Published 7th January 2014
No history of glass making on these islands could possibly be complete without mention of Irish Glass and, particularly, that manufactured in Cork and especially, Waterford.
There seems to be something of an air of mystery about it, although it was synonymous with high quality, not a great deal is known about it in comparison to that made here on our own shores.
With the exception of Dudley Westropp's groundbreaking Irish Glass and the subsequent publishing of Phelps Warren's authoritative volume of the same name, very little reliable information seems available. This has, of course, resulted in a great deal of well meaning, but erroneous attribution.
Consequently, when one gets the opportunity to handle a collection of Irish Glass with a cast iron attribution and a provenance to die for, one feels privileged.
The forthcoming Fine Art Sale at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood on the 22nd January 2014 will include a collection of sixteen lots of antique glass with a direct link to the Penrose family who started the Waterford Glass Works in 1783 and, I am reliably informed, also had a hand in the concern at Cork.
The catalyst for George and William Penrose was the lifting of the glass levy by the English Parliament on Irish glass. Ironically, the levy remained on English glass, but generous to a fault, the import of Irish glass was prohibited, which meant that outside of the domestic market (and an invitation to smuggle) much of its production was sent west to America.
It was politics that ultimately led to the death of the Waterford concern; as although the 1800 Act of Union between England and Ireland finally levelled the playing field, it resulted in leaving fledgling Irish factories, which up till then had flourished, at the mercy of the more established and savvy English industries. The problems of chasing bad debts in America only exacerbated the situation.
By 1832, things were tough and my predecessors here in Exeter were amongst those attempting to drive a hard bargain. There is published correspondence between Elizabeth Walpole of Waterford Glass and Edward Eardley, a glass and china retailer in the High Street and presumably another branch of the Eardley family in Plymouth. In it she is requesting to be sent "two or three pairs of rich cut decanters, two or three pair of 'kniferesters', a dozen reflecting tumblers, a few sugars all richly cut in different style". He in response, whilst pleased with his glass, asked if she "can undersell the English manufacturers in these articles".
In 1851, whilst exhibiting a suite of banqueting glass at the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition, the tax man finally caught up with Waterford and the factory was wound up. A sad end, but I am sure you will agree when you see the lots on offer, there may have been many who could compete on price terms, but there were very few manufacturers of table and drinking glasses that could compete in terms of sheer quality.
Many of the items in the forthcoming sale are engraved with the initials of family members and several pieces are also illustrated in Phelps Warren, Irish Glass.
The notes for the Penrose collection have a full explanation of the provenance of the collection.