A wealth of natural resources and a long tradition in glassmaking combined to make Bohemia the centre of European decorative glass in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The central European region of Bohemia, around and to the south of Prague, has had a chequered history,
sometimes as an independent state and sometimes as part of other nations and empires. Despite these changes, it has been a great glass-making centre since the 15th century. By the 18th century, Bohemian cut and engraved glass led the world, but fell out of favour as Napoleon's rampages devastated the economy of Europe.
A second great period of glass-making began after Napoleon's fall in 1815. At this time, Bohemia was part of the great AustroHungarian Empire, which was ruled from Vienna, not far from the glass-making centres. The capital was a wealthy city, and the Bohemian factories - there were more than 60 of them, employing over 40,000 people worked full out providing practical and ornamental glassware for its citizens.
There were also several famous spa towns, including Baden, Carlsbad and Marienbad, nearby. These attracted rich visitors from all over Europe, and many factories worked exclusively at supplying souvenir wares. Pastoral scenes and sentimental
allegories appealed to the tastes of the middle-class middle Europeans who flocked to the spas. Some mass-produced pieces were relatively cheap, but many were created on commission.
SENTIMENT AND ROMANCE
Glass engravers executed a variety of designs, including horses, mountaineers, children at play, palaces and romantic scenes, perhaps
with a sentimental message attached. Samuel Mohn and his son, Gottlob, painted glass in transparent colours, and the new technique
was soon taken up by others. Anthon Kothgasser was perhaps the most famous glass painter. He created wonderfully detailed portraits and moonlit views.
Technical innovation went hand in hand with the perfection of decorative techniques. The area had a wealth of minerals used in the production of coloured glass. A dense, black glass, hyalith, first appeared in 1822, and a year later came lithyalin, a richly-coloured
marbled glass. Bohemian glassmakers found a way of making cheaper ruby glass by using copper instead of gold, and in the 1830s the use of antimony and uranium added turquoise, topaz and shades of uranium green to the palette of colours.
After 1850, the overall quality of Bohemian glass declined, but several factories continued to produce worthwhile and collectable glass up to the outbreak of
World War 2.
GLASS COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Many of the finest examples of Biedermeier Bohemian glass are seen only in museums, but good work can still be found in antiques shops and at antiques fairs. Signed work is not at all common, and fetches particularly good prices when it does turn up, although a lot of top quality pieces were not signed.
Some signed pieces are extremely valuable. The famous names you should look out for include Mohn, Kothgasser, Pfohl and the engraver, Dominik
Later Bohemian glass - particularly from the 1920s and 1930s, when Bohemia was part of a free Czechoslovakia - along with mass-produced Biedermeier work, is more common, and can be found in antiques fairs and sometimes in flea markets as well as in antique shops and at auctions.
There is no easy and foolproof way of telling genuine early glass from more modern reproductions; always buy from a reputable dealer and get a full description on the receipt. One tip is that genuine 19th-century pieces will show random wear under the foot. Beware of a uniform pattern of wear, which may have been made with sandpaper.
Run your fingers lightly over any piece that you're thinking of buying to check for chips and cracks hidden by the faceting of the glass. Examine the rim and foot with particular care. They should be pleasingly rounded. Any angle on the edge suggests a chip has been ground away.