NEW YORK – While ancient Romans first developed the art of cameo glass, it was firms like Thomas Webb & Sons in the 19th century that raised this form to new heights, creating ornately carved and decorated vases, bowls and perfume bottles.
Cameo glass is made with several layers in different colors with the main body composed of crystal. The outer layers are partly removed, usually through acid-etching to create a relief decoration that stands out against the background in different colors. Engravers can expertly shade by thinning carved layers to dramatic effect. Most pieces feature an opaque white layer in which figures or decorative elements are carved.
In 1837, Thomas Webb founded his glass company, which became known as the “crystal king of England” for its luxurious examples of cameo glass. The firm, led by their chief engravers, brothers Thomas and George Woodall, made cameo glass pieces rooted in classical inspiration, from Roman goddesses to natural/floral motifs. While pale blue vases were consistently popular, Thomas Webb & Sons also helped sway public taste away from pastel hues toward bold colors, which were especially notable and desirable in their perfume/scent bottles.
“The quality, crispness, depths and complexity of the carving in Thomas Webb cameo glass distinguish the fine from the more ordinary,” said Christopher Maxwell, curator of Early Modern Glass at the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York. “Some designs were easy to replicate, while others were unique or produced in smaller number by the most highly skilled craftsmen who, in some instances, even signed their work.”
In 2016, the museum acquired 14 cameo glass perfume bottles that attest to the range of Thomas Webb’s cameo glass. “As portable accessories, they complement the museum’s collection of large-scale English cameo glass, such as John Northwood’s replica of the ancient Roman cameo known as the Portland Vase, George Woodall’s Moorish Bathers, and the Woodall team’s The Great Tazza,” says a museum press release issued at that time. The acquisition of the scent bottles propelled the museum’s collection of English cameo glass to the ranks of the most comprehensive public collections in North America.
Thomas Webb & Sons cameo glass vases were made in a variety of styles and colors. Ivory-hued vases of the 1880s recreated the look of real ivory and were among the company’s most inventive creations. “Designed to emulate the Japanese and Chinese ivory carvings that were highly sought after by the British upper class, Webb ivory glass pieces are often found in highly detailed Oriental styles,” according to M.S. Rau Antiques in New Orleans, Louisiana. The firm recently featured online a pair of these vases with highly stylized cameo birds against an ivory ground.
One of the highest auction prices for a Webb cameo glass vase was achieved in May 2014 when Woody Auction in Douglass, Kansas, sold a vase for $260,000 in a bold maroon hue with a cameo rendering titled The Origin of Painting. The 9½-inch vase was signed by both Webb and engraver George Woodall. Reportedly, George was more of a showman than his brother Thomas and signed most of his pieces while Thomas seldom did.
A bright yellow lily vase with red-dotted white leaves and petals, 1890, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, was also most likely engraved by the Woodall brothers. “The Woodalls excelled at carving and acid-etching layers of cased glass that resulted in virtuoso pieces of cameo glass, and they introduced vibrant colors into the existing pastel palette,” according to the museum. The brothers apprenticed with John Northwood, who famously made a copy of the famous Portland Vase, a first century Roman cameo glass vessel that a tourist deliberately smashed in 1845 while it was on loan/display at the British Museum. Thomas Woodall is said to have considered his work on this replica vase as his proudest accomplishment.
According to a blog on the website of Hickmet Fine Arts, the Thomas Webb exhibition of cameo glass held at the Chicago International Exhibition of 1893 drew wide acclaim. This was but one of several prestigious exhibitions mounted by the company.
Generally speaking, the larger the vase the more desirable and valuable it is, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Some collectors go for a certain color, while others only look for miniatures. As with all antiques, collectors should know what they’re buying and feel comfortable with the source from which they are buying. Above all else, it is best to buy only those objects that one will be likely to admire, day after day for many years to come.