Wednesday 20 March 2019
‘Drink thy wine with a merry heart’:
A Pictorial history of drinking vessels
Mrs Jane Gardiner MA History of Art, University of London
Members summary Number one:-
On Wednesday 20th March The Arts Society was given a fascinating talk on glass drinking vessels by Jane Gardiner. Using carefully selected examples and illustrated through coloured slides we were told the history of how, why, where and when many different glass vessels were made: from second century BC Alexandria to 17th century England, via Syria, Venice, Constantinople and Bohemia. Not only did we learn about colouring methods, from the addition of substances such as Manganese (to produce white) to the burning of seaweed in the Dark ages, we also were given an insight into how glass vessels were used by artists to show off their skills in capturing glass’s transparency and how it reflects objects and light. To illustrate, we were shown artworks ranging from Herculaneum frescoes, to those of Italian Renaissance artists such as Caravaggio, to Dutch still life masters. The talk was given with a lightness of touch, interspersed with sometimes amusing but always pertinent asides. For example who knew that the British Rail Pension Fund had been a collector of extremely rare and ancient glass? By the end of the talk I too was amazed and in awe of the sometimes miraculous beauty and workmanship evident in glass drinking vessels.
Members summary number two:-
The lecture on March 20th was given by Mrs Jane Gardiner, MA, who has an impressive record of work in early ceramics and glass, including 17 years lecturing at Sotherbys Institute. She has also lectured widely in Europe and USA. Mrs Gardiner entitled her talk “Drink thy wine with a merry heart”, and traced the development of glasses for wine drinking from the pre-Christian era, when glass vessels began to replace the use of heavy pottery or horn cups. She pointed out how the development of delicate and beautiful wine glasses had contributed to the sensory enjoyment of wine-drinking.
The survival of early fine glassware is understandably rare, and any items that have survived have surprisingly come to light through excavation. Mrs Gardiner showed pictures of some astonishingly delicate early examples, including one very modern looking glass found in second century Alexandria. Two of the valuable glasses she pictured are from investments in the British Rail Pension Fund. Examples of glass wine glasses from this era rarely come on the market, but when they do they can command prices around the £200,000 mark.
Early glassware was usually cast or moulded, heavy and often coloured. Carving of the finished glass, for instance to form handles, was common, but decorative diamond-cut glassware was a much later technique. By the 1st century AD the Romans had adopted the art of glass-blowing and had learnt how to make colourless glass.
Mrs Gardiner then touched on the growth of this craft in Venice; glass making there had its origins in central Venice but by the 14th century had been moved to the island of Murano, primarily to contain the risk of fire from the furnaces. The production of glass was closely controlled, and skilled glass-blowers were confined to the island to prevent transfer of their invaluable knowledge elsewhere. Florence was a competitor to Venice in this field in medieval Italy.
She showed images of medieval German glasses, with a knobbly outer surface to assist in holding the heavy vessel. Glasses used by toast-masters had very heavy bases to allow them to be banged on the table. She also showed examples of 16th and 17th century paintings, often Dutch, of biblical scenes, and drew attention to the anachronistic depiction of fine wineglasses of a type unknown in the early Christian era.
All in all a most interesting and enlightening talk.