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The Portland Vase, about 5-25AD.

Cameo glass is a luxury form of glass art produced by etching and carving through fused layers of differently coloured glass to produce designs, usually with white opaque glass figures and motifs on a dark coloured background. The technique is first seen in ancient Roman art of about 30BC, where it was an alternative to the luxury engraved gem vessels in cameo style that used naturally layered semi-precious gemstones such as onyx and agate.[1] Glass allowed consistent and predictable coloured layers, even for round objects.[2]

From the mid-19th century there was a revival of cameo glass, especially in French Art Nouveau, and cameo glass is still produced today.

Contents

Roman glass

Early Roman vase excavated from Pompeii.

Despite the advantages described above, Roman cameo glass is extremely rare - much more so than natural gemstone cameos like the Gemma Augustea and Gonzaga Cameo, which are the among the largest examples of many hundreds (at least) of surviving classical cameos produced from the 3rd century BC onwards. Only about 200 fragments and 15 complete objects of early Roman cameo glass survive.[3] The best and most famous example of these, and also among the best preserved, is the Portland Vase in the British Museum.[4] Other fine examples, such as the Morgan Cup (Corning Museum of Glass), are drinking cups. Both of these named pieces show complex multi-figure mythological scenes, whose iconography has been much debated.[5] The Getty Villa has another cup, and a perfume bottle with scenes of Egyptian deities, apparently an early instance of Orientalism.[6] The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a fragment over 11 inches (28 cm) long and 5 inches (13 cm) high from what was evidently an architectural revetment showing an acanthus frieze with eagles,[7] the luxurious equivalent in glass of a "Campana relief" in pottery.

Judging from the very limited number of survivals, cameo glass was apparently produced in two periods: the early period about 30BC to 60AD, and then for about a century from the late-3rd century to the period of Constantine the Great and his sons. The latter period also saw a brief court revival of the art of gem-carving, which had been in decline. All these dates are somewhat movable,[8] and it is possible that smaller gem-like pieces of cameo glass continued to be produced between these periods.[9]

Glass from the later period is even rarer than from the earlier, with only a "handful" of complete pieces known, one of which was excavated in Norway.[10] Its use was clearly restricted to the elite; the Portland Vase is said to have been excavated from the tomb of the Emperor Septimus Severus, for whom it would have been a 200 year-old antique. The most popular colour scheme for objects from the early period is white over blue, but other colours are found, such as the white over black, imitating onyx, of the Portland Vase. In the early period usually all layers are opaque. By contrast, in the later period, there is a translucent coloured overlay over a virtually colourless background, perhaps imitating rock crystal. The surface of the top layer elements is flat rather than carved as in the earlier group of pieces.[11]

Later periods

Cameo glass vase by Émile Gallé, 1890-1900

The technique was used in Islamic art in the 9th and 10th centuries, but then lost until the 18th century in Europe, and not perfected until the 19th century. [12] Modern producers of true cameo glass include Thomas Webb and Sons and George Bacchus & Sons in 19th century England,[13] though ceramic imitations made popular by Wedgwood and others from the 18th century onwards are far more common. They usually worked in a more or less neoclassical style. Cameo glass was popular for brooches, vases, plaques, and similar uses, and there are still many producers today.

Artistically the most notable work since the revival was in the Art Nouveau period, by makers such as Émile Gallé (1846-1904) and Daum of Nancy, when Roman-inspired subjects and colour schemes were totally abandoned, and plant and flower designs predominate. Louis Comfort Tiffany made only a small number of cameo pieces, which were a French speciality in this period, though other firms such as the Czech Moser Glass were also producers.

Techniques

In the modern revival all of the top layer except the areas needed for the design are usually removed by an etching process - the figure areas are covered with a resist layer of wax or some other material, and the blank dipped in acid. The detailed work is then done with wheels and drills, before finishing, and usually polishing.[14] It seems that in the ancient world the entire process of removing the unwanted white or other top layer was done by drills and wheels - wheel-cut decoration on glass of a single colour was very common in ancient Rome. In the case of "three-layer" (or three-colour) cameo, there is another layer of glass on top of the white opaque one, and further layers are possible. One Roman piece uses a record six layers.[15] It is not known where the Roman pieces were produced, but for want of any better suggestion most scholars think the capital itself. It appears likely that at least the making of the blanks was initially in the hands of imported Syrian glass-workers.[16]

Notes

  1. ^ Lightfoot
  2. ^ Trentinella
  3. ^ Whitehouse, 41. The Corning Museum of Glass has 40 pieces, all catalogued in Whitehouse.
  4. ^ British Museum - Page on the Portland Vase
  5. ^ Full catalogue entry for the Morgan Cup in Whitehouse, 49-51.
  6. ^ Getty Cup and perfume bottle.
  7. ^ Metropolitan Museum of Art frieze fragment
  8. ^ Trentinella. See also Whitehouse, 50 and passim.
  9. ^ Whitehouse, 49
  10. ^ Whitehouse, 41.
  11. ^ Whitehouse, 41
  12. ^ Trentinella
  13. ^ Texas A&M
  14. ^ Texas A&M Production
  15. ^ Whitehouse, 51-2 (No. 48, full catalogue entry)
  16. ^ Honour, Google books

References

  • Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art, 1982 & revised eds, Macmillan, London
  • Lightfoot, Christopher. "Luxury Arts of Rome". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (February 2009, retr. 23 September, 2009),
  • Trentinella, Rosemarie. "Roman Cameo Glass". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–9. link (October 2003, retr. 16 September, 2009)
  • Texas A&M University Museum Exhibition feature George Woodall and the Art of English Cameo Glass.
  • Whitehouse, David. Roman glass in the Corning Museum of Glass, Volume 1 Corning Museum of Glass. Google books

External links

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