This is the second half of our article on Sowerby glass.
The little baskets below are typical of the items produced by John G. Sowerby from the late 1870's to about the time of the First World War (1914). The peacock's head trademark shown above right was put onto all but the cheapest items during that time. Sowerby first registered a peacock's head trademark in 1876.
The surface of the glass was used as an art medium for displaying decorative designs, and the colouring of the glass was its second creative feature. The intrinsic flowing and translucent properties of glass were not used imaginatively, and glass pieces during this period tended to imitate the shape of an article made in some other medium. These baskets, for example, have both shape and surface pattern like wicker baskets.
Decorative designs on glass were often copied from some other medium, and the pre-dominant colours were imitative of porcelain, marble, and cut crystal glass.
Small items like these baskets were intended as posy-holders, spill holders, and storage for pins or other small items.
The purple glass item below right, is a vase, but its shape is based on a drum, its decorative design copies a painting on a plate, and the colour is imitative of marble.
For many years this design was a mystery. The picture did not appear in any children's books, it did not seem to be a Walter Crane design. And then someone recognised it from an illustration in Pottery Gazette and Glass Trades Review, August 1877. "Miss Howard" won a prize for a painting on a plate in that year, with this picture. And a few months later Sowerby's had registered the design for a vase.
Perhaps Miss Howard was a friend or a relative of John Sowerby; or perhaps he just admired the picture from the Review.
The blue vitro-porcelein font below left was a pin holder. Pressed glass designs had moved away from imitating cut glass to a new era of art-on-glass and imitation of all kinds of objects.
Although these pieces were produced in their thousands and marketed around the world, many did not survive day-to-day use, and today they are rare.
This little font has the Sowerby peacock and a date mark for 1877.
From 1842 until 1883 British pressed glass (and some art glass) carried a diamond-shaped date mark. These lozenges had numbers and letters in each corner, representing the month and year of first registration. From 1842 until 1867 the letter in the top position represented the year; and from 1868 to 1883 the letter on the right hand side represented the date.Here are the letters and the years they represented, for the period 1868 to 1883. The diagram on the left shows a typical date registration lozenge, in this case for March (the W in bottom segment) 1873 (the F in right hand segment).
X for 1868
H for 1869
C for 1870
A for 1871
I for 1872
F for 1873
U for 1874
S for 1875
V for 1876
P for 1877
D for 1878
Y for 1879
J for 1880
E for 1881
L for 1882
K for 1883
After 1883 the date lozenge system was abandoned in Britain, and registered glass designs were given a registration number, starting with 1 in 1884 and carrying on to over 850,000 by 1939. These numbers were usually marked on the glass with "Rd" in front of the number.
Pressed glass by Sowerby's during the period 1876 to 1888 (approximately) reproduced a range of the best art designs of the period. There were copies of designs by Christopher Dresser, by Walter Crane, reproductions of Egyptian and Japanese designs, copies of Wedgwood pottery. Although Walter Crane once said "the less machinery has to do with art the better", there is no doubt that Sowerby's were bringing "art to the millions" by making beautiful pieces affordable.
Sowerby's became a limited company in 1881, and during the 1880's they exported both pressed glass products and the materials to make their glass colours to overseas glassworks, including some in the USA. This explains some of the similarity between Sowerby glass and some US glass of that period.
Trade was booming in the early 1880's and the company made record sales (as much as 48,000 pounds sterling in one month, which was quite a lot of money in those days!)
In the late 1880's and 1890's there was a revival of interest in cut glass, and this had its parallel in the pressed glass area. Sowerby registered very few designs between the end of 1888 and 1895, and the few they did register included several imitation cut glass items. This bowl, shown here in an unusual opalescent green, is an elaborate imitation of cut glass, and was registered in 1888.
These were difficult times. Competition from cheap imported glass, especially from Europe, made selling difficult. Profit dropped to less than 150 pounds a month by 1891. The bank refused to extend the company's overdraft.
To combat these difficulties Sowerby's focussed more on their quality, and re-established their trade by buying new molds and developing new ideas. They developed an iridized finish (later called Carnival Glass) in 1905 but decided it would not be successful. It was not until the 1920's when Carnival Glass from America had proved very successful, that Sowerby's employed Percival Marson (who had originally developed iridized pressed glass in Stourbridge) and went into production with carnival glass. They called it "Sunglow" and "Rainbow" lustre, and named the marigold colour which they produced "Straw Ruby". They used many of their old molds for carnival glass items, and although the initial popularity of carnival glass died in the 1930's, Sowerby's were still making it in the late 1960's.
The period from 1890 to the 1920's was a difficult one for Sowerby's. They had labour problems (strikes, refusal to work night shifts) their workforce went off to fight in the war, orders were cancelled, and their competitors were able to make and sell glass much cheaper. When they found a successful line, they stayed with it for long periods.
The "dolphin bowls" shown here are from a design first developed in 1882 and shown in the Sowerby pattern book for that year. This design was modified in minor ways many times, and was finally registered in 1933 (Rd number 787048).
The red bowl in this picture is almost certainly from the 1880's. The red colouring shades to amber just slightly at the base, which is interesting because in 1883 the New English Glass Company in Boston, USA had granted Sowerby's a license to make amberina glass (heat reactive red shading to yellow glass). The amber version in this picture is from the 1930's and one major difference between the two bowls is that the raised portions of the design are matt finished in the later bowl.
This attractive process of applying a matt finish to parts of an item and leaving the rest shiny, can be seen on other pieces from the 1930's, such as these two triangular vases. Their registration number is 799041, for 1934, but most Sowerby pieces from the 1930's do not carry a trademark or a registration number.
At the bottom of this page, the same green triangular vase is shown glowing in ultra-violet light. It glows because the green colour was achieved by adding uranium to the mixture.
Things improved for Sowerby's during the 1930's. They had new designs (the Tynesyde Glassware series), new mold makers (from Bohemia) and new technology which made good quality glass cheaper.
The bowls in this picture below are from the Tynesyde Glassware series, which proved very popular during the 1930's. The flowing shape takes advantage of the intrinsic liquid nature of glass for the first time. They were made in many different sizes, some with the points pointing down, others pointing upwards, and in green, blue, amber, and clear glass.
It could be said that Sowerby's were lucky in the 1930's. Cadbury's chocolate company bought thousands of their bowls and sold them made up into a fancy packages containing chocolates.
Queen Mary took a fancy to their glass and bought many pieces at trade fairs which she visited. She was a popular figure and this gave Sowerby's welcome positive publicity.
Their success did not really survive the second world war, and after the war they had too many employees and not enough work.
By 1956 they were going bankrupt, and the company was taken over by Suntex Safety Glass Industries Limited. They continued to make household glassware, ornaments and vases until 1972, when the coloured glass part of the company's operation was moved to Nazeing Glassworks in the South of England. Few of the Sowerby moulds made it to London. The weight of the heavy iron moulds caused the base of the delivery truck to collapse on the way!
The site in Gateshead is now a supermarket. Suntex have moved to the nearby Team Valley, where they make safety glass for windows. Like their neighbours Joblings (now Corning) they have found a high technology form of glass which has a strong market, without the fashion swings and uncertainties of coloured glass for the home. But the company has left behind a legacy of beauty and creativity which we can all admire.
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