glass, in the style of [the] Alhambra,” which was shown by Apsley Pellatt and Company.19 The Alhambra is a Moorish palace in Spain. Originally built in the 11th century just outside Granada by the Muslim conquerors of southern Spain, it was enlarged and decorated in the 13th and 14th centuries. Its tiles and other decoration are very elaborate and colorful. The English architect Owen Jones (1809–1874), who had a profound influence on British design in the mid-19th century, published a book about the Alhambra in 1842, and it was illustrated with his own drawings. Although the book was not particularly popular at that time, it did succeed in drawing the attention of the British art world to the building. Eventually, the Alhambra became a symbol of the mysterious Middle East to the British and American public, and colorful glass was often described as being in the style of the Alhambra.

Fig. 9: Glass table in a print, “Engraved and Coloured Glass by Messrs. W. P. & G. Phillips, London.” From Masterpieces of Industrial Art & Sculpture at the International Exhibition, 1862 [chapter 4, note 8], pl. 68. Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Research Library.Pellatt’s chandelier was designed to capture some of the splendor of the Alhambra itself. This was the only colored piece in the firm’s display, which included several chandeliers. Unfortunately, it was not illustrated in the exhibition catalog. Colored chandeliers were not fashionable, and none of the reporters commented on this piece, which was clearly ahead of its time. At the next London world’s fair, held in 1862, one critic commented, “We are glad to observe that this and other firms do not perpetuate the error observable in the glass exhibition of 1851, of making chandeliers of coloured glass; for nothing can surpass the iridescent lustre of pure colourless flint glass.”20

The 1862 exhibition featured a glass table made by the London glass decorating company of W.P. and G. Phillips (Fig. 5). Its decoration was blown rather than cut, and its center pillar and three feet were curving and fluid. This was characteristic of the new and popular Anglo-Venetian style. The glass blanks for this table had been made by Thomas Webb & Sons of Stourbridge. The table, which was 26 inches high, was made in four pieces, and it had no metal parts. It attracted much favorable attention from the critics, and it was illustrated in J.B. Waring’s three-volume report on the exposition. This was the first piece of glass furniture made by a British firm. It does not seem to have inspired any copies, however, and it would be nearly 20 years before more glass furniture was made either in France or in England.

Fig. 10: Gothic-style glass cabinet exhibited by Osler at the 1878 world’s fair in Paris. From The Illustrated Catalogue of the Paris International Exhibition, 1878 [note 23]. Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Research Library.Another exhibitor at the 1862 world’s fair was the London firm of Lloyd and Summerfield, which displayed “glass bars for windows, aquariums, ... legs for pianofortes, tables, &c, for use in hot climates, where wood is liable to the ravages of the white ant.”21 Unfortunately, no picture or further description of these table legs has been found.

Large lighting devices were exhibited at the 1855 and 1867 Expositions Universelles in Paris, but there was nothing groundbreaking except for Baccarat’s immense glass fountain in 1867. However, the next exposition held in Paris, in 1878, featured the largest glass objects ever displayed at a world’s fair. The most impressive of these pieces was a 16-foot-high temple made by Baccarat (this is discussed in chapter 6). A rival French firm, the Cristallerie de Pantin, presented, in addition to its cut and engraved tableware, an item described in the jury reports as a “guéridon formé de trois parties de grande dimension, sans aucun ajustage en metal” (small glass table made in three parts, without any metal supports).22 In 1880, Pantin gave this table to the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, where it was broken in 1900. Unfortunately, no illustration of the piece survives. Osler also showed glass furniture at the 1878 fair, including a cabinet (Fig. 6) and a chair.

The Paris expositions of 1889 and 1900 included extensive glass exhibits by companies from around the world, but they did not rival the displays of 1878 in size or in their ability to impress visitors. Having demonstrated the type of cut glass furniture they could produce, Baccarat and Osler concentrated on selling it rather than producing it for exhibitions.

Jane Shadel Spillman, Curator of American Glass
This article was published in European Glass Furnishings for Eastern Palaces, 2006, pp. 9–21.

1. Robert J. Charleston, Masterpieces of Glass: A World History from The Corning Museum of Glass, New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1980, p. 179. The furniture was described in a letter written from Padua: “I was showed (of their own invention) a set of furniture, in a taste entirely new; it consists of eight large armed-chairs, the same number of sconces, a table, and prodigious looking-glass, all of glass. It is impossible to imagine their beauty; they deserve being placed in a prince’s dressing-room, or grand cabinet; the price demanded is £400.”

2. Eglomisé is a decorative technique in which gold or silver leaf is applied to the back side of a piece of glass, engraved, and protected by varnish, metal foil, or another piece of glass. The name is derived from the French mirror and picture framer Jean-Baptiste Glomy (d. 1786). Decoration of this type had been made since the 13th century. It is also known as reverse foil engraving.

3. T.A. Malinina, “The Glass Factory of Prince G. Potemkin-Tavrichesky,” in Imperial Glass Factory, 1777–1917: 225th Foundation Day Anniversary, exhibition catalog, St. Petersburg: Slaviia, 2004, pp. 25-26. In Russian and English.

4. N. Kachalov, Steklo, Moscow: Ied-vo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1959, p. 251.

5. Un âge d’or des arts décoratifs, 1814–1848: Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 10 octobre–30 décembre 1991, exhibition catalog, Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1991, passim.

6. Yolande Amic, L’Opaline française au XIXe siècle, Paris: Gründ, 1952, p. 146.

7. Fernando Montes de Oca, L’Age d’or du verre en France, 1800–1830: Verreries de l’Empire et de la restauration, Paris: the author, 2001, pp. 444 and 457–459.

8. Ibid., p. 266.

9. Ibid., p. 268.

10. Louis-Etienne-François Héricart de Thury, Rapport du jury d’admission des produits de l’industrie ..., Paris: C. Ballard, 1819, p. 237.

11. Ibid., p. 238. “La Reine d’Etrurie” may refer to the wife of Louis de Bourbon, the grand duke of Tuscany.

12. Nouvelles acquisitions du département des Objets d’art, 1985–1989, Musée du Louvre, Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1990, p. 222.

13. E. Jouy, Etat actuel de l’industrie française ..., Paris: Chez L’Huillier, 1821, p. 75.

14. Un âge d’or des arts décoratifs [note 5], pp. 37–38.

15. Héricart de Thury [note 10], p. 238.

16. L. Feduchi, Colecciones reales de España: El mueble, [Madrid]: Editorial Patrimonio Nacional, 1965, pp. 372, 458, and 481.

17. Important French Furniture, Decorations and Clocks, sale catalog, New York: Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., November 6, 1982, no. 145.

18. Un âge d’or des arts décoratifs [note 5], pp. 133–135.

19. Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations (1851), Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue, London: Spicer Brothers, 1851, v. 2, p. 701.

20. Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper Exhibitor ... of All the Principal Objects in the International Exhibition of 1862, London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin, 1862, p. 205. One colored chandelier dating from the 1790s is pictured in Martin Mortimer, The English Glass Chandelier, Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2000, pp. 38–39 and 191. It is apparently unique. There are a few other examples with colored drops made before 1851, but they were obviously unusual.

21. London International Exhibition (1862), The Record of the International Exhibition, 1862, gen. ed. Robert Mallet, Glasgow: W. MacKenzie, [1862], p. 409.

22. Rapports du Jury Internationale, Groupe III—Classe 19, Les Cristaux, la verrerie et les vitraux, par MM. Didron et Clemandot, Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1880, p. 30.

Published on June 19, 2013

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...