All About Glass

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Jonas Defries & Sons

All About Glass

One of the largest but least-known 19th-century English glass firms is Jonas Defries & Sons, which was located in the Houndsditch section of London from 1856 until the early 20th century. The company operated under various names for at least a century (an 1880 advertisement says that it was established in 1803),1 so the lack of information about it is surprising. Its production focused on lighting, much of it for large-scale commercial use in theaters and other public buildings, but no marked wares have been found. Defries did not make much glass furniture, although it did register designs for two pieces. Its chandeliers and candelabra are of interest because the firm actively sought customers in the Near and Far East. A prismatic mirror – one of eight made for the Turkish sultan's palace – was registered by Defries in 1857 and exhibited at the London world's fair of 1862 (see page 26). These mirrors were groundbreaking in their technology, but they were not praised for their design by most critics at that time.

The company sent displays to the expositions of 1855, 1862, and 1867, winning honorable-mention medals at the latter two fairs for the excellence of its large chandeliers and candelabra. These medals were featured in Defries's advertising for the next two decades. The firm maintained both a factory for assembling its pieces and showrooms in London, but it also had a factory in Birmingham, where the glass parts were made.

Defries also exhibited in 1862 what Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper Exhibitor referred to as a “Monster Crystal Chandelier,” which it hailed as “one of the most striking among the many beautiful objects” in its class. The account continued:

This particular chandelier is so colossal in its magnitude, so elaborate in its design and construction, and so unique in its general effect, as to call for a slight description. The ‘dome’ of the chandelier is surmounted by a Prince of Wales’ coronet and plume, all of elaborately cut glass, and supported by eight diamond-cut pillars resting on a vase formed of prisms. Between these pillars is a glass tent comprised of cut diamond spangles. The centre, also, is supported by eight diamond-cut pillars terminating in graceful spires, which also rest on a vase of prisms … The main body of the chandelier consists of richly-cut prisms, or rather truncated pyramids, each 3 feet 6 inches in length – a size, we believe, not before attained in this species of ornamentation … The prismatic vase occupying the centre of the lower columns constitutes a singularly beautiful object in the whole composition … A bouquet of crystal flowers springs from this vase, an effect of no small difficulty to render faithfully, but which has been very cleverly managed.2

No illustration matching this description has been found.

Fig. 1: "Grand Glass Candelabrum" by Defries, from Cassell's Illustrated Family Paper Exhibitor [note 2], p. 204. Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Research Library of The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York.The official catalog of the 1862 exhibition describes Defries as making lighting devices of every description “for India and the colonial markets in general.”3 Unfortunately, the firm's advertising does not list other countries, but a Defries catalog dating to the 1860s mentions customers in the Near East. Cassell’s also illustrated and described a “Grand Glass Candelabrum” that stood 23 feet tall (Fig. 1). It characterized this piece as “of magnificent proportions, and … really the finest object of the kind in the Exhibition …The whole structure contains so much rich and elaborate cutting, that its appearance when lighted up must be extremely brilliant, while the crowning ornament is so constructed as to intensify the general effect. Messrs. Defries are the manufacturers of the chandelier at the Royal Italian Opera [in Covent Garden, London], and at most of the principal theatres and music halls.”4 Defries also listed the “New Opera” in St. Petersburg as a customer.

Another publication commented, dismissively, on the Defries display as follows: “It is possible that their ‘prismatic mirror,’ a ton-weight of very ordinary prisms ... may not appear out of place as an adjunct to the barbaric splendour of an Eastern potentate, and the same may be said of their huge chandelier; but, though the latter has some merit in certain points of manufacture, it would be difficult to find any objects in the Exhibition more obtrusively destitute of artistic merit.”5

Between 1854 and 1882, the Defries company registered a number of designs for chandeliers and candelabra, and several of them seem to have been made specifically for the Indian market. The two fixtures described above were registered on December 15, 1862. On December 24 of the following year, Defries registered three designs: the “Alhambra Chandelier for India," a “Prismatic Chandelier," and a “Crystal Candelabrum” that is very similar to the candelabrum displayed at the 1862 exhibition. Defries illustrated all three of these designs in color for the registration. The name “Alhambra”6 for the first design is probably meant to emphasize its color. Because colored chandeliers were not popular in England, all of these objects were probably intended for the Eastern market. The illustrations of the candelabrum and the prismatic chandelier were accompanied by a picture of the medal won at the fair, where Defries had received an honorable mention for “Chandeliers, lustres, and table glass. For a novel glass screen, a chandelier of colossal dimensions, and specimens of general excellence.”7 Since the pieces that had been shown at the London exposition were made of colorless glass, it is somewhat surprising that the firm chose to register them with colored parts. It is also significant that the 1862 designs are illustrated with gas shades and the 1863 designs are with candle shades. This change also indicates that the later designs were made for the Eastern market.

