Printer Friendly

OX skulls and flowers James Giles's glass: although now remembered largely for his decoration on porcelain, the glassware of James Giles was the most luxurious, fashionable and expensive of its time, In the second of two articles, Andy McConnell examines the varied motifs that allow attributions to be made to this accomplished designer.

The role of James Giles (1718-80) as a decorator of glassware has long been overshadowed by the designs applied in his workshop to porcelain, most notably from the Worcester factory. Giles's insurance policies categorised him as a 'Glass & China man' and covered stock comprising 'Glass, China and Earthenware'. (1) Yet although glass consistently took precedence in these descriptions, nearly two centuries elapsed before his designs on glass began to be correctly attributed) The fault lies principally with Giles himself, who, for reasons unknown, placed little emphasis upon glassware in his publicity and failed to sign his work. As a result, his designs on glass were once vaguely assigned to anonymous London or south Staffordshite workshops. However, of the 450 lots described in the catalogue of his stock sold at Christie's in 1774, fifty were of glassware. These items included decanters, beakers, essence-bottles, cruets, wash-hand bowls, sweetmeat saucers, epergnes, vases, lemonade cups, 'gugglets', (3) and 'four elegant cut candlesticks enamel'd mosaik work very rich'.

The 1774 sale was held over five days to dispose of the 'Stock in Trade of Mr James Giles, Chinaman and Enameller, Quitting that Business'. Yet although its catalogue's descriptions of the decoration of porcelain and glass were often identical, they did not prove that the latter had been decorated in Giles's workshop. However, by comparing these with examples of previously anonymous gilt and enamelled glassware, Robert Charleston, then keeper of ceramics and glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum, established an incontrovertible link. (4)

One design, described in the 1774 catalogue as 'stags heads and patera, festoons of husks', appeared, identical in every detail, on opaque-white glass (Fig. 4) and on Worcester porcelain known to have been decorated by Giles (Fig. 6). Now referred to as the bucrania (ox-skull) pattern, its components originated in classical architecture, where they were used to adorn funeral monuments. I have discovered that Giles's version was apparently drawn from a minute detail in Sir William Chambers's pattern book, A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture (1759) (Fig. 3).


In all cases, Giles's bucrania comprises curling ribbons descending from and surrounding the horns of the skull, intersecting garlands and large wheel-like paterae (Fig. 5). Underlining the similarity of treatment in the versions applied to both ceramics and glass, the direction of the leaves in the garlands changes direction at their upper and lower apexes in all its versions both on porcelain and glass.


Several lots catalogued in the 1774 sale featured the bucrania, including three porcelain services, five glass vases and a pair of opaque-white decanters, now the rarest colour bearing Giles's decoration, apart from amethyst. Opaque white glass enjoyed brief popularity during the 1760s and 70s, possibly inspired by Venetian lattimo glass plates bought by English Grand Tourists and because of its resemblance to more expensive porcelain. However, changes in excise legislation in 1777 made it more costly at a time when English porcelain production was rising and its price falling.

Giles also applied the bucrania in gold to colourless (5) and blue glass and it was engraved onto a wide range of colourless pieces (Fig. 6). The design of the engraved pattern was clearly translated directly from the porcelain and opaque-white glass versions. This suggests that Giles either employed an engraver or commissioned the series from an outside decorator, probably his associate, William Parker. Parker doubtless employed engravers as well as cutters in his extensive workshop, and advertised 'Curious Cut, Engrav'd, & Plain Glass' on his trade-card. Giles presumably bought his cut glassware from the same source before applying it with further decoration (Fig. 1). (6)


Colourless vessels engraved with the bucrania include decanters, carafes, (7) finger-bowls, and at least three sizes of drinking glass. The decanters and carafes are cut around the neck, shoulders and base-rims, a feature normally absent from opaque-white versions. The opaque-white decanters have gilt decoration applied to all the positions occupied by cutting on the colourless ones. However, bands of basal scale-cutting appear on a few opaque-white pieces, such as a sugarloaf decanter gilded with Hamilton 'vases and laurels', as described in Christie's 1774 catalogue. The cut scales contain stylised flowers of types found on other examples of Giles's work on glass.

The glassware that has previously proved the most difficult to attribute definitively to Giles is a group of flattened oval and lozenge-shaped coloured scent bottles. These were retailed singly, as well as in multiples fitted into silver-wire or pierced pinchbeck cages, or as elements of ladies' etuis or necessaites (Fig. 2). (8) They are generally in blue, green, white or occasionally amethyst glass, and are often cut with shallow, concave hollow diamonds. Their contents were sealed with tiny stoppers, protected beneath gold, silver-gilt or silver screw caps resembling sewing thimbles. Dating to around 1760-75, many bear delicate but thickly applied 'high-relief' polychrome enamelled flowers, exotic birds, fruit, chinoiseries and gilt-scrolled borders characteristic of contemporary Chelsea porcelain.


