History of Glass Making

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History of Glass Making

Glass is one of the oldest forms of art and it dates back around 3500 years.

Legend has it that glass was discovered by a band of seamen, who set up camp on a beach one night. They built a fire and set their cooking pots on some stones of natron they were carrying as cargo (a substance used to embalm the dead.

As the fire heated both these stones and the sand below, a strange liquid began to flow and that, it is said, was the origin of manmade glass.

Although this story is just a legend, it is true that glass can be made with very basic materials.

Sand is the main ingredient, added to other chemicals which help the sand to melt and give it its different qualities.

The basic recipe for making glass has changed very little over the centuries but through the years there have been many variations, and new recipes continue to emerge.

Even though glass has been in existence for thousands of years, its uses, for the most part, have been in functional objects – it wasn't always considered art as it is today.

During pre-Roman times, before the invention of glassblowing, vessels were made by wrapping hot glass around a core of clay and dung.

When the glass cooled the core could be picked out, leaving a vessel. Some of the earliest vessels date back to 1500 BC in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where glass was precious and only Pharaohs, priests and nobles owned it.

The Roman Empire saw a distinct change in the way glass was used as it was during this period that glassblowing was developed. Once vessels could be made by blowing glass, the potential for different shapes seemed infinite. Soon glass became a household item.

The use of moulds to shape glass, led to the introduction of surface decoration as glass could be blown into a mould with decorative impressions cut into it, these would leave imprints on the glass as it cooled.

Large scale production of common use objects led to skilled glassblowers experimenting with new techniques and creating some of the most lavish glass objects ever made.

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Throughout its history, the production of glass has ebbed and flowed with the various kingdoms of the world; but perhaps one of the most important periods occurred during the Italian Renaissance, when Venice and Murano, an island in the Venetian Lagoon, became the centres of glassmaking and in the early 1200's, the Venetian Glassmakers' Guild was formed.

As Venetian glass grew, new kinds of glass and decorative techniques began to emerge. The glassmakers of Venice invented a glass called cristallo, which was incredibly clear and they then began adding metal oxides to cristallo to create a rainbow of different colours.

The glass industry was very secretive about their skills and knowledge and in 1291, all the glassmakers in Venice were forced to move their workshops to the island of Murano.

One of the reasons given was to eliminate the risk of their furnaces starting fires in Venice. The move also meant that the glass industry could now be easily controlled and protected.

Murano was only a short distance from Venice, and gondolas were going back and forth constantly, but the glassblowers and their families were not allowed to leave the island. If a glassblower did leave, it was a crime punishable by death.

Despite the strict laws, many glassmakers did manage to escape from Murano and these Murano refugees brought the art of glassblowing to the rest of Europe.

Over the centuries that followed, Murano remained at the forefront of artistic glass making, as they continued to develop and refine their glass quality and the techniques for colour application.

One such technique is Lattachino, where specially made canes of glass are skilfully applied to the surface of a piece, resulting in a lattice of complex swirls and twists.

Though Venice still had an influential hold on the glass industry, by the 17th Century, places in Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, England and Sweden were developing their own legend in what were known as forest glass houses.

These glassblowers developed a type of glass specific to the ingredients available in the forest; whilst the wood used by the glassblowers to heat their furnaces meant acres of cleared agricultural land.

In the Bohemian factories of what is now the Czech Republic, diamond point engraving was becoming popular as a method of decorating and with the invention of a glass that was easy to cut, as well as being perfectly clear, people were soon using it all over the continent.

Wheel engraving was also becoming popular and soon glass from Northern Europe became more coveted than Venetian glass.

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Top image: The island of Murano, Venice.
Bottom Image: Modern Venician Glass making

England at this time had become dominant in the manufacture of bottles for storage and transportation, but in 1676 a man named George Ravenscroft developed a formula for making glass using lead.

Ravenscroft was an English Glassmaker who had lived in Venice for many years. His new lead glass stayed workable for a much longer period of time than other types of glass, and because of its weight and clarity, people began to make vessels without decoration.

More attention was paid to the form of the glass itself, not what was adorning it, but when German and Bohemian glasscutters introduced glass cutting to England, the English glassmakers were soon making the cut glass we became famous for.

In 1607 the settlers of the Jamestown colony brought glassblowing with them to America. Glass was used mostly for bottles and windows, and although it was hard to distribute, production of American glass continued to grow every decade of the 19th century.

In the 1820's the mechanical press was introduced to the industry, making production easier and faster.

In 1903, a man named Michael Owens invented an automatic glassblowing machine that could produce millions of light bulbs a day.

The next major revolution in the world of glass occurred in the early part of the 20th century.

Suddenly designer and artist became an important part of the glassmaking process. Two of the first designer/artists to actually work in glass were Emile Galle and Eugene Rouseau. Rouseau's work was heavily influenced by Japanese art, and Galle lead the beginning of the Art Nouveau movement.

Art Nouveau was a very graceful style, and lent itself exceptionally well to the fluidity of the material.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, of Tiffany's, the jewellery store in New York, saw Galle's work and fell in love with it. He too began to design glass, and it was during this time that glass began to establish itself as an art form.

In America, in the 1960s, the studio glass movement was born. Harvey Littleton became known as the father of this movement when he began experimenting with glass as a medium for artists.

He believed that glass artists could realise the technology needed to mix and melt glass in their own studio. This allowed them to be independent and create freely outside of the factory environment, without the constraints of the highly structured, mass production world of the glass industry.

Sam Herman was one of the founders of the studio glass movement in Great Britain and is credited with introducing 'small furnace' technology in the late 1960's. He was the tutor in charge of the glass department at the Royal College of Art and introduced an immediacy and lively use of both form and colour in glass, This was in sharp contrast to the prevailing methods of the time. His refreshing approach to the design process, became a major influence to some of the leading glass artists in Britain today.

In 1969 he was instrumental in setting up the 'Glasshouse' in Covent Garden which brought this emerging craft to public attention and paved the way for British studio glass.

The studio glass movement is international and still developing today. It is different from other glass movements because there is heavy emphasis on the artist and designer. Sometime they are one and the same, sometimes it takes a whole team of people to make a piece.

Through the studio glass movement ideas and technical information are shared around the world and the world of glass is continuing to grow very quickly.

It's an exciting time to be witness to such an important movement that is still in the process of coming into its own.

Courtesy of Okra Glass, Stourbridge West Midlands

click here out.to see their listing and find a link to the Okra Glass website

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