English Drinking Glasses

English drinking glasses have a long collecting pedigree. Certain types have been sought out for many centuries as ceremonial accoutrements, but the idea of collecting them as objects of antique interest goes back at least to the 19th century.

  • Anne Crane

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By 1897, the antiquarian Albert Hartshorne had published Old English Glasses:An account of glass drinking vessels in England, from early times to the end of the eighteenth century, which provided the first attempt at classification of English drinking glasses.

Indeed Hartshorne's seminal work still forms the basis of the classification broadly adopted by specialists today for 18th century English drinking glasses, the sector which makes up the biggest slice of this particular market.

Up to the mid 1670s, English glasses, like their Continental counterparts, were made of soda glass producing thinly constructed, lightweight vessels of fluid design. The discovery and patenting by George Ravenscroft in his London Savoy workshop of glass made with lead oxide produced a much heavier, clearer product that responded well to cutting and engraving and, from a luxury product for the very rich, it lead glass gradually to become more affordable and more widely produced.

It is partly for these reasons that a lot of 18th century drinking glasses have survived.

What Do People Collect?

Today, traditional drinking glasses are collected and catalogued very much according to specific types first outlined in Hartshorne's book and further refined in Leonard Bickerton's 18th Century English Drinking Glasses, still the standard collecting work.

Here glasses are classified according to the shapes of their stems, bowls and feet and to the decoration within the stem, formed by the inclusion of twists of air, opaque white or coloured glass threads.  

All of this affords a well-defined base for enthusiasts to study the material and acquire specimens.

Another feature that determines collecting choice is the external decoration of the bowl by cutting, painting or engraving. This decoration serves a number of different purposes. It can symbolically identify the intended contents (apples for cider, pears for perry) or actually name the wine or cordial. 

Alternatively it might detail ownership, as in the case of an armorial, or it could allude to some political, commemorative or ceremonial function such as a fashionable toast to a monarch, a reference to a local election or the launch of a ship.  Most famous are those alluding to a secret society, like the Jacobites who supported the claim of James II's Scottish descendants to the English throne.

By the late 18th century deep cutting rather than shallow engraving was beginning to take over on bowls, stems and feet as a favoured form of decoration, something that was to come into much fuller force with the Regency era of the next century before the dawn of Victorian decorative or 'fancy' glass with its many different forms of embellishment.  

The Market

With such a large supply there is scope for collectors to enter the field at all levels. There is no shortage of supply of standard 18th century wine glasses with plain funnel or rounded bowls and simple stems, perhaps with the added refinement of an opaque or clear glass twist to the stem.

These glasses, along with the small ale glasses sometimes featuring decoratively shaped bowls on short feet, are still very affordable with a wide choice available often well under £100.  

Buyers can expect to add a premium for a variation in bowl shape, like a pan top or the shorter cordial and narrower ratafia. Equally, add more for unusual combinations of stem threads or extra knops, but even here examples can still be found in the low hundreds.  

Indeed this is a stable market where prices have shifted very little over the last quarter century. 

Where there has been more movement is in some of the niche categories of shape or decoration. While never as plentiful as standard glasses, fashions in these micro classes have waxed and waned and the values have fluctuated with them.

Some (though not all) glasses are sold at auction in dedicated sales and the run of dispersals of single-owner collections of English drinking glasses, many reported in detail in issues of the Antiques Trade Gazette, give an interesting snapshot of those prices variations.

Colour-twist wine glass sold at Sotheby's

A 5¾in ( 15cm) high colour-twist wine glass of c.1765 with a funnel bowl, the stem containing a spiral opaque-twist gauze core entwined by three threads in translucent-green, translucent-blue and opaque-white. It sold for £4500 at Sotheby's Olympia on December 14, 2004.

Among the most collectable categories, and also one of the earliest, is the baluster glass. This was popular from the last years of the 17th century through to the first half of the 18th, so their early date makes them relatively scarce.  

Many of these are undecorated and are collected for their pleasing sculptural form with large bowls and baluster-shaped, knopped stems. Eighteenth century wine glasses have much smaller bowls than modern ones as wine was usually served in small draughts to be quickly downed and refreshed.

Having dipped in favour 30 years ago, balusters started to revive in the 1990s and have been popular ever since. Boosted by some keen American interest, the prices are now rising and the best can make four figures.  

Two other classes where prices can even stray into five figures for the most elaborate are small sub-groups produced over a short period between 1765 and 1780. These are glasses painted in white or polychrome enamel, decoration attributed to the north-eastern based Beilby family, and the drinking glasses known as colour twists featuring a single or combination of coloured glass thread to the stems. Their short production period renders both types collectable and fashion has done the rest.  

Beilby glasses moved into collecting prominence after the 1973 publication of James Rush'sThe Ingenious Beilbys. The withdrawal from the market of two prominent collectors in this field (R. C. Hubbard and Chris Crabtree, who offloaded their Beilbys at auction between 2010 and 2011) has increased supply and taken out two big buyers. But demand remains strong even if prices are not rising as fast.

Colour twist values have a pecking order based on the colours of the thread(s). Yellow is the rarest and most expensive, blue is deemed collectable, but red, seen more frequently, costs less.  Combinations of two or more colours are also sought.

This is an another area where competition from collectors like Crabtree and Hubbard pushed up values from the 1990s, but by the time Chris Crabtree came to sell his colour twists prices had cooled somewhat.

Glasses with Jacobite engraving or decoration have long had specialist appeal, whether they take the form of simple wine glasses engraved with emblems of rose and bud or have increasingly expensive additional features like the words Fiat or Redeat as an inscription, or a portrait of the Young Pretender or the full Jacobite Anthem engraved on the bowl of a goblet.

A couple of decades ago, however, these glasses were the object of much discussion and debate about just how many of them were genuine mid-18th century creations and how many were later recreations of the Jacobite romance. This affected demand and value for a while and set a premium on Jacobite material with the security of a strong early provenance.

More recently there have been signs of a revival in Jacobite interest, much of it from America.  

The other forms of special bowl decoration listed above will also add significantly to the cost of a drinking glass. If a glass has featured in one of the well-known reference books or has a provenance to an old, well-regarded collection, that will also have added value.

Further Reading

18th Century Drinking Glasses: An illustrated guide by Leonard Bickerton, Antique Collectors' Club, reprinted 2000.

The Golden Age of English Glass by Dwight Lanmon, Antique Collectors' Club, ISBN: 9781851496563.

The Jacobites and their Drinking Glasses by Geoffrey B. Seddon, Antique Collectors' Club, ISBN: 1851492070.

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