These blown-glass decanters, goblets, and vases show their true beauty when held up to the light.

By Alexandra Churchill
June 18, 2021
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English Victorian Bristol Painted Glass
Credit: Courtesy of Ruby Lane

Stalwart and shapely, Bristol glassware can usually be found gathering dust on antique shop shelves or huddling behind its better-known cousins from Tiffany & Co. and Lalique. You'll find the taupe brown, blue, and opalescent-white pieces at tag sales or flea markets. But take them out of their corners, wash their pale, satiny surfaces, and discover a colorful variety of moonlit glass that speaks to a bygone era.

The History of Bristol Glass

As with other Victorian antiques, we can only speculate as to the origins of this glass. What we do know is that genuine Bristol-a richly colored glass of clear, dark blue, dark green, or amethyst, often touched with gilt-was made in and around the port of Bristol in southern England during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But even authentic Bristol consists of no more than a few signed perfume bottles, finger bowls, wine glasses, and decanters, all labeled by a certain Isaac Jacobs, a gilder known to have worked there.

Adding to the mystery is the fact that Nailsea, where cunning glass bells, canes, and similar frivolities were made, was virtually next door to Bristol. "Some people question whether any colored baubles were made in Bristol at all," adds antiques dealer Lynette Kim in Buffalo, New York. "That's because quantities of colored European glass entered England through this port and might have acquired the label 'Bristol,' too." The only thing we know for sure is that the term "Bristol" has become synonymous with many types of brightly colored Victorian glass: English, Bristol, Nailsea, and Continental.

Identifying It and Determining Value

First, what to look for in it? Victorian Bristol glass is thin and relatively lightweight for its size. It is also translucent and will look subtly foggy, yet dazzling, in a window. Quite often, it retains a pontil mark (the scar that's left when glass is broken off a blowpipe) on the bottom. On pieces of lesser quality, these will not have been neatly ground down and will be rough, as Kim points out. Except for small dressing table accessories, most Bristol once lived on the parlor room mantel, where it could best display its applied glass cameos, enameling, and etched patterns.

"Bristol glassware has a certain dignified, classical posture on tiered pedestal bases with shapely feet," says Kim. "It stands in baluster shapes, too, imitating the porcelains of the era, and exhibits Chinese influences, or resembles chess pieces, queens especially." Much Bristol glass survives, despite its fragile walls (opaline, with which it's often confused, is thicker). This delicacy makes even large specimens lightweight. The most expensive pieces in any given assortment will cost around $150; some ten-inch-high pieces are a mere $12.

Of the many truly vibrant Bristol colors, the sugary whites are most often seen. Luckily, it's easy to tell if these white pieces are old because, when held to the light, the glass exhibits a distinctive, orange-red fire caused by the gold oxide in the mix. Next, are the various blues: A vibrant turquoise was an obvious favorite, as was a deep, summer-sky blue, created by mixing cobalt and copper with the molten metal. Many of the more beautiful colors of Victorian Bristol glass were formulated from materials we now know to have been dangerous: Arsenic and uranium, as Kim explains, helped to color the whites and yellows. To the glass decorators of the day, every hue offered a pristine surface for embellishment. They painted full-blown arpeggios of flora and birds on vases or bottles, and anchored the designs in a spray or leaf on the backs. They acid-etched, gilded, or added sand to the painter's enamels for texture.

Today, many of these designs have been worn (or intentionally washed) away. "But many still remain," as Kim reassures. "And what is remarkable, considering that this is undocumented glass, is that Bristol shapes and colors have never gone out of style. They were copied well into the twentieth century, when innumerable pairs of gilded, white lamp bases that are slicker in feel and less well-defined in shape than the originals, appeared, looking quite a bit like the inexpensive, unheralded Bristol glass that nobody's noticed until now."

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