Amy Nicoll: "Pastimes for Ladies", Glass Transfer Prints
What most would consider ‘amateur’ art, conservators often find the most interesting - not least because these types of objects are often more ‘rough and ready’ than many fine art works, and because they provide a fun challenge in identifying and figuring out how to conserve them.
My first look into this ‘amateur’ part of the art-historical world was through my thesis on glass transfer prints (henceforth referenced as ‘GTP’). While I focused mainly on the history of these artworks, I also created small reconstructions using five ‘recipes’ from artists’ treatises through the centuries. This allowed me to see how they were made, and left me more informed about the variations in methods used. GTP have been recognised since at least the late-seventeenth century in England (Smith, 1687, 91), and there are numerous techniques involving the adhesion of prints onto glass, as well as other methods of painting onto glass (Stanley, 2002, 49). Apart from a few publications by Ted Stanley, there has been little research into these prints adhered to glass, particularly in the conservation profession, yet they frequently appear in private collections or in historic houses.
Looking at GTP, it is easy to assume that they are merely framed, coloured mezzotints or engravings. However, these interesting artworks from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries were often painted and assembled by ‘amateur’ artists, mainly women, who painted as a hobby rather than a profession. Their attribution to women is one that was suggested by several artists in their treatises (Stalker and Parker, 1688, 69; Gandee, 1835, 104), but was later disputed by Loewenthal, who describes the process as ‘masculine and messy’ and suggests that no woman would have spent days creating such an artwork. Instead, he claims, they were made by ‘craftsmen possessing a high degree of artistic attainment...by experts for profit, not by ladies for pleasure’ (1928, 18; 1964, 4) . The debate around the creators of these artworks is just another intriguing side to GTP.
So, what exactly are GTP, and how did the tradition pass through the centuries relatively undocumented? The second question is simple to answer: word of mouth, and brief documentation in artists’ treatises, kept this craft alive throughout the centuries, until coloured prints became cheaper and more readily available to the masses. As to what GTP are: after much research, it seemed most appropriate to define GTP as a mezzotint engraving that has been adhered facedown onto glass, where the majority of the paper was then rubbed off/removed from the verso, and paint applied to the verso. As mezzotints were the primary type of print used, this technique is also commonly referred to as ‘mezzotint on glass’, particularly in older or contemporary literature. But confusingly, there are quite a few names and terms which are frequently used interchangeably regarding art that has some connection with pigment or a print being painted/adhered to glass. The ambiguity between terms describing ‘pictures on glass’ often results in misidentification, particularly when GTP are identified incorrectly (terms such as ‘hinterglasmalerei’, ‘reverse glass painting’, and ‘verre églomisé’ are most often misused).
What is most fascinating about the history of these rare artworks, is that their main sources of reference are found in the form of contemporary artists’ treatises. These art manuals explain how the prints were made, as well as the types of prints, paints, and varnishes used. Stalker and Parker (1688, 69) suggest that ‘Mezzo-tinto Prints are to be preferred above all others’, and that engravings are also acceptable for this process, ‘if done with a neat and careful hand’. In France, Alletz (1776, 298) states that ‘the less time a print has been dry, the better it produces the effect in question, because the black [ink] is not perfectly secured, and is separate from the paper’. These are just some of the examples that illustrate the methods and materials used for making GTP.
As already mentioned, there are many issues of degradation that can occur with GTP, such as delamination of the paint and paper layers, as well as the varnish layer failing, and so knowing how they are created can help conservators to carry out treatment (Stanley, 2002, 52). Even though I did not get to test some conservation techniques on GTP, the literature did give some advice: don’t reframe the print too tightly so as to allow expansion and contraction of the glass, and it is advised to create a barrier over the backboard as these prints are particularly susceptible to damp (Loewenthal, 1964, 34). The final issue, which is perhaps evident, is that once the glass is broken on a GTP, the print can be severely damaged and is not easily repaired. Loewenthal states that ‘a glass picture once broken, like a bit of broken old china, no matter how rare, is comparatively valueless’ (Loewenthal, 1928, 18).
Knowing the various ways in which they could have been created, and the artist’s thought behind the techniques, is a great first step in being able to work with glass transfer prints. More work does, of course, need to be carried out, and I’m hoping to be able to look at various treatments for these prints in the future.
- Alletz, P.A. (1776) L’Albert Moderne. Paris: Chez le Veuve Duchesne.
- Gandee, B.F. (1835) The Artist, or Young Ladies’ Instructor in Ornamental Painting, Drawing &c. London: Chapman and Hall.
- Loewenthal, L. (1928) ‘Pictures on Glass’. Apollo: The International Magazine of Arts 8, pp. 15-18.
- Loewenthal, L. (1964) Georgian Glass Pictures and Needlework Pictures. London: 1964.
- Smith, J. (1687) The Art of Painting in Oyl. 1st Edition. London: Samuel Crouch.
- Stalker, J. and Parker, G. (1688) A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, Being a Compleat Discovery of Those Arts. Oxford: The Golden Ball.
- Stanley, T. (2002) ‘The Glass Print’. The Book and Paper Group Annual 21, pp.49–55.
Images: © Amy Nicoll
Header: Reconstructions, recto (left) and verso (right) after paint was applied
Body: Applying two types of varnishes to glass for the creation of GTP reconstructions (left, middle), and reconstructions where no paper and, below, most of the paper has been rubbed off
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