HARRY MCGEE: COLLECTOR, GHOSTWRITER
A LECTURE ON ANTIQUE ROSE BOWLS
by Joyce McGee
Joyce McGee was the chatelaine at Rosebank until her decease in 2010. She lectured on this subject to the members of Glasfax c.1996 and subsequently authorized her husband to ghostwrite it for publication. It is re-printed here as a tribute to her industry in assembling an amazing collection of rose bowls in Canada, and to her memory.
In Centennial Year, finding Canadian pressed glass became a passion of mine, and while we lived in Montréal it was easy to accumulate an interesting collection of the various patterns made by Canadian glass makers. After my husband retired from the corporate world and we moved to Rosebank, our collection of perennials and roses really took off. However my appreciation of art glass never diminished, but found a new direction that combined my understanding of the glassmaker’s art with our metamorphosis into a mecca for rose gardeners. I got hooked on rose bowls — which are delightful artifacts from the time of Queen Victoria that can still be found, but originals are starting to get scarce. I think rose people should be aware of this adjunct to the rose mystique, so I have allowed myself to be talked into writing by proxy this little primer.
Every rose exhibitor is familiar with the modern rose bowl that is essential to the show category for a rose-in-a-bowl competition. Our supply includes clear glass bowls ranging from 4 ½" to 7 ½"dia. Some may have a bit of etching or cut-work on them, and some may take the form of a brandy snifter or a chalice. But they are not what I am going to tell about.
Victorian rose bowls are not for showing roses, although some folks have been known to arrange a few Old Garden Roses in them. For that matter, some creative souls have even been known to use them to hold a votive candle. I don’t recommend putting a fat little candle in a precious antique you have just spent half a grand on! Victorian chatelaines used these exquisite little bowls to half-fill with dried Gallica rose petals. Turn-of-the-century drawing rooms were not noted for fresh air with their heavily draped windows, slightly musty velours, and lingering stale pipe smoke. So they fixed that with a little home-made pot-pourri. Of course they also set them in some sunlit spot or on a window shelf where the light transmitted through them would just about take your breath away. Today we collect them simply for the beauty of the glassmaker’s art in all the variations of colour, shape and pattern. They can also be found in porcelain or china, but you have to forego the pleasure of light passing through.
Perhaps the easiest to find are the 4 ½" size made in opaque satin glass (that's how it feels) generally in pinks or light blues — with the delicate colouring graduated from top to bottom. They are spherical except for the top and bottom. The bottom is pressed flat — so it won’t roll. The top is cut out — about 1 ½" dia. and crimped into 8 waves. That is the standard prototype. I have seen a few with somewhat unappetizing colours, occasionally even garish, but most are the most subtle shade of pink or old rose or wood rose, and graduated from very pale below to the more definite above. If it is blue, it is the most appealing shade of powder blue.
The fun comes in finding all the permutations and combinations of variations from the standard. Here is what to look for.
1.Size: Some are more petite than standard — as little as 2 ½" dia. I have a little gem that is clear mid blue with fine milk glass swirls winding upwards — a real eye-catcher. A difficult purist may classify it as a violet bowl. Some are larger than standard — as much as 7" dia. For their added size they do not acquire added interest or value.
Against a background of Rosebank's gardens, a petite blue bowl appears beside a frosted one larger than standard.
2.Shape: Some depart from the standard sphere by being slightly wider than high. Some are a bit egg-shaped. It is somewhat subjective but if the height exceeds the width by much, the thing becomes a vase. However some are recognized that are made of four leaf-petals joined together to form the standard shape — more or less. Shape leads to a consideration of the finish of top or bottom.
Unusual shapes may be ovoid, ellipsoid, or formed from joining four leaves.
3.Top: The crimped top may have as many as 12 crimps or as few as 3. The ones I have with 3 can hardly be called crimps, but waves. An interesting variation is the kind that replaces the crimp with smooth scallops. Some substitute the crimps or scallops with a rolled edge, and there dispute sets in. For example, if it has an irregular rolled edge, is footed, has thickened walls and a Pica-bird design, the purist will tell you it is a lady’s spittoon or cuspidor!
