History of Roman and Georgian Glass

31 March 2020  |  Admin



Roman Glass blowing and georgian glassblowing information


 Roman and Georgian Glass Information - 

Cultural Significance, Techniques and Archaeological Evidence


Roman Glass Information

  • Overall, it is difficult to exactly determine how much glass was produced and where due to the fact that unlike pottery for example, glass is an ephemeral piece of archaeological evidence.

  • As such, it is difficult to use as evidence. Instead the remnants of their furnaces are much more useful. Particularly the pits that were dug to bury the refuse from producing glass, such as the cullets.

  • Roman style glass was made using a lime-soda-silica composite, that would be made for centuries well into the Byzantine period and into the Italian Renaissance. It still stands as the most widely used type of glass today.

  • Roman glass was considered a luxury item until the advent of the blowing iron in the 1st C. A.D.. But even so, glass production would have still generated a degree of wastage that would have been next to useless; unless one attempted to melt down and recycle these components.

  • The blowing iron itself was theorised to have originated in Roman Syria, in the ancient city of Sidon; itself the mythical birthplace of Queen Dido of Carthage.

  • The Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder gives us the traditional story of Phoenician settlers along the Syrian coast inadvertently discovering the qualities of superheated sand.

  • Before the blowing iron, glass was still produced, but the process was unrefined. It was a process of casting molten glass into moulds, a method of producing glass that was prevalent throughout the Mediterrenean.

  • But what was distinctive of this type of glass, and this time, was the employment of a wide variety of different colours adorning very simple vessels.

  • The blowing iron enabled the Romans to create glass pieces that were larger and more elaborate, it was what led to the first great “boom” of the glassblowing industry during the 1st C. A.D.

  • Roman glass was generally quite monochromatic, think of a light blue-green colour that would glint in the light, but this was quite typical of pieces that were intended for practical purposes.

  • The quality of the materials that they used significantly impacted the quality of the glass produced at this time. Eg: Glass produced in Han China in the 1st C. A.D. was generally of smaller stature and held more impurities.

  • Roman glass, especially produced in Britain, Germania (Modern Germany), Gallia (Modern France, Modern Belgium) and Italy, became valued trade goods between Rome and Middle-Eastern and Far Eastern civilisations. Such as Indo-Parthian kingdoms in North-West India and Greco-Bactrian kingdoms.

  • Whereas in the Rome Empire, because of the versatility and ease of the blowing iron glass was much more affordable for the average citizen. The glass was also of greater purity, holding fewer imperfections, thus making it more desirable in places that could not produce glass to a similar quality. Inadvertently becoming a potent trade resource to the Romans of the first and second centuries in particular.

  • However, it is important to recognise in both Britain and elsewhere that there was not an extensive glass-making industry. Instead, glassblowing studios would have been just that: “studios” much like today.

  • They were placed on the outskirts of cities, close to water supplies, due to the potential of a fire hazard. But also because professions such as artisans and actors generally speaking occupied the lowest rungs of society during those times.

  • It was also commonplace to transport materials from elsewhere, such as premade massive blocks of glass (Produced in tank furnaces!), or even the excess cullets, that could be recycled by studios. Similar to the processes that most studios use today. 

  • An estimation of the sheer scale of these projects is that a nine-tonne slab of glass produced in a tank furnace could result in the production of thousands of amphora (“unguentarium” in Latin, “unguentaria” for the plural.)

  • Amphoras, originally produced in clay but later replaced by glass come the 2nd - 6th C. A.D. were widespread across the Roman Empire, for a numerous variety of purposes including the packaging and storing of goods such as oils and perfumes, a practice that was hugely popular in Roman Greece in particular. Another interesting stylistic decision is that Greek, Carthaginian and Roman styles did not identify a distinction as to whether or not the vessel required a stopper in order to be classified as an amphora.

  • The amphora also took on a more poetic place within literature as playwrights and poets from Shakespeare to Tennyson portrayed them as vessels to store the tears of mourners at funerals which gave them the name “lacrimarium” (derived from “lacrimae” for tears). Thus displaying the cultural significance and iconography of Roman glass through the ages.

