A wonderful cameo glass vase of slender form cased in five colours and acid cut with a lake scene against a deep blue mountain landscape, signed Gallé in cameo
Cameo glass is a luxury form of glass art produced by etching and carving through fused layers of differently colored glass to produce designs, usually with white opaque glass figures and motifs on a dark-colored background. The technique is first seen in ancient Roman art of about 30BC, where it was an alternative to the luxury engraved gem vessels in cameo style that used naturally layered semi-precious gemstones such as onyx and agate. Glass allowed consistent and predictable colored layers, even for round objects.
The technique was used in Islamic art in the 9th and 10th centuries, but then lost until the 18th century in Europe, and not perfected until the 19th century. Nineteenth-century English producers of true cameo glass include Thomas Webb and Sons and George Bacchus & Sons, though ceramic imitations made popular by Wedgwood‘s bi-colored “jasper ware“, imitated by others from the late 18th century onwards, are far more common. Like Wedgwood’s designers, they usually worked in a more or less neoclassical style. The French medalist Alphonse Eugène Lecheverel, whose work for Richardson’s was exhibited in Paris in 1878. Outstanding English cameo glass artisans were Philip Pargeter (1826–1906) and John Northwood (1836–1902), who first successfully reproduced the Portland Vase in cameo glass. Cameo glass, roughed out by the etching process provided a popular substitute for genuine cameos in brooches and plaques and similar uses, and there are still many producers today.
Artistically the most notable work since the revival was in the Art Nouveau period, by makers such as Émile Gallé (1846–1904) and Daum of Nancy, when Roman-inspired subjects and color schemes were totally abandoned, and plant and flower designs predominate. Cameo glass Louis Comfort Tiffany made only a small number of cameo pieces, which were a French specialty in this period, though other firms such as the Czech Moser Glass were also producers.
In the modern revival all of the top layer except the areas needed for the design are usually removed by an etching process — the figure areas are covered with a resist layer of wax or some other acid-resistant material such as bituminous paint, and the blank repeatedly dipped in hydrofluoric acid, so that cameo glass is in some sense a sub-set of acid-etched glass. The detailed work is then done with wheels and drills, before finishing, and usually polishing.
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