The manufacture and decoration of these bottles had until recently been assigned to the south Staffordshite area of the Midlands around Birmingham, then England's principal enamelling district, and close to Stourbridge, a town long-associated with glassmaking. In 1755, local residents Holte Bridgeman and John Wood claimed a patent for having 'invented and brought to perfection the art of performing that sort of painting called enamelling (that is, laying on pigment composed by vitrification and affixing them by fusion on their intended ground) and this in all colours'. (9) The celebrated enameller William Beilby served an apprenticeship in copper enamelling in Birmingham from 1755. (10) The presence of glass scent-bottles in the area is confirmed by a notice in Arris's Birmingham Gazette on 27 July 1772, which states that 'Isaac Hawker, Glass cutter ... continues to sell, wholesale and retail, a great variety of smelling bottles'.

Charleston was able to link Giles to an extensive group of these bottles decorated in gold alone by comparing artistic elements in their decoration with known pieces of his work that appeared in Christie's 1774 sale. Details such as striding 'exotic' birds, curious pagoda-like buildings, attenuated trees with knobbly extrusions on their trunks, and grounds strewn with pebbles and sprinkled with dots are common in Giles's work. All these are found on both scent bottles and larger articles including, importantly, a pair of blue toilet-water bottles (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff), part of a dressing-table set made for Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, whose name appears in Giles's ledgers. (11) The silver parts of the set are hallmarked 1768-69.

Several decanters are known gilded with exotic birds typical of Giles-decorated porcelain whilst others feature garden buildings, ornaments and statuary. Most of these are further embellished with spirals of vine to the neck and/or bands of acanthus around the base. One, decorated with statues and landscapes, as described in 1774, is in the collection of Gloucester City Museum, another, formerly in the stock of Delomosne & Son, Ltd, has a gold floral cartouche for 'BURGUNDY' above three horsemen, possibly led by a figure, possibly Frederick of Prussia.

A further decorative detail, often overlooked, unites many of the items under discussion: a small arrowhead motif that appears frequently on pieces dateable to the 1760s and 70s. These arrowheads are found most commonly in the corners of triangular and diamond-shaped facets on cut table-glass. They also appear, graded to fit the available space, on both gilded and enamelled scent bottles, where they often provide the only clue to a Giles attribution. On some examples, they appear exclusively on the upper shoulders of the bottle; on others they constitute virtually the entire scheme of decoration, centred on tiny dots of vitreous enamel.

In the absence of Giles's signature, one of four dessert plates decorated by him and passed down through generations of his family provides another incontrovertible link between his work on porcelain and glass. The plates were donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1935 by Mrs Dora Grubbe, whose husband, John, was descended from the marriage of Giles's eldest daughter, Mary, to John Hall in 1763. The geometric gilt border applied to this one plate (Fig. 9), with its direct descent from Giles, is of cardinal importance because it also appears on glassware and enables further motifs to be definitively attributed to his workshop. This so-called 'Grubbe border' is also found on the bowls of several drinking glasses (Fig. 11) and around the shoulders of a blue globular guglet (Fig. 8) with a matching basin. The body of the guglet is also scattered with floral bouquets and sprays and its pouring rim is banded with acanthus scrolls. Virtually identical flowers by the same hand also appear on numerous items that were previously only tentatively attributed to Giles's atelier. Variations include cabbage roses, Turk's cap lilies and, notably, tulips with divergent petals typical of Giles-decorated porcelain. Acanthus scrolls of identical composition are also found on several decanters.


It is now proposed that Giles worked in at least three different media: gilding and two forms of polychrome enamelling, flat and vitreous. The latter, which gave greater depth and realism to the design, appears to have been applied by Giles exclusively to scent bottles.

Giles's floral and other designs in gold are also distinguished by their quality of execution. Once the gold had been applied, fired and burnished, meticulous detail was achieved by drawing through it with a steel point to articulate the finer elements of the design, such as petals, stamens, leaf veins and so on. The gilder perhaps derived this delicate technique, a form of engraving, from Giles's apprenticeship to a jeweller.

Giles's work on glass is also remarkable for its diversity. Apart from pairs and sets, virtually no two pieces appear to share precisely the same design. He decorated glass of at least six colours: clear, opaque and opaline white, green, amethyst and several shades of blue. He also worked on virtually every form of vessel, large and small, from salts and cruets to beakers to candelabra, and from tureens to rosewater sprinklers. He also decorated at least six decanter shapes and numerous forms of vase.

