By Anna Moran
Irish glass has long been greatly prized and over the past century, museums and connoisseurs have assembled significant collections, both at home and abroad. However, of the glasshouses whose products fill these collections, it is the Waterford Crystal glasshouse that assumes the greatest renown.
Encouraged by various premiums then being offered to glassmakers, the Quaker merchants George and William Penrose set up this legendary concern in 1783 on the Quay in Waterford. While glassmaking had been carried on in Dublin and Belfast before this, favourable conditions led another two new glasshouses to be set up in Cork and Newry. Such conditions were not to last and economic depression in the early 19th century led many glasshouses to close. The year 1851 saw the closure of the Waterford glasshouse, which was then owned by a member of the Gatchell family which had maintained involvement with the glasshouse since 1799, when the Penrose period of ownership ceased.
The fortuitous survival of a collection of letters, account books and designs associated with the Waterford glasshouse means that far more is known about it than any other glasshouse. Through use of these sources, it is possible not only to re-construct the history of the glasshouse, but also to gain some insight into design, manufacture and sale of goods from the glasshouse. The subject of Waterford glass is a fascinating one for despite the existence of indisputable evidence, a number of long held misapprehensions exist. The most prominent of these is the idea that Waterford glass can be identified by a blue tint. While not the first to advocate this characteristic, the dealer and glassmaker Mrs Graydon Stannus wrote, in 1921:
Waterford glass is often distinguished by a peculiar cloudy bloom covering the metal, which can be rubbed off but will assuredly return… A soft bloom exactly like that on grapes, the same colour, or even darker than the glass, and often will be found forming a beautiful band of rainbow hue running around the piece it adorns (Mrs Graydon Stannus, Old Irish Glass, 1921. p10).
The same author also advised her readers that Irish glass had a ‘wonderful elasticity and actually bounces in a way… never found in any other glass’. One can judge from these statements that her rather romantic publication can be seen to veer more towards legend as opposed to fact and is ths quite different to that published by M.S.D. Westropp, whose contribution to our knowledge of Irish glass cannot be over emphasised. Westropp’s seminal book, published in 1920, dispelled many myths. Through a vast study of pieces such as decanters, jugs and wine coolers, each impressed with the proprietor of the factory on the base, Westropp was able to state, ‘I wish now, once and for all, to state that the glass made in Waterford has not a decided blue or dark tint always ascribed to it’.
Also pointed out as nonsense by Westropp, was the misguided idea that if measurement of the circumference of he rim of the decanter equalled the height of the decanter, this guaranteed that the piece had been made in the Waterford glassworks. Such bogus tips are thankfully made redundant as the impressed mark on the case reads ‘PENROSE WATERFORD’. After the desired quantity of glass had been blown into the required shape, it was lowered into a ribbed mould which left the desired impression on the base of the object. This was a practice, which was also maintained by certain glasshouses in Cork, Dublin and Belfast, and examples, which bear the names of glass retailers, also survive. However, it is not known which glasshouses ere responsible for making the glass for each retailer. The decanter illustrated might have been purchased from the Waterford glass shop on Merchants Quay in Waterford which was run in association with the glasshouse. At this shop, it would have been sold alongside a wide variety of table glass, light fittings and a vast range of cheaper utilitarian glass objects, which the account books show to have been sold in abundance. Equally, the decanter could have been bought from one of the many retailers and merchants who purchased glass directly from the glasshouse.
The high number of decanters which survive and their often highly embellished appearance reminds us that decanters held an important place within the splendour and performance of 18th and 19th century dining but exactly when was the decanter form introduced? Whose job was it to decant the wine and where did the decanter sit during the various courses that comprised the meal?
The decanter form itself first appeared in the late 17th century, as an alternative to bottles, but it was not established use until after 1750. A servant usually decanted wine and during formal dinners, the decanter remained on the sideboard and was not removed. The desert was laid out, wines and glasses were placed on the table and after one or two glasses, the ladies withdrew to the drawing room to have tea. However, in a servants’ manual published in 1825 (3rd edition), the author advised that ‘if the wine decanters be put on the table, and there be four decanters of wine and two water bottles, let the wine be placed near the four corners of the table, but not too near’.
The quantity of wine consumed by the Irish gentry was often remarked upon. Lord Chesterfield despaired in 1745 that ‘Drinking is a most beastly vice in every country, but it really is a ruinous one in Ireland.’ It was however, a beastly vice which benefitted the glass industry and decanters, glasses, wine glass coolers and wine fountains, to name but a few objects, were made in various shapes and sizes were available from the Waterford glasshouse, with any pattern of cutting the consumer desired.
Wine, in particular, had been a key element of dining since antiquity and complex rituals developed around the way in which it was to be served. It was a generally served cool and in some cases, particularly in France, it was diluted with water. During the 17th century, if a diner wished to drink, he beckoned a servant. The servant, having filled a glass at the sideboard, presented the glass to the diner on a small-footed salver. It was considered rude to drink without toasting, so the diner would make a toast, drain the glass and return it to the servant who would place it on the sideboard where it would be washed and cooled in a vessel full of ice known as a ‘monteith’. In reference to this method of serving, Dean Swift’s satirical text Directions to Servants (1745) humorously advised butlers to ‘give no person any liquor until he hath called for it thrice at least; by which means, some out of modesty, and others out of forgetfulness, will call the seldomer, and thus your master’s liquor will be saved…’
Table layouts and household manuals prepared during the 18th century would seem to indicate that dining a la francaise was the norm. This entailed a true feast for the eyes with every serving plate being geometrically positioned on the table. Such lavish displays of food were curtailed slightly during the 19h century with the introduction of a mode of dining which originated from the Russian court, known as dining a la russe. This involve the food being served individually to each guest, making room on the table for elaborate centre bowls and a selection of glasses, each designed to hold a different type of drink.
Therefore, as the rituals surrounding eating and drinking changed, new objects were introduced. For example, from the mid 18th century individual wine glass coolers to be placed on the table replaced the monteith. These appeared in both clear and colour glass and were provided with either double or single lips on which the stem of the wine glass rested, leaving the bowl of the glass submerged in the cool water. The servants’ manual of 1825, quoted earlier, explains how the wine coolers should be positioned on the table as well as the change in glasses set on the table:
Let a wine glass be put to the right hand of each person. If there be glass-coolers for wine glasses let them be filled about two-thirds with sprung water and the wine glasses turned up in it: let those be about three inches and a half or four inches from the edge of the table to the right of each person with the foot of the wine glass toward the edge of the table. (T Cosnett, The Footman’s Directory and Butler’s Remembrance, 1825. p.75).
The precision with which the author counsels his fellow butlers to position the pieces on the table emphasises the importance of these pieces within the ritual of dining. Having the correct receptacles, in their proper place and using them in the accepted fashion was imperative to displaying the rules of etiquette, which were expected in accordance with a person’s social standing.
Like the decanter, the wine coolers were also lowered in their molten form into ribbed moulds, leaving behind the Penrose mark on the base. They are of blue glass, which was achieved by adding cobalt oxide to the glass mixture. Evidently, blue glass was made at Waterford. However, it is known that later in the 1820s, in a desire to provide a variety of glass for its consumers, coloured glass was important from Birmingham, and sold in the Waterford glass shop on the Quay.
Waterford Glass finger bowl from around 1790
Wine coolers are often referred to as finger bowls. Finger bowls were, like wine coolers, straight-sided or cup-sided water receptacles yet they did not necessitate a lipped rim in the same way as wine coolers did. Their function was described as Sophie de la Roche, a German visitor to London in 1986, who wrote home: the blue glass bowls used for rinsing hands and moth in at the end are quite delightful’. Not all accounts were so favourable and Mrs Leslie’s House Book, published in 1840, in Philadelphia declared that ‘the disgusting European custom of taking a mouthful of water, and after washing the mouth, spitting it back into the finger glass has not become fashionable in America… most gentlemen preferring to pick their teeth and was their mouths in private’. Mrs Leslie explains that these glasses were generally set around the table just before the cloth was removed, in preparation for the desert course.
Desert came in the form of a selection of sweetmeats. However its importance lay as much in its presentation as in the nature of the food being served. Dried sweetmeats included all manner sugared and spiced fruit, biscuits and cakes. Wet sweetmeats came in the form of jelly, ice cream, syllabub, flavoured creams and custard; the huge variety of sweetmeats available being reflected in the cast range of glasses designed to contain them. Household cookery books published at the time, explain how each was made. For example, Mrs Elizabeth Raffald, whose cookery book appeared in thirteen legal and twenty-six pirated editions between 1769 and 1806, instructed the reader ‘how to make syllabub under a cow’. One mixed sweet bear, cider, and nutmeg, ‘then milk as much from the cow as will make a strong froth and the ale look clear’.
When writing about the preparation of the desert, Dorothea Herbert recorded n her diary in 1793 that ‘Miss Butlar, Miss Blunden and Fanny manufactured the Whipps Jellies and Creams and I made a Central Arch of Pasteboard and Wild Heath with various other Ornaments and Devices’. Dorothea and her friends obviously followed the advice of Mrs. Hannah Glasse who, in her Complete Confectioner, published in 1762 in Dublin, recommended that ‘every young lady ought to now how to make all kinds of confectionary and dress out a desert.’ Various different stemless glasses existed for the purpose of holding jelly and syllabub and the form of the jelly glass is well represented in contemporary prints, often stacked on salvers forming a pyramidal arrangement. However these were generally of a lighter glass than the cut glass jellies. Within the Gatchell letters, reference is found to ‘custards’ which describes the small handled cups from which ice-cream, custard or flavoured cream could have been eaten. Additional evidence that such objects were made at Waterford is found in the surviving designs, thought to have been prepared by Samuel Miller, foreman of the glasscutters, during the late 1820s and 1830s.
Surviving evidence, such as the Waterford account books, letters and designs, combined with other invaluable sources such as cookery books, servant manuals and personal diaries can help us think beyond the surface of the object. While only a very small selection of objects which would have appeared on the table have been discussed, when seen in conjunction with contemporary sources, it is possible to gain some insight into the splendours of dining during the time when the Waterford glasshouse was in operation. An awareness of the value of such an approach will ensure that those pieces of glass which are today and collected and admired are not treasured solely because they reflect the spirit of their times, the settings in which they were used and the manners and customs of those who chose, purchased and enjoyed them.
This article originally appeared in the Irish Antique Dealers’ Association Yearbook 2003-2004.
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