The Art of Glass; Its Historical Beating Heart

By Jo Phillips

Well, there is the heat we enjoy on holiday or at home, maybe it’s 25 degrees C that you feel the warmth through to your bones, or maybe you are one of those lovers of temperatures above 30 degrees C. But what would it be like to feel the heat of 1700 degrees C? A furnace is what. We would melt in that temperature for sure, but that’s exactly how glass is made in a boiling furnace enough to melt sand into what we call glass. Explore more here in The Art of Glass; Its Historical Beating Heart

Image on left Louis Thompson & Sophie Thomas, Broken Ocean, 2022, glass & ocean debris. © The Artists. Courtesy of Vessel Gallery. Image by Ester Segarra.

To put that level of heat into a little bit of context, that level is approximately the same temperature a space shuttle reaches as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. This technology of going to the moon and re-entering Earth’s atmosphere may well be less than one hundred years old. Glass making however goes back to around 4000 years.

The first glass created by humans was when craftsmen working in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, discovered the art of mixing sand, soda, and lime to make glass.

The majority of glass objects made during this early period have been found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Interestingly, some of the earliest works in glass include a pendant cast in the shape of a fertile woman and a portrait of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, so artistic pieces rather than practical.

Roman glass

Glass, moving forward in history but several thousand years, was considered a luxury item and was reserved for the upper classes. Glass objects were used for personal adornment, for inlays to create decorative scenes on wooden and ivory furniture, and for architectural embellishment. Glass was also formed into containers to hold precious scented oils and perfumes, rather than the modern-day glasses we think of as drinking containers.

As time passed, glassmaking centres began to emerge in more places in the Mediterranean world. Eventually, a very important advance in glass manufacture arrived. A technique of adding lead oxide to the molten glass thus improving the appearance of the glass and making it easier to melt. It also meant the glass was easier to manipulate

The process was first discovered by Englishman George Ravenscroft in 1674, who was the first to produce clear lead crystal glassware on an industrial scale.

Ravenscroft revolutionised the glass trade, allowing England to overtake Venice in Italy as the centre of the glass industry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Philip Webb / Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, Grisaille foliage vine scroll, 1865, stained glass panel. Courtesy of The Stained Glass Museum

By 1696, twenty-seven glasshouses in England were exporting their wares all over Europe with such success that, in 1746. The next step came from a Frenchman, De Nehou’s process of rolling molten glass poured on an iron table rendered the manufacture of very large plates possible. Eventually, this polishing process was industrialised around 1800 with the adoption of a steam engine to carry out the grinding and polishing of the cast glass.

The use of glass as a building material was heralded by The Crystal Palace of 1851, built by Joseph Paxton to house the Great Exhibition in London. Paxton’s revolutionary new building inspired the public use of glass as a material for domestic and horticultural architecture.

The State Opening of The Great Exhibition, England. Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London

By the 1880s glass was being produced with a semi-automated system meaning things like glass bottles could be mass-produced. At this point, glass became a far more common household object. No longer the preserve of the rich and no longer seen as a decorative material.

But glass as an art form has always been part of the journey. A new exhibition explores this delicate material.

The Glass Heart exhibition will chart the resurgence of interest in glass during the time of the 1851 Great Exhibition, which marked a new age of glass mass production, ingenuity, and technical virtuosity.

Highlights from Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and Christopher Whall will consider stained glass as an inventive narrative art form. 

Tracing an evolution to contemporary works, the exhibition will consider the beating heart and breath of glass, and look at the developing artistry of stained glass from the Arts & Crafts movement in the late 19th century, a time characterised by collaboration and a renewed appreciation for design and craftsmanship.

Bringing together key regional collections, techniques and artists for the first time, The Glass Heart will present more than 100 glass artworks spanning 170 years, featuring Anthony Amoako-Attah, Edward Burne-Jones, Monster Chetwynd, Brian Clarke, Chris Day, Ryan Gander, Wilhelmina Geddes, Hardman & Co., Sam Herman, Alison Kinnaird, Peter Layton, Harvey Littleton, Pinkie Maclure, William Morris, Anne Vibeke Mou, John Piper, Ayako Tani, Christopher Whall and Emma Woffenden. 

On show will be works from the historic industrial glass heartlands of Stourbridge in the Black Country and Sunderland in the North East, alongside the contemporary home of stained glass at the Stained Glass Museum in Ely. The show will demonstrate how distinctive styles were synonymous with regional stories and social histories.

Pinkie Maclure, The Soil, 2023. © The Art

It will explore the narratives central to glass art and manufacturing, and celebrate the timeless skills, artistry and innovation required to work with this challenging material. 

From cameo vessels featuring classical and mythological subject matter to etched and engraved vases and commemorative goblets, the exhibition will examine the qualities of this reflective, expressive and sculptural form. 

Tracing an evolution to contemporary works, the exhibition will consider the beating heart and breath of glass, and look at the developing artistry of stained glass from the Arts & Crafts movement in the late 19th century, a time characterised by collaboration and a renewed appreciation for design and craftsmanship.

Highlights on show will include works from Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and Christopher Whall whilst recognising the 20th-century artists who pushed the material’s boundaries and traditions. Geoffrey Clarke, John Piper and Wilhelmina Geddes were among the first to explore painterly techniques and sculptural abstraction in stained glass.

Artists working today are increasingly finding new relevance in glass, using it to interrogate their own personal experiences with work that examines cultural heritage, identity, environmental crisis and collective histories.

Chris Day, Judge & Jury, 2023, glass & microbore copper pipe © The Artist. Courtesy of Vessel Gallery. Image Agata Pec.

Works will include Chris Day’s Judge & Jury (2023), articulating his journey in glass as a mixed-race artist and a large stained glass piece by Pinkie Maclure, The Soil (2023), will consider the climate crisis, sustainability and salvation, while Anthony Amoako-Attah’s glass bags will speak of fragility and strength in homage to Ghanaian Kente textiles, and window roundels from Punjabi Desi pub culture commemorate place and hybrid identity in the Midlands. The exhibition is conceived and curated by curator and writer Antonia Harrison.

From religious to mythological artistic to practical, Glass is as hot today as it ever was.

If you enjoyed reading The Art of Glass; Its Historical Beating Heart then why not read Chaotic Ease here

The Glass Heart is a Two Temple Place exhibition, produced in partnership with National Glass Centre Sunderland, The Stained Glass Museum, Ely and Stourbridge Glass Museum.

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