  • The Romans utilised both moulded glass and free-blown glass, but much like today, moulding was a difficult and time consuming process as specialists would have to be drafted in to create the moulds themselves.

  • Today, we still utilise many of the techniques that the Romans introduced such as the use of marble countertops (nowadays made of steel), 

  • During the period of the 1st C. A.D., pre the occupation of the rebel Boudica in 60-61 A.D., there is also evidence of a “marbled polychromatic glass” that is quite similar to our own Art Glass.

  • This type of glass appears to have purely been decorative rather than practical. Instead the blue-green glass like that of our heritage range appears to have been made more frequently due to its simplicity. Which also represents a distinction that we still preserve to an extent, with more elaborate and colourful pieces of art glass being suggested and recommended display pieces rather than functional vessels or jugs.


Georgian Glass Information

  • During this period, England became very famous for producing lead glass. In particular, rather fittingly, lavish and ornate drinking vessels.

  • This type of glass was made famous by a man called George Ravenscroft, who set up his own establishment alongside an Italian glass worker called Seignior Da Costa.

  • Initially, Ravenscroft glass was somewhat fragile compared to Italian-style glass, for example, that was still prevalent throughout the continent. This was due to a manufacturing defect that would be ironed out of later iterations of glassware.

  • This would lead to Georgian lead glass going on to replace and overtake the more traditional style of Italian soda glass. (Soda glass is still made today, such as our studio, using traditional Roman techniques.)

  • However, there are misconceptions surrounding lead glass, e.g. the name “cut-glass crystal”. A misdemeanour, as no type of glass possesses crystalline qualities. It garnered the name for the angular, stylistic “cuts” across the surface of the glass that gave the glass the appearance of a crystal.

  • A functional hierarchy existed among Georgian glassware: A junior would make the foot, a master craftsman would create the stem, while the honour of creating the bowl would belong to the gaffer. This is still a tradition and process that is in use to this day.

  • Therefore representing a blending of cultural and creative differences in the modern methods of producing glass; we still use an evolution of both Roman and Georgian techniques for producing glass.

  • One of the most formative signatures in glass-making is the pontil, derived from the Latin “pontus” meaning bridge, the point where the glass was detached from the punting iron.

  • This would also leave behind a cluster of glass on the iron dubbed a “moil”, which would become scrap, as it would serve no other use.

  • In addition, the shaping lines which are oft initially regarded as imperfections, are actually crucial signatures in identifying free-blown glassware, particularly of the Georgian style. They often appear as vertical lines tracing the body of the bowl.

  • Another signature trait of Georgian glass drinking vessels is the fact that the base is wider than the bowl, which appears to be a practical solution to improve a vessel’s balance and stability. 

  • For antique collectors, it is vital to identify if the foot has been tampered with in any way; if the foot has been ground down, it could be indicative of a chipped foot in the glass piece.

  • Furthermore, it is important to identify that the Georgians favoured drinking vessels and stemware over decorative pieces of glass that served no function other than itself.

  • This would lead to Georgian-style lead glass gaining popularity across the world, which held a significant impact on the American glassmaking industry. It was especially regarded for its robust nature and refractive properties.

  • Georgian glass was also emblematic of the Georgian times themselves and witnessed a stylistic evolution of glass’ cultural status. Similar to its initial boom in popularity with its Roman counterparts, glasses in particular became lavish status symbols.

  • Especially when those pieces were engraved or etched. A practice that was often left to Dutch and Belgian, such as Frans Greenwood of Amsterdam and the Sang Brothers, crafters who were revered for their superior skills to that of English engravers.

  • William Beilby became a famous artisan as he rose as a famous glass-enamel painter. Rather than engraving a glass piece, Beilby became famous for his style of enamel painting on glass that in practical terms became fused with the glass piece itself.

  • Unlike Roman glass, which unfortunately for the most part has not survived the atrophy of time and has become incredibly fragile with age; antique Georgian glassware on the other hand, due its temporal proximity, has survived well into the modern age and is remarkably well preserved by collectors and museums.