Celebrating a Century of Glass Technology

Presenting Author:
Colin Brain

article posted 12 Apr 2016

Colin Brain

Colin Brain, with his late wife Sue, has been interested in the history of British drinking glass for 45 years. His particular interest is in the glass of the second half of the 17th century and he has made numerous presentations and contributions to publications on related topics. The picture shows an experiment with a blow pipe that replicates a musket barrel in order to produce moils/collets to compare with archaeological finds.

"To make much better glass ..."
AHG - SGT Joint Study Day

The Development of British Crystal Glass in the 17th-century
Colin Brain
Private Researcher

Most histories of English glass give the credit for the development of British crystal glass to the invention of glass containing lead oxide by George Ravenscroft in 1674. This is wrong, so this paper sets out to get closer to the real story. It starts in 1632 during the tenure of the glass monopolist Sir Robert Mansell and spans the sixty years it took for England and Ireland to become world-class glass exporters. The figure shows a presumed English glass with a lion-mask moulded stem compared with its Venetian cristallo equivalent and illustrates why Mansell needed to act.

This paper covers the introduction of Altarese glassmakers to London and the progressive improvements they made, as documented by Christopher Merett in his well-known commentary to Neri's Art of Glass and by Gustav Jung, the Swedish glassmaker who visited London in 1667/8. Since lead oxide had been used as an ingredient for alkali glasses on the continent for hundreds of years it was clearly not invented in London, but the introduction of cheaper saltpetre from India from 1673 provided the impetus for a range of English crystal glass developments.

The paper argues that the glass patented by George Ravenscroft was in fact a high-quality flint/borax/alkali glass by the Altarese glassmaker John Odaccio Formica. Like all the other new crystal glasses made using saltpetre this glass soon degraded. Lead oxide was probably introduced into this mix in about 1675 to help cure this. Odaccio Formica then moved to Dublin and for the next ten years London and Dublin were the main centres for the production of this new "flint" glass. From the early 1680s the production of lead glass spread throughout the country facilitated by Henry Holden's invention of the closed pot.

Thus the development of British crystal glass was not a single event or the work of a single individual, but was multi-threaded and took a life-time. This paper summarises work by the author and his late wife Sue published in Glass Technology in October 2014, April 2015 and April 2016.