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Cameo Glass

In a previous blog, Early British Glass Scent Bottles, I mentioned that the last notable milestone in the manufacture of British glass scent bottles during the 19th century was the introduction of cameo glass. Due to the wide range of beautiful cameo glassware produced during the 19th century and leading well into the 20th century, I thought it would be interesting to take a moment to expand upon this.

Production technique

Although cameo glass was initially produced during the period of the Roman Empire, the technique did not re-emerge until as late as the beginning of the 19th century.

Cameo glass is produced using glass with two or more different layers of colour. The initial process of fusing the contrasting coloured glass together can pose issues due to the different cooling rates from colour to colour, potentially resulting in cracks. Once completely cooled, a layer or more is then cut away leaving the design standing out in relief from the body of the object. The vast majority of examples comprise of a white overlay design set in relief against a coloured body, with some much rarer examples displaying up to four layers of colour.

Faux cameo glass

Unlike the vast majority of examples produced during the 19th century which were entirely decorated by hand, cameo glass produced during the 20th/21st century is predominantly entirely acid cut using hydrochloric acid. Hence, to differentiate, later acid cut examples are often defined as being ‘faux cameo’. Faux cameo glass is fairly easy to identify because the edges of the decoration are soft and the background is much coarser and heavily textured compared with the smooth surfaces of 19th century wares. It is also important to note that although some 19th century cameo glass was produced with the aid of acid cutting, the detailed decorative work was still done by hand and hence the value is rarely affected.

Notable cameo glass makers and cutters

The most notable British manufacturers of cameo glass in the 19th century were all established in the Midlands. They include Thomas Webb & Sons, Stevens & Williams and B. & J. Richardson. Thomas Webb & Sons and Stevens & Williams both employed many highly skilled cameo cutters. Perhaps the most notable cameo cutters being George and Thomas Woodall of Thomas Webb.

Important cameo glass manufacturers from further afield worth mentioning are Gallé, Daum, Tiffany, Cartier and Schneider, who produced some of the finest cameo glass objects in existence.

Acquiring cameo glass

When acquiring cameo glass, close inspection is important, as unfinished pieces can occasionally be found with blurred edges to the design. With small internal faults caused by the initial glass cooling process, holding the piece up to a strong source of light should make them clearly visible.

Unfortunately, cameo glass can be found with fake marks and signatures. This is probably due to the fact that the most valuable pieces tended to be marked. However, some particularly fine examples have been found without any marks. Familiarisation with different examples should help you to gauge the quality of the craftsmanship and whether it fits in line with the makers mark.

Due to glass being relatively fragile, chips can easily occur over a long period of time. It is therefore important to inspect for these and for any potential restoration. Usually restoration will involve the glass being smoothly ground down to a point where the damage is no longer obviously visible. For example, on a vase, the restoration will predominantly be found at the rim or foot. Through personal experience, I have noticed that the ground down section does not generally match the quality in finish of the overall piece or the expected geometric border is missing. Also, the neck of the glass vase will sometimes seem too short and not of typically expected proportions. If in doubt, it is best to seek the advice of a glass specialist, especially if the item is particularly expensive. 

If you have any glass you would like to sell or have valued, please contact Robin Newcombe, glass specialist at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent for further details.