This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
NEXT to a good display of china on the table or sideboard, there is nothing which lends greater grace to the appointments of a dining-room than delicate and well-designed glass. North of the Tweed, I believe it is not unusual to regard 'crystal' as the all-important feature of domestic feasts; and certainly most London housewives who can afford the luxury are as careful of the appearance of their decanters and wineglasses as of the glittering plate which lies beside them. The same national peculiarity which makes us fastidious to secure spotless purity in our table-linen and a mirror-like smoothness for our French-polished wood, leads us also to require that every article of glass which we use shall be absolutely free from flaws or blemishes of every kind. Now it is easy to see that a demand for this sort of perfection, although it may tend to make admirable housemaids and laundresses, does not do much to promote the interests of art. I suppose there are no houses in the world kept so scrupulously clean and neat internally as a well-appointed English house; no carriages so luxurious and well-finished in manufacture as ours; no boots so well blacked as British boots - and yet our dwellings are uninteresting, our best equipages unpicturesque, and our dress is as ugly as that of the rest of Christendom.
Much the same might have been said up to within the last few years, and, indeed, may to a great extent still be said, of our ordinary table glass. Most householders can recollect a time when the great test of excellence in such articles depended on the question whether they were 'cut' or not. If they were cut at all they were good; if they were cut elaborately they were 'elegant;' if they were only blown they were worthless. It did so happen that at that time, bad as the cut glass was, the blown glass was rather worse; but this may be chiefly attributed to the fact that the latter was blown into a mould, which was frequently shaped so as to imitate the effect of cutting. Our manufacturers seem quite to have forgotten that the most beautiful table glass which has ever been produced - viz., that of Venice in the fifteenth century - was not 'cut,' in the modern sense of the word, at all.
Those of my readers who have seen specimens of this exquisite and ancient art in public or private museums must be quite aware how much it differs from the heavy and inelegant vessels from which our grandfathers drank their port and sherry.
The author of 'Modern Painters,' in one of those long but interesting digressions with which his volumes abound, once took occasion, while commenting on the degraded state of modern art-manufacture, to ridicule the national pride with which we English are accustomed to regard the characteristics of our modern table glass. 'We ought rather,' adds Mr. Ruskin, 'to be ashamed of it.'
This opinion, startling as it may sound in the ears of those who are accustomed to back British goods generally against the world, is nevertheless founded on principles of science as well as of art. The process of manufacture which every raw material undergoes before it is converted into objects of practical utility, and, consequently, the form which such objects finally assume, ought to depend chiefly, if not entirely, on the natural properties of the material itself. Whenever this principle is lost sight of, the result appears either in the light of a technical defect or an aesthetic error. For instance, we know that inasmuch as the strength of iron depends on the density and tenacity of its fibre, the repeated processes of heating and hammering must be the best means of securing that strength; whereas cast-iron, which takes its artificial form while in a state of fusion, though cheaper in its cost of production, is much weaker than that which is wrought. Again, as a matter of taste, wrought-iron ornament such as that, let us say, which decorates the pump of Quentin Matsys at Antwerp, is infinitely more artistic than the clumsy cast-iron railings which too often surround our public buildings. In one case the design has been suggested by the natural capabilities of the material; in the other the nature of the material has been perverted for the sake of a specious and inappropriate method of treatment.
The same distinction, and with a like reason, may be drawn between ancient and modern table glass. The former was generally blown, the natural ductility of the material being such that while in a state of partial fusion it could be stamped, twisted, and fashioned into shapes which varied with the individual taste and skill of the workman. The consequence was that in Venice, during the fifteenth and two following centuries, this branch of art-industry rose to a pitch of excellence which obtained for it a worldwide reputation. It would be impossible to enumerate here all the peculiar varieties of design included in this ingenious and beautiful art. Under the general head of 'filagree' glass, the combinations of form and colour (including that of the well known latticinio) were countless. Then there were the millefiori, in which slices of rod-glass appeared embedded in a colourless or differently-coloured ground of the same material; the schmelze, or mock agate; the avventurino, with its rich golden lustre, which has been basely imitated in modern toilet-trinkets, the 'crackle' and 'opal' glass in which light is refracted with exquisite effect, and many other kinds which were further enriched by the distinct processes of enamelling and engraving. Up to this time the early traditions of the art had been preserved, or perhaps revived from the time of the Romans, when glass was blown in moulds, stamped, turned on a wheel and engraved rudely enough sometimes, but often with great artistic care. The celebrated Portland vase, for instance, was probably made of two layers of glass, of which the upper surface was cut away in cameo-fashion, to form a background for the bas-relief with which it is decorated. But work of so laborious and costly a character as this must, of course, be regarded as exceptional. The ordinary table glass made in Venice, and exported to every country in Europe during the early part of the 'Renaissance,' was for the most part blown only, and depended for its form on the taste and manipulation of artisans, whose fancy was as fertile as their fingers were apt, and who required no school of design to teach them the shape of a flask or beaker.