The Art of Glass

Glass is a fascinating material to work with; when it is hot it can be manipulated into almost endless forms yet when it is cold it is brittle and hard. It can be cut to create dazzling arrays of light and it can be engraved with intricate patterns. Curator Melissa Gallimore explores the glass collections at Cannon Hall Museum which provides wonderful examples of these techniques.


Blowing glass is an ancient technique and it has been suggested that it originated in Syria in the 2nd century AD. A glob of glass is heated on the end of a hollow rod and the glass blower rotates the rod and blows into it simultaneously to make the glass expand and create the desired shape. This large vase made by the Swedish firm Orrefors is 34cm in diameter and would have required a great deal of skill to create. The Orrefors Glassworks was founded in Sweden in 1898 and in the middle of the twentieth century they were leaders in producing modernist glass in the Scandinavian style.

Vase by Orrefors, 1960s


Another way of getting glass into the desired shape is to heat it and then use a mould. This bottle dating from the 2nd-3rd century AD was created in this way as hot glass was blown into a mould with the pattern cut into it.

Antique Syrian Bottle, 2nd-3rd century AD

In the Victorian period there was a mass expansion in the production of press-moulded glass as new technologies enabled the fast production of items for the home. There were many factories but one of the most important ones was Sowerby’s Glassworks founded by John Sowerby in 1848 and based near Gateshead in the North-East of England. They mass produced inexpensive glass for the growing number of middle-class families of the Victorian period.

Candlestick by Sowerby’s, 1880s

Modern variations of the moulding technique are still used today to create a great deal of the tableware that we use.


Molten glass can also be used to add decoration to almost any item. In a process known as trailing a line of glass is added to an object whilst it is rotated to create a ‘trail’ around the piece. This can be done in clear glass or in a different colour to enhance the design. This carafe by James Powell & Sons has been trailed with green glass and was a technique that featured in many of their glass wares.

Carafe by James Powell & Sons, c.1884

James Powell took over an existing glass factory in Whitefriars, London in 1834 and produced ‘Art Glass’ throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The factory was renamed, ‘Whitefriars’ in the 1960s and produced modernist glass. Powell was rooted in the Arts and Crafts movement and worked with designers such as the architect, Philip Webb and the famous retailer, Arthur Liberty.


Once glass is cold and brittle it can still be decorated using a variety of techniques. One of these is engraving where small areas of the glass are cut away using metal or diamond tools. The designs are only limited by the imagination and can be inspired by everything from classical and biblical stories and abstract designs right through to commemorating historical figures.

Decanter with a Classical Scene by an unknown maker, 1850s
Goblet engraved with an image of Winston Churchill by Stevens and Williams (Part of the Royal Brierley Series), 1964


Etching is very similar to engraving but acid is used to ‘eat away’ the glass rather than using tools. This can create a very different and much more dynamic effect.

Bowl by Sven Palmqvist for Orrefors, 1964

This bowl is part of the ‘Ravenna’ series inspired by the mosaics of Ravenna in Italy. The series was developed by the Orrefors Glassworks in the 1960s.

Another version of etching is a technique called ‘Cameo glass’ where the outer layers of glass are removed to reveal different colours below. This reminded people of a cameo shell where layers are cut away to create the design. One of the masters of this technique was Emile Gallé who used it to create remarkable pieces inspired by the Art Nouveau style of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He founded his glassworks in Nancy, France and was one of a number of French glassmakers alongside Lalique and Daum who became household names.

Vase by Gallé, 1880s-90s


Glass cutting is an art in its own right and only a few people within a glassworks would specialise in this technique. Larger amounts of glass would be cut away than when engraving often creating geometric patterns. These could form diamond shapes or steps as well as many other designs.

The ‘Queensland Vase’ by the Val St Lambet Glassworks, mid 20th century

The Val St Lambert Glassworks was founded outside Liege in Belgium in the 1820s and in the middle of the twentieth century the company decided to produce a series of spectacular vases named after places around the world. This ‘Queensland Vase’ is over 550cm high and would have taken considerable skill to cut.


Over the centuries glass has been heated, cooled, abraded, etched and cut to create a spectacular range of objects. Glass is part of everyday life and also part of the historical identity of Barnsley. One of the most famous glass makers in Barnsley was the Wood Brothers’ firm. John and James Wood founded the company in 1834 to make fine table wares. They were later joined by two other brothers. The company produced domestic and industrial glass until 1981.

Figure of a Swan by Wood Brothers, 1912


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