In 1864, Defries registered a design for a glass temple. The illustration submitted with the application shows the object with two men wearing turbans, so the temple was clearly intended for a Turkish or Indian customer. A version of this piece had probably been displayed at the 1862 exhibition as well, since Cassell’s had commented there on “the gorgeous crystal temple of Defries, which has cost over £3,000 to manufacture.”8 Unfortunately, none of the other publications describing the fair mentioned Defries's temple, so it is impossible to know if it looked like the one in the registered design, or if it was comparable in size. Its buyer is also unknown.

Fig. 2:  "Crystal Jewelled Candelabrum" by Defries, from The Illustrated Catalogue of the Universal Exhibition [note 9], p. 51. Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Research Library of The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York.At the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the Art Journal stated that Defries “have established renown as manufacturers of GLASS CHANDELIERS, especially such as are of large size, and intended for public buildings. Not only in England, but in various parts of Europe, in Asia, and in America, they have supplied ‘light’ to many huge edifices …”9 In fact, the firm's 1869-1870 catalog lists more than 20 theaters in London and elsewhere in England that contained chandeliers made by Defries. The Strand Music Hall, for example, was illuminated with gas chandeliers and colored sheets of glass in 1864. One publication commented, “The thorough lighting of all our principal opera houses, theatres, music halls, etc. bear full testimony to the vast resources of Messrs. J. Defries & Sons.”10 Most of the firm's display at the 1867 exhibition focused on tableware, but it did feature a mammoth 18-foot-high “Crystal Jewelled Candelabrum” with 48 candles (Fig. 2).

Lighting devices shown by Defries at the 1867 world's fair were the first shown by the company with glass shades for the candles, which probably means that they were intended for export to India. Candle shades on chandeliers were unnecessary in North America and Europe, where drafts from open windows were not common. Most of the company's previous designs had been for gas fixtures made for the European market, while those produced for the Indian market featured candles and had larger shades. Glass companies from several countries exhibited chandeliers for candles at the 1867 world's fair, but only one other firm showed them with shades on the candles. All of the other examples had open candle sockets.

An account of a visit to the large Defries factory in London, published in 1864, reveals how the company originated. “A number of genuine and primitive looms are employed in the manufacture of lamp-cotton [wicks], a business (the nucleus of the present large establishment) which was commenced by the father of the present firm some half century ago. Here, ... lamp-cottons, both for home consumption and exportation, are made in every variety … Notwithstanding the hundred inventions in lamps, and the various means of artificial light, the ‘wicks’ for oil-lamps are still in enormous demand, especially in India …”11 The reporter went on to note “the wonderful array of lamps of every description and at every price, from the more costly and elegantly decorated oil-light for burning under the punkah [ceiling fan] in India to the cheapest form of paraffin-lamp …”12

An 1869 Defries catalog, which by this time included the words “By Appointment to HER MOST GRACIOUS MAJESTY, QUEEN VICTORIA, HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS THE PRINCE OF WALES, … the Emperor of the French,” lists among the firm's customers the palaces of the sultan in Constantinople, the king of Siam, the prince of Surat, the duke of Monpensier in Seville, and the “New Palace of the Nizam of the Deccan, India.”13 At the back of the catalog, a listing of other catalogs for interested customers includes publications devoted to lamps and chandeliers for the Indian market, with the announcement that “gas now being introduced into India, China, and the Colonies, Messrs.J. Defries & Sons … call the attention of Merchants and the Trade generally, to their New Book … of the most elegant and chaste [simple and refined] designs with the true oriental colors.”14

Defries clearly set out to invade F. & C. Osler's near monopoly of the Indian market. A letter from Osler's Calcutta office, written in 1868, mentions that “Defries is advertising very largely in India [and] has sent out books of sketches of his goods to every native of any note in India ...”15 Other letters from that office note that Defries's agent visited Bombay in 1871 and describe a proposal from the Defries firm, dated July 28, 1874, when it was competing with Osler for an order from the maharajah of Gwalior, who was building a new palace. One Defries brochure (Fig. 3) offers “CHANDELIERS, CANDELABRA, FOUNTAINS & MOSQUES FOR INDIA” and lists “WORKS” in “London, Birmingham & Paris.” This particular brochure can be dated because it illustrates Storer’s Patent Perpetual Table Fountain and offers it for “HOME, INDIA, & THE COLONIES.” The fountain was patented by Joseph Storer in June 1870, and therefore the brochure was probably published in the 1870s. Four of its six pages mention India, so it is obvious that Defries was actively pursuing that market. Unfortunately, no other information about the firm’s works in Paris has been found.

