Copyright © 1989 by the National American Glass Club. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any informational storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the editor or other officer authorized by the executive board of the club.
Insights into the
Development of Burmese Glass:
By Jane Chester Young
American Glass Club
Few glassware's have ever inspired the intense proliferation and competition, and gained the instant celebrity status that Burmese glass did in 1886. Within a year of its invention, Burmese had been introduced in over 200 shapes; spawned a "sister" colored ware (Peach Blow); been successfully licensed for production in England; inspired a series of competitive colored wares by other American firms and caused litigation against at least one (The Phoenix Glass Co.); received British royal patronage unprecedented for an American product; and been heralded on two sides of the Atlantic as "the dawn of another day" in glassmaking. (Ref 1.)
The year 1886 was tremendously eventful for Frederick Shirley, general manager of the Mt. Washington Glass Company, as he shepherded his 1885 invention through the processes of design, production, and public introduction. It is a year which remains intensely interesting to glass scholars today, as they seek the identity and origin of early Burmese forms and decorations, whether created in New Bedford or in Amblecote, England.
The public enthusiasm for Shirley's new colored ware was fed not only by the infamous March, 1886 auction of Mary Moorage's Tang He vase with "peach bloom" glaze, but also by Shirley's early effort at celebrity endorsement: his presentation of some spectacular Burmese vases to Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice in London during the summer of 1886.
Shirley was in England from June until August 26, 1886. His English patent for Burmese was registered June 19, and his presentation to Victoria and Beatrice occurred before their mid-August departure for Balmoral, Scotland. At some point during his prolonged visit, Shirley negotiated the sale of his English Burmese license to the firm of Thomas Webb and Sons, at the Dennis Glassworks in Amblecote, Stourbridge.
While the details of Frederick Shirley's invention and marketing of Burmese have been covered extensively in an earlier publication (Ref 2.), new insights into the introduction and adaptation of Burmese into Webb's production can be found in a previously unpublished pattern book of Jules Barbe, Webb's chief designer from 1879 to 1900. Consisting of Barb's sketches for shapes, decorations, and cut glass patterns, the pattern book begins in 1879 and continues into the late 1880s. Contained within its pages are the only known depictions of the Burmese ware taken to England by Frederick Shirley in 1886? In addition, the drawings and Barb's accompanying notes provide the first clear picture of the chronology and development of Burmese under Barb's influence.
The earliest dated Burmese sketches are for October 1886, the "First lot of Patterns Made" (Figure 1). Using the 1885-86 Mt. Washington Glass Company trade catalog illustrations of Burmese for comparison (Figures 2, 3), we can identify two New Bedford forms, a classic gourd vase (Mt. W. no. 146, Webb no. 15747) and the smaller waisted gourd (Mt. W. no. 145, Webb no. 15748), as well as shapes of Webb variation. Another October, 1886 page (not illustrated) depicts Mt. Washington shapes 147 and 78.
To a large degree, Barbe seems to have willingly continued into the first Webb Burmese line the simple, Japanese-inspired shapes developed by Shirley and his designer, Albert Stefan, along with some of Steven's naturalistic floral decorations. What astounds, however, here and on several surrounding pages, are designs for air twist and "honeycomb mould" Burmese forms. Given the difficulty of working the brittle, heat-sensitive glass, and the four-month experimentation period that Webb's gaffes probably had, Jules Barbe was demanding some truly bravura glassmaking on the part of the Stourbridge gaffes.
The exact date of Shirley's initial contact with Webb is unknown, but as an emigrant from Stourbridge himself, it is probable that Shirley had corresponded with the factory even before his arrival. The October sketches would, therefore, seem to illustrate objects brought over by Shirley himself during his summer trip. Subsequent pages, dated November 1886 and titled "American Shapes," apparently depict glassware's shipped to Webb after Shirley's return to America. This chronology would indicate a shipment to Webb of mainly undecorated shapes just prior to the December shipment of the elaborate tea service and vases ordered by the Queen. (Ref 3.)
The three November pages (Figures 4, 5, 6) show that at least twenty-five New Bedford pieces were sent to Webb at this time, although Barbe illustrated a total of over forty Mt. Washington shapes, many on undated pages. The November 1886 pages probably include some of the forms being concurrently prepared in New Bedford for Buckingham Palace. Among the Mt. Washington cream pitchers illustrated are the classically inspired number 135, the plain ribbed number 62, a goose-beaked creamer, number 99 (all illustrated in Figure 5) and the squat form number 98 (Figure 6, no. 15815). The many American vase forms drawn by Barbe on these pages include the lily and jack-in-the-pulpit in all sizes, the Egyptian (Mt. W. no. 103), and the elegant footed egg-form (Mt. W. no. 70). Several bowl shapes are also depicted, among them Mt. Washington numbers 122, 72-74, and 109.
The Webb firm seems to have taken the possibilities of manipulating Burmese glass to the furthest limits. In addition to the air twist and honeycomb-molded forms, the Barbe pattern book illustrates Burmese "water wave" and diamond-molded forms (Figure 7); as well as Burmese forms cased with "brown shaded" glass and applied clear glass decorations (Figure 8).
