In 1743, Britain was ruled by George II, although the Jacobites in Scotland were plotting to install Bonnie Prince Charlie to the throne. That year, Samuel Johnson was a 33-year-old struggling writer and his still-to-be famed biographer James Boswell was just a toddler in Edinburgh. Also in Edinburgh, in 1743, exhibiting for a short time only, was Mrs. Johnston, an itinerant fancy glassblower.
‘Fancy’ glassblowing refers to the process of working, not at a furnace, but at a table over an oil lamp with rods of glass. The artist formed the glass into small objects; rigged ships, animals, flowers, religious icons, beads and other ornaments. Glass spinning was a related process in which the heat of the lamp flame was used to draw an extremely fine continuous filament of glass that was collected on a large spinning wheel. The result was a mass of almost silk-like floss that was soft and flexible; nothing like the brittle glass of a cup or a window pane. Spinning demonstrations never failed to fascinate audiences and were a staple of fancy glass blowing acts well into the twentieth century.
Artists would often take suggestions from spectators on what to make and then form the piece on the spot. A common technique was to repeatedly touch a thin rod of glass, called a stringer, along the piece under construction forming a series of little loops in the flame. Rows of loops build up a surface that resembles knitting and a skilled artist can form finished pieces quickly. Eventually, both spinning and the knitting techniques became known generically as ‘spun glass’.
Although not well chronicled, this type of demonstration was performed at fairs and other shows as far back as the fifteenth century, and probably earlier. Because of their popularity with women and children, female fancy glass workers were not only well accepted, but commanded a premium at these events.
Below is a lovely correspondence appearing in the local Edinburgh newspaper in January of 1743. The writer is so taken by Mrs. Johnston’s demonstration that he or she was moved to compose a poem. In terms of documenting eighteenth-century glass artists, it simply does not get any better:
“To The Publishers of the Caledonian Mercury. Reading a former letter of Leonora’s, curiosity inclined me to see Mrs Johnston the glass spinner, and was agreeably surprised to find the encomiums given her fall short of the character she justly deserves; so I hope the gentlemen, as well as the ladies, will solicit in the behalf of the celebrated artist, as is due her merit. Therefore,
Let Britain quite enjoy its transport round,
Or Johnston’s praise to all the nation sound;
For me, to humble distance I’ll retire,
There gaze, and with secret joy admire:
My native Scotland such a one can boast,
On whom the praises of the world are lost,
For her own works do justly praise her most.
By giving this a place in your paper, you will oblige, yours, etcetera — Torisment.1
Two weeks later, appearing in the same paper is Mrs. Johnston’s reaction:
“When a person is obliged to persons unknown, the best way is to return them thanks in the most public manner: therefore Mrs. Johnston, the glass blower and spinner, returns thanks to all the gentlemen and ladies who have honored her with their presence; but more especially the gentleman and lady who did her that honour in the public paper: She cannot show her gratitude in any other way than by her best prayers for their felicity, which she shall always think herself to do both for them and all other her benefactors. Her stay being short in this kingdom, she performs now for the small price of sixpence per piece.2
This post was originally published on the Conciatore blog on November 8, 2019.