FRENCH ART GLASS
At the turn of the century, the vision of one man made the French provincial town
of Nancy the creative centre of decorative glass-making
As the 19th century drew to a close, the decorative arts in continental Europe were swept by a new movement, art nouveau.
A reaction to industrialization and city life, it took its inspiration from a romantic vision of nature and put its faith in the ideals of craftsmanship and hand manufacture.
Its most common expression, in furniture, textile design, metalwork, graphic arts and other fields, was the construction of pieces with sensuous, flowing lines.
This style was ideally suited to glass, which could be blown, moulded, cut, painted, sculpted or chemically altered to produce a whole range of effects.
The most innovative art nouveau glass came from France, and primarily from three factories in or around the town of Nancy, in Lorraine. Galle, Muller Freres and Daum all produced thousands of beautiful vases, bowls, lamps and other pieces in the new style.
THE NANCY SCHOOL
The prime mover in all this was Emile Galle. He was an unusual man, more artist than businessman, and he fostered a spirit of co-operation and support, rather than competition, with the other manufacturers in Nancy, who shared information, techniques and design ideas.
Many of the shapes for their creations were drawn from Japanese and Chinese ceramics. Colour, texture and iridescence were all used to artistic effect, and sometimes lines of poetry were added to the glass.
Most pieces were decorated with flowers or insects, drawn from life. Galle, a keen botanist, kept a huge garden full of exotic specimens as models.
New techniques exploited what had once been considered flaws, such as craquelure (crackling).
Contaminants such as wood ash and coal dust were deliberately introduced to glass, giving it an opacity that could be controlled to suggest mist, rain or the magical light of dusk or dawn.
At first, much of what was produced was in signed limited editions. By the 1890s, though, a large enough market existed for Daum and GaIIe to start a version of mass production, though chemical reactions in the glass-making process and hand-finishing meant that no two pieces were ever completely identical.
Galle died in 1904, and in the next 10 years some of the creative zest went out of the Nancy school, as the factories concentrated more and more on producing cheaper wares to meet a growing overseas demand.
After World War 1, art nouveau tended to be looked on as decadent. Though Daum continued to make it, art glass went right out of fashion, and remained so until the 1960s.
FRENCH ART GLASS COLLECTOR'S NOTES
There was a time when French art glass was despised and therefore cheap, but those days are long gone. It has now become very collectable.
Many of the best pieces have been exported to the Far East, where it is much prized. Prices have risen so dramatically that signed pieces are beyond most people's range.
Mass-produced or 'industrial' pieces, made in the 1890s and 1900s, are much more reasonably priced.
Those produced in the 1920s and after, though, are best avoided. The use of cheaper materials meant that the bright, strong colours of earlier years were replaced by dull greens and browns, while gas bubbles often appear in the glass.
FAKES AND FORGERIES
ou just might be lucky enough to snap up a bargain from a boot sale, but it's unlikely. It's always best to buy from a reputable specialist dealer, as the subject is complex and fakes and altered pieces are fairly common.
There is no way that is 100 per cent reliable of authenticating a piece of glass, and you should always get a descriptive receipt, saying exactly what the piece is supposed to be, when you buy it.
It's fairly easy to alter pieces of art glass. Modern repairs done with plastic or resin can be picked out if you examine a piece closely, but other problems are more difficult to spot.
Chips or cracks can be shaved off, while lamp bases can be turned into vases and vases into bowls to get rid of damaged areas. Imperfect necks and feet can be amputated very easily.
Fake signatures are also fairly common. Imitation Galle' glass is being made in France today, and the signatures added later elsewhere.
The best guard against this is again to use a reputable dealer. Try to handle as many pieces as you can, so that you can judge the weight and the general 'feel' of genuine art glass.
The price of a piece depends on the quality of the craftsmanship involved, the piece's condition and its rarity value - signed one-off pieces are particularly valuable.
Damaged 'industrial' items are virtually worthless, whether or not they have been repaired or restored, but a slightly imperfect, but still decorative piece is well worth buying, providing the price reflects its condition.
Galle' produced some unfinished items and stamped them, along with some imperfect pieces, with the word etude, meaning 'study'. These are collectable in their own right.