While it is commonly accepted that English firms had been producing shaded wares previous to 1886, it is interesting to note that Jules Barbe describes no fewer than three shades of Burmese in various pages of the pattern book: "Burmese yellow," "Burmese blue," and "Lilac Burmese." He goes on to illustrate that Burmese forms cased with "Olive" or "White" glass, as well as the above-mentioned "brown-shaded" ware. These later colored variations apparently date around 1887 to 1888, according to their placement in the pattern book. This would also coincide with the time when Webb is said to have altered the original Burmese formula to produce consistently darker pink shading. (Ref 4.)
That Barb's designs for molded, cased, and variously colored Burmese forms were actually produced is confirmed by objects in numerous private and public collections, most notably the former collection of the Webb Museum in Dennis Hall, Amblecote. Until the dismantling of this collection in 1987 (Ref 5.), the Webb Museum contained superb examples of cased and molded Burmese forms. Also of note are a Webb Burmese cameo vase in the Hit collection in Tennessee, and a pair of Webb Blue Burmese footed bowls in the collection of the New Bedford Glass Museum. The latter have applied amber crimped rims and trailed feet, typical of Barbe design; the interiors of these homogeneous glass bowls are bright turquoise, while their exteriors are pale robin's egg blue.
Since attribution of Burmese forms to Mt. Washington Or Webb are based as much on decoration as on shape, it should be noted that the Barbe pattern book illustrates thirty-two floral patterns on Burmese glassware, as well as some Oriental motifs. Stan Evasion, former curator of the Webb Museum, dated four floral patterns to 1886: Hawthorn, Ivy, Virginia Creeper, and Ivy and Berries. In his correspondence with the author dated March 1987, Evasion also dated twenty-four floral patterns to 1887 and five other Burmese patterns to 1888.
Of the four 1886 floral patterns, one has caused considerable misattribution, at least on the part of English collections. The Virginia Creeper pattern (numbered by Webb as 2475) is a documented Mt. Washington pattern that was created by Albert Stefan at least as early as 1885. It exists on numerous Mt. Washington Burmese and other glass forms, including some Burmese wares that retain their "Burmese Pat. Applied For" 1885 paper labels. It is probable that a Virginia Creeper-decorated piece was among those carried or shipped from New Bedford in 1886, because Barbe records the decoration on Mt. Washington shapes, without notation, in several drawings (Figure 9).
Webb went on to produce Virginia Creeper in such numbers that Cyril Manly was moved to note, incorrectly, that this triangular-leafed pattern was "almost a trademark" of the Webb firm and could be invariably attributed to Webb, although he cautioned that there were many "imitations." (Ref 6.)
A lovely example of an original Barbe pattern is his design for a Burmese vase celebrating Queen Victoria's 1887 Jubilee (Figure 10). The richly gilded pattern features a "Jubilee" banner draped over a design of birds and flowering branches. The design was particularly appropriate, since Webb was producing the glass under the label "Queen's Burmese Ware."
In seventy-six pages of designs for Burmese the Jules Barbe pattern book traces the evolution of the ware from purely American forms into new and distinctive Webb shapes and patterns, some of which were in production until about 1920. Many pages contain inspired masterpieces of Burmese, some of which may never have existed beyond the designer's hand.
Shortly after the designs were photographed for the author, the Dennis Glassworks was acquired by Coloroll, a conglomerate that also owns Edinburgh Crystal. The Webb Museum was abruptly and mysteriously closed in June 1987 by its new owners. For months, inquiries by English glass scholars and even Webb family descendants went unanswered. Finally, investigative reporters for the Dudley Evening Mail revealed on October 15, 1987, that a large number of the Webb Museum's greatest masterpieces had been privately sold through Florida dealer Ray Grover to an unnamed American collector. The ensuing scandal over this apparent breach of the tough English export regulations resulted in a government investigation into the sale, and a trial for the Coloroll firm in Crown Court has been set for April 3, 1989
Meanwhile, the exact whereabouts of the Jules Barbe pattern book and other Webb archival material has been uncertain. As this article goes to press, Charles Hajdamach, director of Dudley's Broadfield House Glass Museum, has confirmed that Coloroll does have the pattern book in its possession. Hajdamach has been leading negotiations with Coloroll representatives in hopes that what remains of the Webb Museum collection can be identified and acquired for a public British institution. Certainly, those hopes are shared by all glass scholars on this side of the Atlantic. We can only wish a speedy and safe return of these important artifacts to the public domain.
Shortly after making the article available on-line, I received information from several experienced collectors and researchers of Mount Washington and Thomas Webb Burmese glass. Most appreciated that the article was available on-line but had concerns that the information was, in some cases, misleading or not reflective of current research. Each provided specific information detailing the areas of concern. In one case, the contributor edited the article, correcting and providing additional information where necessary.
This editorial review by our members is not intended to be critical. Instead, the primary purpose is to simply clarify some information and to provide additional new information to support the article. Click on the following link to view the revised article:
Insights into the Development of Burmese Glass:
The Jules Barbe Pattern Book (Revised)
Fairy Lamp Club Home Page
Subscribe to the
Fairy Lamp Discussion Group