A bowl with three crimps or waves; one with a scalloped edge; another with 12 crimps; and a bowl with an irregular rolled edge that some say was a ladies cuspidor!
4.Bottom: The flattened bottom may vary by having a circular collar added. Or it may be footed by having three little glass toes stuck on. Or it may stand up on tiny legs — some quite intricately designed. Beyond that, it may have a single or a triple stem; either kind with a circular foot.
A bowl with a collar base; two with elaborate legs and foot; another with toes and a petal top edge; and one that is stemmed.
5.Type of glass: The glass is often opaque, but it may be transparent. If it is opaque, it may also be cased; that is, it has an interior lining of white glass — which may show at the ends of the crimps. If it is transparent, it may be clear glass with a surface pattern (such as squares separated by deep indentations). Or it may be cut or etched or frosted or a combination. The most exciting effects are found when the glass is half clear/half opaque, as with spiral patterns of milk glass, or rich coin dots. Transparent coloured glass has its own beauty — especially in the sun which gives a jewelled effect. A piece of cranberry glass with a snowflake pattern of milk glass incorporated fetches a handsome price. Coloured glass may also be given surface treatment turning it into carnival glass. Some of the most sought after pieces are cobalt-coloured glass, carnival-treated to show brass highlighting on an embossed outer surface. Carnival is commonly marigold variations, but the glass base may be red, green, or purple. Besides the satin finish mentioned above, the surface treatment may be crackled, quilted, flashed or otherwise decorated. As well, the glass may be multi-hued — such as spatter glass — or a special such mixture incorporating mica and called vasa murrhina.
The first is an example of clear cobalt glass with a cut pattern; then one with a coin dot pattern; up high is a cranberry glass with a snowdrop pattern; and a milk glass spiral pattern.
An example of spatter glass; then two clear bowls with deep surface patterns
A marigold carnival on clear glass; a brass carnival finish on cobalt glass; and a vasa murrhina with mica that is cased on the interior with white casing.
6.Decoration: It may be considered gilding the lily, but very striking effects have been created by enamelling the exterior. The motifs are generally floral, and depending on the skill of the artist the effects can be tenderly engaging. Some of my dearest friends are sweetly, sparely decorated with enamel. Diligence may reward you with a rose bowl that has applied glass leaves and flowers in soft colours. These are treasures.
Examples of enamel finish in floral patterns.
A bowl with applied glass leaves and flower; two Webb Burmese bowls; and another with enamel design.
My most prized rose bowl? We chanced upon it in Stratford. I coughed at the tab. But Harry bought it for me and it is indeed special. It is a standard sized bowl of Burmese glass produced in England by Thomas Webb. Burmese glass was developed in 1885 by Frederick Shirley, and he showed some pieces to Queen Victoria. The old Queen had seen everything — but she was absolutely enchanted by this exotic medium. She promptly ordered a tea set embellished with enamelwork flowers and foliage — enhanced by a few tiny beads of pure gold. The process was soon copied by Mount Washington in the States, and later by less successful mimics. My luminous piece softly glows with a delphinium yellow base blending upward into a peach-pink so subtle and tender it is hardly there except for its warmth. There are soft taupe wild-rose flowers and hips and pointy rust-toned maple leaves. The flowers are adorned with minute white enamel pin-points (instead of fine gold) and it is the silkiest thing you have ever caressed in your hands. [I have since acquired a dwarf version of it from a private collector.]
The first rose bowls, especially carnival glass, sold for less than a dollar. But that was at the previous turn of the century. The beauty of these artifacts has stimulated a market among antique collectors that has raised prices dramatically so that you now have to be prepared to spend between $50 and $500 for a rose bowl of quality. With the prices fetched now, art glass producers have resumed production for returns of less than $50. Beware of a dealer passing off a current piece as an antique to reap the price associated with an antique. As with nurseries, place your confidence in a reputable dealer.
May I suggest that every rose fancier ought to acquire at least one token rose bowl — knowing full well that the act may become addictive.