In spite of the stylistic links between Giles's designs on porcelain and glass, differences in their execution make it clear that he employed different staff to paint each material. Game birds, for example, are common to both, but the manner of their execution differs markedly. Such disparities cause doubt among some as to the extent of Giles's role as a glass decorator. John Sandon, a leading authority on early

English porcelain, even suggests that Giles might have commissioned his gilt designs on glass from another workshop. (12) Indeed, he further doubts that Giles decorated any of the gold-capped scent bottles with polychrome enamels now widely assigned to him, preferring a more vague attribution to 'Bilston/South Staffordshire'.

Giles's most distinctive designs are the bucrania, floral bouquets, arrowhead and mosaic patterns, spiralling vines and the Grubbe and acanthus borders. However, he also decorated at least two pairs of green oriental-shaped vases and covers in gold with representations of courting couples in the rococo style. On one (Fig. 10), the figures depicted are carrying haymaking tools, whilst the other depicts the woman holding a fan and the man playing a flute. (13) The scratched detailing of the vignettes and the presence of feathery foliage, pebbles and floral bouquets enables the definitive attribution of these pieces to Giles.


Giles also decorated commission pieces. These include a blue sugarloaf decanter decorated with spiralling vines, the badge of the London Company of Masons and a ribbon inscribed 'THE LODGE OF PERFECT UNION', which operated in Cheltenham between 1763-73. He also decorated a wine glass in gold to celebrate Admiral Keppel's capture of Havana in 1762. (14) Other idiosyncratic pieces include an opaque-white beaker at the Victoria and Albert Museum bearing the English royal cipher and trophies of arms in gold, and a facet-stemmed drinking-glass with its bowl decorated with a palace or country house. The ledger also records the sale to Nicholas Gascoyne in 1773 of an intriguing 'pair Guittar Candlesticks'. (15)

Some examples of Giles's glass decoration are easier to date than others. His rococo pieces were obviously executed before the neo-classical ones, but the transition between the two styles in England spanned at least a decade. The items described in the 1774 catalogue were doubtless produced at or before that date, but the mosaics and flowers probably remained in his repertoire for many years.

Unfortunately history is untidy and imprecise, and much remains unknown about the true life and work of James Giles, who, as I described in the previous article (APOLLO, June 2005), was probably twice bankrupted and died penniless in 1780. However, although today's experts inevitably disagree about the full extent of his repertoire, especially as applied to glass, his name and the results of his extraordinary skills still resonate.

(1) Mrs B. Adams, 'Ceramic Insurances in the Sun Company, 1766-1774', Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle, vol. x, part 1.

(2) Robert Charleston, 'James Giles as a Decorator of Glass, Parts 1 & 2', Connoisseur, vol. CLXII, no. 652, May and June 1966, pp. 96-101, 176-81.

(3) The Oxford English Dictionary defines a guglet as 'a long necked vessel of porous earthenware for keeping water cool by evaporation'.

(4) Charleston, op. cit.

(5) Early English & Continental Glass, Sotheby's, Bond Street, 5 June 1990, lot 34.

(6) William Parker patented the precise form and composition of the lower sections of Figure 1 in March 1781, a year after Giles's death. However, several examples with Giles-esque gilding are known, some on green glass. This suggests that Parker was either granted his patent some years after first designing them, or that he recruited a gilder previously in Giles's employ: Martin Mortimer, The English Cut-Glass Chandelier, Woodbridge, 2000, p. 96.

(7) In the author's collection.

(8) Charleston, op. cit., pp. 28-31.

(9) Ibid., p. 5.

(10) Simon Cottle, 'William Beilby & The Art of Glass', The Glass Circle Journal, no. 9, 2001, p. 31.

(11) Giles's ledger, folio 34, 28 January and 17 February 1773. Giles's ledgers are housed in the library of the Society of Antiquaries on behalf of the English Ceramic Circle.

(12) John Sandon, personalletter, 15 October 2002.

(13) This latter pair of vases was sold at English & Continental Glass, Sotheby's, Bond Street, 13 June 1977, lot 41. It is now in the collection of the Coming Museum of Glass, New York State.

(14) Now in the collection of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, London.

(15) Ledger, folio 43, 24 July 1773.

Andy McConnell is researching a book about Giles's glass and would like to hear from anyone with new information about him, including the whereabouts of examples of his work. He can be contacted on +44 (0) 1797 225635;
COPYRIGHT 2005 Apollo Magazine Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:McConnell, Andy
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 1, 2005
Previous Article:The baptism of Christ new light on early El Greco.
Next Article:'The Fountain of Youth' a forgotten star of the 1845 salon: William Haussoullier's masterpiece, 'The Fountain of Youth', was eulogised by Baudelaire...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |