Glass is among the oldest media artists have utilized for creative expression. It has been known to humanity for centuries, and most scholars agree that the first glass objects date back to around 3500 BCE in Mesopotamia. Cameo glass is one of the most elegant products of this ancient craft, and its beauty and complexity have elevated the most skilled artisans to worldwide renown. The production of cameo glass reached its greatest heights in 19th-century England and France, and the artform catapulted to prominence with the help of artists like Thomas Webb, Emile Gallé and others who perfected the technique. Read on to learn about cameo glass history, techniques and its most accomplished practitioners.
WHAT IS CAMEO GLASS?
In broad terms, a cameo is an object with at least two layers of different colors carved in low relief. Cameo glass sees layers of glass fused together with the upper layers partially removed to create a design or image and reveal the base layer of contrasting color. But how are such precise designs achieved in such a delicate and challenging medium as glass?
CAMEO GLASS TECHNIQUE
To produce designs in cameo glass, portions of the outer layers of glass must be removed by acid-etching or carving/engraving. This can be done by utilizing hand-cutting tools, an engraving wheel, hydrofluoric acid or a combination of these techniques. While an engraving wheel can cut away glass rapidly, hand-cutting techniques are used for more refined work requiring a great degree of sculptural skill and attention to detail. Acid techniques dissolve the glass rather than cutting it away. This is achieved by covering the portions of the glass the artisan wishes to retain with wax before dipping the glass in hydrofluoric acid. The exposed glass slowly dissolves, and the degree of acid cutting can be controlled by the duration of exposure.
CAMEO GLASS HISTORY
The first cameo glass objects were made by the ancient Romans as early as the 3rd century BCE. Most of these earliest examples use only two layers, usually a white outer layer over a blue base, but fragments have been discovered that incorporate as many as five layers. Sadly, there are only around 15 complete surviving ancient Roman glass objects of cameo and around 200 fragments. Undoubtedly the most famous of these examples is the Portland Vase.
The Portland cameo glass Vase is an exquisite piece that remains the most important example of Roman cameo glass ever made. Celebrated for both its beauty and craftsmanship, it currently holds a premier place in the British Museum, which houses the world’s finest collection of ancient artifacts. At the museum, it is second only to the Rosetta Stone in viewers and is undoubtedly the most visited work of decorative art in the museum’s collection.
Believed to have been crafted in Rome between 1 CE and 25 CE, the original Portland Vase was discovered in the tomb of the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus in the 16th century. It was later held by the Barberini family in Italy for more than 150 years and then came into the possession of Sir William Hamilton, who brought it to England. Since then, the vase has been recreated in glass, porcelain, bronze and a range of other materials.
FRENCH CAMEO ART GLASS
France produced several exceptional makers of cameo objects, especially in the realm of Art Nouveau design, most notably with Emile Gallé and the firms of Daum Nancy and Muller Fréres. These makers would often give their glass pieces an intensely foliate look accentuated with vivid colors, such as grassy greens and jewel-toned blues and reds. In fact, Gallé was an avid botanist his entire life, collecting plants and insects from which to study and draw inspiration. His glass work was heavily influenced by his work with nature — underscoring the natural motifs that Art Nouveau artists championed.
Gallé, like many of his fellow Art Nouveau decorative artists, was also inspired by his travels throughout Europe studying works at museums and private institutions, where he gained insight from ancient glass antiquities to Japonisme masterpieces. He became enamored by the famed ancient Roman cameo glass artifact known as the Portland Vase during a trip to the British Museum in 1871, and the artist began experimenting with cameo glass art upon his return home. With his cameo glass, he successfully melded ancient techniques with naturalistic motifs and brilliant color, creating some of France’s most memorable art glass creations.
ENGLISH CAMEO ART GLASS
England was one of the greatest producers of cameo glass in the 19th century, and the epicenter of the country’s glass manufacturing was Stourbridge. Notable firms like Richardson’s, Stevens & Williams and Thomas Webb & Sons established factories there and rose to prominence by exhibiting — and winning medals — at the grand International Exhibitions of the late 19th century.
Artists George and Thomas Woodall, in particular, were responsible for several innovations in cameo glass. Working for Thomas Webb & Sons, the Woodalls' developed two of the most important developments in the art form. The first was their use of the cutting wheel, which allowed them to achieve greater detail and complexity in their designs. Second, the designers would lay a bluish tint over white glass, a technique that lent the design a greater range of shading and depth.
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