Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Colour my tableware Bristol Blue

by Mike Rendell

The City of Bristol, lying a hundred miles to the west of London, has been famous for many things over the centuries. In the Middle Ages it was a significant port, and the city was second in size and importance only to London. It was from Bristol that the explorer John Cabot sailed off on board The Mathew, returning later with the news that he had discovered “new found land” (Newfoundland, now part of Canada). Later, in the Victorian era it became irretrievably linked with the import of tobacco (the huge bonded warehouses still remain) and with the activities of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Great Western Railway and the SS Great Britain). But in the 18th Century the city was famous for something totally different: the manufacture of glass. Indeed the city gave its name to a particular type of glass – Bristol Blue – although much of the blue glassware was actually made elsewhere, and Bristol itself produced vast quantities of clear glass (used in bottles, windows etc.) as well as the brilliantly coloured rich blue glass used in decorative tableware.

How did this come about? There are records to show that small quantities of blue glass medicine bottles were being manufactured in Bristol in the middle of the seventeenth century. The underlying glass-making skills flourished due to a huge local demand: the fine new houses in the city and in nearby Bath all needed large quantities of glazing. Indeed it has been estimated that over fifty per cent of all glass used in England in the 18th Century was produced in Bristol (to say nothing of the glass exported to the colonies). Added to this was the demand for bottles to cope with the burgeoning wine trade. Harveys and Averys were both wine shippers based in Bristol with their roots in the 1790s.

At some stage the manufacturing process received a huge boost with the (English) invention of the conical chimney, enabling noxious gasses from the furnaces to be drawn upwards and out into the atmosphere. Coal needed to fire the furnaces was readily available – it was mined in many areas around the city. The choking and often dangerous conditions in which the men worked started to improve and the cone-shaped kilns started appearing all over the city – at one stage there may have been as many as sixty, and a commentator at the time remarked that in Bristol there were as many glass chimneys as church spires. Only one chimney remains (or at least in part) as The Kiln Restaurant in what used to be the Ladbroke Dragonara hotel near St Mary Redcliffe. I believe it is now known as The Ramada Bristol City but for all I know it will soon be re-designated as the Hilton Sheraton Hyatt Holiday Inn….

Churning out window glass and bottle glass established the skill and manufacturing base, and it was from this base that the next phase took off: the manufacture of lead crystal (then known as Flint Glass). The process had been invented by the chemist George Ravenscroft in the 1670’s. He discovered that adding lead gave the glass a harder, more brilliant, finish - one which could be engraved to give a sharp image. Lead was available from the nearby Mendip hills, where it had been extracted since Roman times. For a time factories had to choose between making either window glass or Flint Glass – they were prohibited from combining the two because up until 1845 Flint Glass was taxed at a much higher rate. Excise Men toured the factories to make sure that no Flint Glass was produced unless the tax was paid. One effect of this was to make it more logical for the Flint Glass to move “up-market” with smaller factories producing high class products. This in turn meant links were established between the glass manufacturers and the skilled craftsmen needed to engrave and decorate the glassware.

It is at this juncture that two men appeared on the scene to transform the City’s glass-making reputation. The first was the Bristol merchant and potter named Richard Champion. He used the glass-making technology to develop a recipe for making porcelain. This he patented and then approached the chemist William Cookworthy – he wanted a way of emulating the blue-on-white porcelain of the Far East. Cookworthy knew of the cobalt oxide, known as smalt, which was being mined at the Royal Saxon Cobalt Works in Saxony. When production ceased in around 1753 Cookworthy bought the exclusive rights to all remaining smalt stocks, and over the next twenty years they were brought into England by ship into just one port – Bristol.

And so it was that the Flint-glass makers of Bristol suddenly found themselves with easy access to the mineral which they could mix with the lead glass to make a beautiful soft-blue material. Other glass makers in other cities had to buy the cobalt from Cookworthy in Bristol and this helped give rise to its name – Bristol Blue.

Into this scene entered a man who had no previous background in glass making, one Lazarus Jacob. He was from a Jewish family and had come to England from Frankfurt in Germany around the middle of the century; he was a wheeler-dealer selling linen and bankruptcy stock. It looks as though he married outside the faith (and quite possibly into a local glass making family) and by the 1760s had established glassworks in Temple Street Bristol. The first reference to him in the Bristol Journal is in February 1771 when Lazarus is described as a “glass cutter opposite Temple Church”. Lazarus died in 1791 but the business was taken over by his son Isaac Jacob, who in 1805 advertised his newly completed “Non Such Flint Glass manufactory”. Trade boomed phenomenally as demand for this luxury tableware soared – George III was one of his patrons. With the Royal Warrant came fame and, for a while, fortune. And what made the Jacobs family famous - and uniquely popular with collectors today – is that they introduced the idea of signing each piece individually. This had never been done before.

For perhaps thirty years decorating your table with Bristol blue glass was de rigeur – blue decanters for cognac, rum and gin; blue cruet sets; blue coolers (holding iced water, with drinking glasses suspended round the edge so that the bowl of each glass was kept chilled); blue finger-rising bowls beautifully decorated with gold Greek key motifs; and blue wine glasses.
In time Isaac over-expanded the business. It is not clear whether the import of smalt ceased because of the Napoleonic Wars or because supplies became exhausted. But cease they did. Added to this Isaac had made some disastrous business loans - friends defaulted and left him with huge liabilities. At the same time he had started work on building a huge house at great expense at nearby Weston Super Mare. Up until then Weston was little more than a fishing village on the mud banks of the River Severn, but it had started to become a popular resort and Isaac was determined that his house, Belvedere, would impress. In practice he was forced to sell it as soon as it was finished, but his creditors were circling and he was declared bankrupt shortly afterwards. He died a broken man in 1835.

Nowadays Bristol blue is eminently collectable. Two modern companies make replicas, while a museum containing the most amazing collection of Bristol Blue is located at the Bristol Blue Glass South West Glass Museum at Whitehouse Lane, St. Catherine's, Bedminster, (South Bristol).
You can find their website here  and I am grateful to them for the use of the images used throughout this post.

Mike's book on life in the Eighteenth Century entitled 'The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman' is available on Kindle. He also has a paperback version available via Amazon


  1. Beautiful! I love that rich shade of blue and an informative post, thanks. I will watch out for it on the ARS

  2. Thanks! Yes it is a gorgeous soft colour which really contrasts with the gold embellishments - it must have been sensational, with flickering candle light, on dinner tables in the late 1790s and early 1800s. I look forward to seeing that writers take this on board! Mike

  3. What wonderful glassware. Thanks for such a fascinating post.

  4. Thanks! I love the glass and am hoping to bring out a short book on "Bristol Blue" shortly.

  5. I have it in my kitchen - okay replicas, plus good ol' Harvey's Bristol Cream - sitting on top of my wall units in front of a soft sand wall. It looks spectacular. I have always loved the shade of blue. Thanks for passing on its historical background.


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