Fig. 3: Panels from a Defries double-sided brochure, about 1871-1880. Shirley Papers, collection of the New Bedford Museum of Glass, New Bedford Massachusetts.

Neither of the two designs registered by Defries in the 1870s pertained to glass furniture or lighting, but most of the 19 designs it registered between 1880 and 1883 were for various forms of lighting fixtures. Two designs for glass settees were registered on December 3, 1880. No pieces of furniture matching these designs have ever been found, but they were probably made for an Indian palace or created on speculation and sold in India. On the same day, another elaborate candelabrum design was registered, and it, too, featured candle shades.

The Osler firm specialized in the production of glass furniture in the 1880s, and it had displayed several pieces at the 1878 world’s fair in Paris. The activities of this company may have inspired Defries to compete in the Indian market. That Defries was still doing an active business in India in 1880 is clear from its advertisements in The Pottery Gazette, a trade publication, which mention “CRYSTAL GLASS CHANDELIERS ... of every description, to burn gas, kerosine, or candles” and “LAMPS for kerosine … Vase Lamps for India.”16 On March 28, 1882, Defries registered two similar designs for Venetian-style chandeliers, which represented a significant departure from anything previously made in England. The following April, Osler registered a very similar design. All three of these objects were very colorful, and they were probably intended for the Eastern market. The Defries firm's last two chandelier designs were registered on September 26, 1882, and it is impossible to say whether these huge objects were intended for a London theater or an Indian palace.

The 1885 Post Office London Commercial Directory describes the Defries company as “manufacturers of crystal, bronzed & ormolu chandeliers, sun & star lights, mediaeval & other gas fittings & gas engineers, electric light fittings & electrolers [sic]; punkah lamp for India[,] petroleum, kerosene & duplex lamps; ... Hotel & table glass, earthenware, china, ornamental clocks, musical boxes, foreign vases & lustres & fancy ornaments of the most classical & elaborate designs; ... manufacturers of the patent crystal illuminating devices & variegated lamps in oil & gas …”

This was the largest list of products published for Defries, and it is obvious that the firm was buying table wares of ceramics and glass, as well as other giftware, from other companies for resale. This expansion in the mid-188os was short-lived, however. Advertisements in The Pottery Gazette began to decrease in size, and they disappeared altogether in 1886. That year's Post Office London Commercial Directory entry for Defries consisted solely of the firm's name and address, with no listing of products. The company may simply have expanded too fast for its market and then been forced to cut back. In 1886, the Defries Safety Lamp and Oil Company Ltd. was started as a new firm, and it produced only the patented safety lamp. The parent company emphasized street and railway lamps in its later, smaller advertisements, and contacts with India were not mentioned. After the turn of the 20th century, Defries began to specialize in lighting for special events as well. Shortly after 1906, the company apparently closed.

The Osler and Baccarat firms had survived Defries's efforts to claim a portion of the Near Eastern market, and they continued to supply India with lighting and furniture when Defries withdrew from competition with them after 1884. Osler remained the principal English supplier for the Indian market.

Jane Shadel Spillman, Curator of American Glass
This article was published in European Glass Furnishings for Eastern Palaces, 2006, pp. 94–109.

1. The Pottery Gazette, v. 4, no. 39, September 1, 1880, p. 540.

2. Cassell's Illustrated Family Paper Exhibitor ... of All the Principal Objects in the International Exhibition of 1862, London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin, 1862, pp. 204-205.

3. London International Exhibition (1862), The Illustrated Catalogue of the Industrial Department, London: Printed for Her Majesty's Commissioners, [about 1862], p. 77.

4. Cassell's [note 2], pp. 205-206.

5. London International Exhibition (1862), The Record of the International Exhibition, 1862, gen. ed. Robert Mallet, Glasgow: W. MacKenzie, [1862], p. 409.

6. This term is discussed on page 20

7. London International Exhibition (1862), Reports by the Juries of the International Exhibition, London, 1862, London: published for the Society of Art by William Clowes and Son, 1863, p. 367.

8. Cassell's [note 2], p. 206.

9. Paris Exposition Universelle (1867), The Illustrated Catalogue of the Universal Exhibition, Published with the Art Journal, London and New York: Virtue, [1868], p. 51.

10. The Era, October 16, 1864.

11. G.L.M. Strauss and others, England's Workshops, London: Groombridge and Sons, 1864, pp. 203-204.

12. Ibid., p. 204.

13. J. Defries & Sons, New Designs for Glass Chandeliers, Candelabra, Brackets, Pendants, Lanterns, Globes, & c. for 1869 and '70, [London, 1869], p. [2[.

14. Ibid., p. 204.

15. Letter from Osler's Calcutta office (unsigned) to Follett Osler, June 18, 1868.

16. The Pottery Gazette, [note 1].

Published on March 13, 2018