The Art of Glass

From el-Amarna, Egypt 18th Dynasty, around 1390-1336 BC

For centuries glass has been valued for its visual and tactile properties which have allowed the creation of many beautiful objects. This tour uses some of the outstanding glass objects in the British Museum to illustrate the major developments in the history of glass manufacture.

Glass is made by melting a mixture of sand and an alkali. The first glass vessels were made in the Near East in about 1600 BC. The brightly-coloured glass was opaque and was used to make small bottles, jars and jugs by coating a clay core with molten glass, then adding trails of colour. This glass was regarded as an artificial precious stone which only the rich could afford.

In the mid-first century BC, glassworkers in Syria-Palestine discovered how to inflate hot glass by blowing through a tube. The method was taken up throughout the Roman Empire and production expanded rapidly. By the end of the first century AD, weakly coloured or transparent glass was an everyday material. Glass table wares became common and window panes and glass mirrors began to be used.

Syrian glassworkers developed the techniques of gilding and enamelling glass in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. Glassworkers in Europe adopted these techniques, which were developed extensively in Venice in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The demand for a truly colourless transparent glass or 'crystal' drove developments in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Since then the exploitation of the visual properties of glass in new ways has continued to play a key role in its appeal.