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ANTIQUES: Reflections of a great man; Richard Edmonds finds how the worship of national hero Lord Nelson is still on show with commemoratives today.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

When he died at the Battle of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson was a national hero. King, George III (for whom the nursery rhyme Georgie Peorgie Pudding and Pie was com-posed) was reviled - he was corpulent and promiscuous. It was Nelson who was the beloved man and as with all heroes the commemoratives began to pour out after his death.

Prints, mugs, Staffordshire figures, enamel patchboxes, pressed glass figures etc, all flooded onto the market and no facet of Nelson's life, both private in terms of Lady Hamilton or public, was immune from the searchlight of interest and gossip.

The fascination of this remarkable man was obviously endorsed if you happened to own a fan, a brass-bound box or a print of Nelson's funeral carriage. But some of the nicest things were the glass pictures showing the hero at Trafalgar which were prominently displayed on the walls.

All these things were an amalgamation of hero worship and national pride, and it began a fashion still with us today - at its lowest level in T-shirts where the name of a public figure is printed on the back.

The glass pictures, however, are still to be found and if you come across one in its original frame you are on to a good thing. Over the years many paintings on glass, not only of Nelson but of dozens of other subjects, have been thrown away when the glass cracked or was damaged through careless handling. I would always hold on to such a thing since it represents part of history. But not everyone feels the same.

Glass pictures are not the same as glass paintings which were very often imported from China in the 18th century. LP Le Quesne notes in Nelson Commemorated in Glass Pictures (Antique Collectors' Club: pounds 25) that over 70 pictures are known of Nelson taken from public and private collections - and these are the pictures he illustrates in his excellent book.

Very little has been written about this side of Nelson memorabilia, although you will find obviously much on the hero when you look through books of Staffordshire figures - since these things were purchased heavily at fairs and souvenir shops in the early 19th century when Nelson's memory was still fresh and people who knew him were still alive.

When I was a child, growing up in the Teme Valley, I saw glass pictures in the sitting rooms of several farms where I was taken to visit by my parents. I observed them with a certain amount of interest as I sat on a hard, horsehair sofa, eating lardy cake served with strong sweet tea. The adults were busy in the meadows or the stables and I sat still like a good child wondering who on earth were these curious pop-eyed people shown in lurid colours behind the glass.

It was not only Nelson who would have hung on the walls. Although I did not realise it at the time I was probably looking at commemorative glass pictures of Victoria and Albert, politicians, such as Gladstone and Disraeli along with images of the four seasons, rural life (pigs, horses, favourite dogs and so on), actors, dancers and religious subjects such as sets of the prophets in rosewood frames.

Obviously, I knew nothing of the manufacturing process of these things and so I was intrigued to find the details in LP Le Quesne's text - thus are the mysteries of childhood cleared up in middle age.

In essence it was a simple process. Initially, the print was soaked in water for four or five hours to remove the sizing from the paper, then laid flat between cloths and pressed gently to remove excess water. It was then laid face down on a sheet of glass, cut to size and covered with a layer of Venetian turpentine to act as an adhesive - great care being taken to prevent bubbles of air being trapped between the print and the turps.

When completely dry, the paper was again dampened and rubbed gently with the fingertips - which removed it carefully from the glass leaving behind the ink of the print upon the turps and the glass in the same manner as if the original impression had been made there.

With all the paper removed, three or four further layers of turps were applied to the back of the glass. When the last of these was dry the print was ready for painting over with oil paint. The outline was there to guide the painter and the paint was applied in reverse order to that of normal painting.

The technique of making glass pictures came into England around 1675 and it seems that the first person to produce these things was a certain John Smith, a skilled engraver who worked with Godfrey Kneller, the leading portrait painter of the day. Le Quesne believes that the first such picture was a portrait of Queen Mary taken from a mezzotint published in 1699. Glass pictures were made widely in France, Germany and England throughout the 18th century, and I have seen very lovely pictures showing floral images which I spotted in junk shops in Hungarian villages in the days when I taught in the Budapest area.

The method of making flat sheets of glass was unknown in the 18th century and so the glass used for the pictures we have discussed was Crown or Bristol glass. This was produced by blowing a large bubble of glass, cutting it open and spreading it out as flat as possible while hot. By this method it was not possible to make completely flat sheets of glass, so that a characteristic of 18th and early 19th century glass pictures is that they are slightly curved. This, together with the thinness of the glass, makes these pictures extremely fragile hence so many have been lost.

All the known Nelson glass pictures were made and published, according to Le Quesne, by a number of small firms in London clustered around Smithfield. The small streets and lanes in which most of them were once situated, Cow Lane and Fox and Knot Court, have largely disappeared probably through 19th century redevelopment and later through the bombing - but at least we have the history of these things held together in a book such as this.

The pictures were sold in black wooden frames, usually simply grooved and beaded, sometimes partially gilded and very occasionally covered with a thin layer of brass. Because of their fragile nature and because nobody in their right mind would attempt to get a glass picture out of its frame they are still sold complete. For some reason - possibly because of risk of damage in transport - it is probable that nearly all the Nelson pictures were sold in London.

If there is a yellowish look to a glass picture it seems to me, upon reflection, that this is due to the ageing process as far as the turpentine is concerned.


Nelson, mortally wounded by a musket ball is supported by his officers, the scene depicted in a glass picture published in 1805 by W B Walker
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 14, 2002
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