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In Sparkling Company: Glass and the Costs of Social Life in Britain During the 1700s Opens May 22, 2021 at The Corning Museum of Glass

Press Center

October 23, 2020
Special Exhibition Explores the Beauty, Innovation, and Cultural Significance of Glass in the Lives of the British Elite and Illuminates how the British Upper Class Benefitted from Enslaved and Indentured Labor to Create and Pay for these Luxury Goods

On May 22, The Corning Museum of Glass will open the groundbreaking exhibition In Sparkling Company: Glass and the Costs of Social Life in Britain During the 1700s. Presenting the glass objects that delighted the British elite, the exhibition examines how those goods defined social rituals and cultural values of the period, while also illuminating a darker side of history—how the British upper class benefitted from enslaved and indentured labor to create and pay for their glittering costumes and jewelry, elaborate tableware, polished mirrors, and dazzling lighting devices. The exhibition is organized by Christopher L. Maxwell, Curator of Early Modern Glass at CMoG, and will be on view through January 2022.

In Sparkling Company will demonstrate the many functions and meanings of glass in 18th-century social life,” said Maxwell. “For those who aspired to be part of the polite world, glass objects presented an opportunity to demonstrate modernity, taste, and discernment in a social context. Many of these glass consumer goods were new to the market in the 1700s and consequently offer trenchant insights into the social, cultural and political values period.”

In the 1700s Britain was a prosperous and commercial nation. Its growing cities were hubs of industry, scientific advancement, trade and finance, and its colonies were expanding. British merchants navigated the globe carrying a multitude of cargoes: consumable, material and human. Underpinning Britain’s prosperity was a far-reaching economy of enslavement, the profits of which funded the pleasures and innovations of the fashionable world, among them luxury glass. Alongside the beauty and innovation of glass during this period, the exhibition  presents artifacts and documents relating to the slave trade, such as glass beads were traded for human lives while elegant glass dishes, baskets and bowls held sweet delicacies made with sugar produced by enslaved labor in the British colonies.

“This exhibition considers the role of glass as a witness to the many changes of the 18th century and to the ways in which its material qualities (not just its presence) defined the social rituals, cultural values, and personal identities of the period,” said Corning Museum of Glass president Karol Wight. “Glass played a role in the earliest encounters with continents beyond Europe and in the too frequent exploitation of their natural resources. The wealth of the British society that wore sparkling costumes and used polished glass on its tables rested squarely on the shoulders of the people who worked to create this prosperity: enslaved and indentured humans, traders, seafarers, and military explorers.”

Nowhere was this prosperity on greater view than in domestic interiors, which were transformed by the increasing presence of clear and smooth plate glass. The exhibition will put on display newly conserved panels from the original Northumberland House Glass Drawing Room—on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum—designed by the celebrated British architect Robert Adam for Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland (1714-1786) and completed in 1775. In Sparkling Company will feature a virtual reality reconstruction of the entire drawing room, created by Irish production house Noho.

The smooth, ‘polished’ and reflective properties of glass also perfectly embodied 18th-century ideals of sociability, in what is considered by many as the ‘age of politeness.’ As urban centers grew in size and prosperity, sociability became ever more sophisticated. The terms ‘polite’ and ‘polished’ were often used interchangeably in the numerous etiquette manuals eagerly read by those wishing to take their place in the polite world. Examples of such literature will be displayed alongside fashionable glass of the period. In Sparkling Company: Glass and the Costs of Social Life in Britain During the 1700s will include important examples of 18th Century British glass, including:

  • Glass embroidered costume: a spectacular men’s coat intricately decorated with glass ‘jewels’ made in around 1780; a pair of women’s shoes covered in glass beads; shoe buckles set with glass paste jewels; jewelry and other accessories
  • Cut glass lighting and tableware, all made possible through the perfection of British lead ‘crystal’ in the late 1600s and exported throughout Europe and the British colonies in America and beyond.
  • A number of large mirrors, which became the tell-tale sign of a fashionable interior, and reverse-painted glass meticulously decorated in China for the British luxury market
  • Opulent glass dressing room accessories, including a magnificent gilded silver dressing table set, with a looking glass as its centerpiece, made in about 1700 for the 1st Countess of Portland; perfume bottles, patch boxes, and an exquisite blue glass casket richly mounted in gilded metal,  used in the “toilette” a semi-public ritual of dressing which was adopted from France for men and women alike and became a feature of British aristocratic life in the 18th Century.
  • Artefacts of slavery, including glass trade beads, an iron manilla, a goblet commemorating the “African Trade” of the British town of Whitehaven, the log book of a slave ship, and the deed of sale for a 16 year old enslaved girl.
  • Objects connected to the British East India Company trade in China, including a reverse-painted glass picture of the foreign warehouses in Canton, cut glass tea caddies and a mouthpiece from an opium pipe mounted with carved glass.

The Corning Museum of Glass is working with Cheyney McKnight, founder of Not Your Momma’s History, which works to educate and increase visibility of African Americans at historic sites around America, to more fully tell the story of glass and enslaved people.

Selldorf Architects Exhibition Design

The exhibition is designed by Selldorf Architects, a long-time collaborator with The Corning Museum of Glass. Central to this presentation of In Sparkling Company is a two-wall projection of the Vauxhall Gardens—an important entertainment venue in the 18th century, and the place to see and be seen. A cut-out in the projection will display a lavishly set table with glass tableware from the period.

Hot Glass Collaboration

Eric Goldschmidt, the Properties of Glass Program Supervisor at CMoG and an accomplished flameworker, used 18th century recipe books and other images from the era to create glass versions of period-inspired sweetmeats and sugar table decorations for display.

Exhibition Loans

In Sparkling Company: Glass and the Costs of Social Life in Britain During the 1700s will include loans from: the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Sir John Soane’s Museum, London; the Museum of London; the Fashion Museum, Bath; Royal Museums Greenwich, London; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); Penn State University Library; and Cleveland Museum of Art.

Accompanying Publication

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated book of essays, In Sparkling Company: Reflections on Glass in the 18th-Century British World (The Corning Museum of Glass, 2020). Publication contributors include Marvin Bolt, Kimberly Chrisman Campbell, Jennifer Chuong, Melanie Doderer Winkler, Christopher Maxwell, Anna Moran, Marcia Pointon, and Kerry Sinanan with a foreword by Corning Museum Director Karol Wight.

Early praise for the publication:

“One of the many good things about the excellent book that accompanies the forthcoming exhibition is that it reminds us how glass, far from being just decorative, also revolutionised domestic life.” – Charles Saumarez Smith, World of Interiors

“In Sparkling Company… brings together a refreshingly diverse array of objects that reveal the supporting role glass played in the British world in the eighteenth century. –John Stuart Gordon, The Magazine Antiques

About The Corning Museum of Glass

The Corning Museum of Glass is the foremost authority on the art, history, science, and design of glass. It is home to the world’s most important collection of glass, including the finest examples of glassmaking spanning 3,500 years. Live glassblowing demonstrations (offered at the Museum and on the road), bring the material to life. Daily Make Your Own Glass experiences at the Museum enable visitors to create work in a state-of-the-art glassmaking studio. The campus in Corning includes a year-round glassmaking school—The Studio—and the Rakow Research Library, with the world’s preeminent collection of materials on the art and history of glass. Located in the heart of the Finger Lakes Wine Country of New York State, the Museum is open daily, year-round. Children and teens, 17 and under, receive free admission.