This is the first half of our article on Sowerby glass, with a link to part 2 at the foot of this page.
A few years ago I visited the North East of England, where Sowerby glass was made, and met Dinah, daughter of Sheilagh Murray, one of the great authors on North Eastern Glass.
Here we are looking at Sheilagh's original notebook, in which she recorded her glass purchases with little drawings and stories about each piece.
Sheilagh's book "The Lions and the Peacock" (referring to the trademarks of the three major North-Eastern glass makers, Greener/Jobling, Davidson, and Sowerby) has been out of print for a time, and is hard to find.
The Sowerby family came originally from the North West of England, near Carlisle, in the late eighteenth century. There is a record of the Sowerby Glassworks in Gateshead, North East of England in 1807, and the company continued to produce pressed glass wares in the Gateshead area until 1972, when the glass workshop was closed. By that time they were owned by the Suntex Company, which specialised in safety glass and continued to make this specialised glass on the same site.
Sowerby was certainly the longest surviving of the North Eastern glassworks, and during its 165 years of operation there were some major high points. The slogan "art glass for the millions" was a fitting description of some of their products. In the 1880's they used popular designs from the leading artists in the Arts and Crafts movement, and faithfully reproduced the drawings notably of Walter Crane, on pressed glass items like posy vases and spill vases.
This little posy vase is based on an illustration in a children's book of nursery rhymes called "The Baby's Opera" by Walter Crane, published in 1877. The detail of the picture is very accurately reproduced on the vase, even to the pebbles and the splashes of water.
Sowerby's used seven of the pictures from this little book as designs for glass vases and posy holders; and several more from Crane's other books "An Alphabet of Old Friends" and "Baby's Own Alphabet".
There is a sad story about my little blue Jack and Jill vase. They are very hard to find, and after several years looking, this was the first Sowerby "Nursery Rhyme" piece I had ever found. To keep it safe I wrapped it in a sweater in my suitcase, then forgot it. At my hotel I pulled out the sweater and the vase dropped to the floor and broke. If you look carefully you can see the repair on the left-hand side. I did learn never to wrap glass in clothes.
This is the famous Peacock's head logo used by Sowerby from 1876 to1930. It is not on all their pieces, especially in the later years. I have noticed that it is often missing from white vitro-porcelein plates and baskets. But it must be the most widely used English glass trademark of all time. Sometimes it can be very hard to find.
The yellow posy vase below, with two swans and a design of bullrushes, is based on another Walter Crane design. Again the detail of the design is a very accurate reproduction of the original Crane swan drawings. I found this vase in an antique shop near Wellington, with a price sticker ($40) covering the trade mark!
The vase below right is the same vase in a kind of glass which Sowerby called "Queen's Ivory". You can see the detail of the design better in this picture (thank you to John Bell for letting me use his photo)
These artistic designs were almost entirely on the surface of the glass. The posy holders and vases were attractive, imaginative, with beautiful decoration. But the art went mostly into design of the moulds, and the pieces were then produced in their hundreds by hand pressing the glass.
During an earlier period, from 1870 to around 1888, Sowerby had a hand blowing workshop, initially staffed by workers brought from Italy, and making a range of Venetian-style glass.
The jug on the left, from Sheilagh Murray's collection, is an example of these Venetian pieces. They were never signed, but the colours and shapes are quite distinctive. This jug appeared in Sowerby Pattern Book VIII, in 1880.
Sowerby art glass was highly regarded at the time, but the company's reputation for pressed glass later completely over-shadowed this period in their history.
The little bowl below, another Sheilagh Murray piece, has the lions head mask and Italian design features typical of the glass which can now be attributed to the Sowerby art glass studio.
The lion's head mask is a particularly interesting feature of Sowerby art glass, because for many centuries the lion's head mask was associated with glass made in Murano, Italy.
The jug below, which has a textured surface that feels like rough stone, is another Sowerby art glass piece (again from Sheilagh Murray's collection), and clearly shows the lion mask. The exact reasons why Sowerby chose to mark their glass in this way remain a mystery.
John G Sowerby, who joined his father's company as a manager in 1871, was a successful painter and illustrator of children's books in his own right. He was closely involved with the artists of the "Arts and Crafts Movement" and the "Aesthetic" movement which prevailed in Britain at that time.
The aesthetic movement, which encouraged artistic freedom of expression for artists, would have embraced Sowerby's efforts in setting up a studio and bringing glass makers from Italy.
John Sowerby even cooperated with Walter Crane's elder brother Thomas in a series of children's books, starting with "At Home" in 1881, then "Abroad" in 1882, and "At Home Again" in 1888. Small wonder that Sowerby glass of that period was artistic and followed illustration trends which were sweeping the country. Sowerby's art glass studio survived only until 1888.
Sowerby concentrated mainly on their pressed glass production. They produced a wide range of products in "vitroporcelein" or "glass-that-looks-like-porcelein", and their most common colours were turquoise blue, white, ivory, malachite (glass with streaks like marble) in purple, blue and brown, and clear "flint" glass. The piece on the right is a posy or spill holder for hanging on a wall, with a design of a Mikado on it.
The basket-weave plate on the left was made in white, black, blue and a strange olive green (I have two in that colour, photo will be included later).
Here are John Bell, his partner Louise, and Sheilagh Murray's daughter Dinah, sharing the pleasure of looking through Sheilagh's original notebook on North East glass.Thank you to John for all his help with this article.
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