Treasures: Pugh glass a cut above
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
When you're clearing out the family cabinet, be careful what you send to the charity shop. A glass vase covered in shamrocks? Chances are, it's just another piece of Celtic tat. But it could be something more valuable. Especially if it was made in the Pugh Glasshouse in late 19th century Dublin. When Pugh glass comes up at auction - which isn't that often - it can be worth hundreds, if not thousands, of euro.
"It's quite rare, but it does come up every now and then," says Ronan Flanagan of Adam's. In October 2016, a pair of 19th century Pugh glass celery vases (est €800 to €1,000) sold at Adam's for €2,800. In Victorian times, celery glasses were a thing. Celery was tricky to grow and the wealthy looked on it as an exotic treat. For those who could afford it, celery was served in tall glass vases as a leafy centrepiece to the dinner table (if you couldn't get your hands on a pineapple, that is!).
These particular vases were "decorated with wheel-cut continuous landscapes of deer in woodland". Look closely and you can see the design is svelte and the workmanship exquisite, but it's a type of decoration that we might now call 'fussy'.
For the Victorians, it was the height of fashion. Around the middle of the 19th century, engraved glass - of the sort made in Dublin by Pugh - took over from the previously popular deep-cut glass of the kind made in Waterford.
"All cut glass is barbarous," proclaimed the influential English pundit John Ruskin in 1851. "No workman," he concluded, "ought to spend more than an hour on the making of any glass vessel." Well, that was one in the eye for the cut-glass industry. In true Victorian fashion, Ruskin had no problem in expressing personal taste in terms of an edict.
That same year, the glasshouse at Waterford, world-famous for its cut glass, let its fires go out. Glass would not be made in Waterford again for 100 years. Influential as he was, this wasn't Ruskin's fault. Most people agree that the failure of the Irish glass industry was the result of changes in taxation.
There were also changes in taste. By 1850, deep-cut glass, like that produced in Waterford, could be imitated by mass-produced "pressed glass," made by pressing molten glass into a mould. It wasn't the same thing, but a market flooded by cheap imitations could have been enough to put people off.
In any case, the public appetite for fancy glass shifted towards a taste for delicate engraving, which could not be mass produced.
A mere five years after the Waterford glasshouse closed, Thomas and Richard Pugh established their factory in Dublin. They spotted the trend for engraved glass and made that their speciality. The trouble was, there were no Dublin craftsmen who could engrave to their high standards. Undaunted, the Pughs sourced their finest engravers from Bohemia, which was widely recognised as the home of decorative glass.
One of these was Joseph Eisert (1842-71). A glass goblet (c1870) engraved by Eisert with a bust of Edmund Burke (right) sold at Adam's for €280 on April 26 this year. "It was a fairly sizeable thing - almost wrist to elbow in height," says Flanagan. "It's not something you'd discover undetected at the back of the glass cabinet. If you had one, you'd know."
Another Bohemian craftsman, Franz Tieze, became Pugh's most famous engraver, known for his delicately executed ferns and shamrocks. The glass historian Mary Boydell describes their "floral motifs actually seeming to embrace the form of the vessel like ivy on a stone or branch." They were also patriotic, with frequent use of round tower, wolfhound and harp motifs. These symbols may seem clichéd now, but that's because they've been overused in the intervening years. To the Victorians, they would have seemed elegant and fresh.
Inevitably, Tieze's shamrocks and ferns were liberally copied. "A lot of things get attributed to Pugh by people trying to enhance the value of what they have," Flanagan explains. "The pieces may be similar in style, but usually the quality gives it away."
Anyone who thinks they might have something from the Pugh glasshouse should look for fine detail in the engraving and overall design, he suggests, as well as "a lot of Irishy decoration".
When the Pugh glasshouse closed in 1890, Tieze was left without a job. He went on to have an interesting second career as a forger of Irish historic glass, working with the Cork historian Robert Day, who researched designs from the Irish Volunteer movement of the 18th century.
Tieze engraved these emblems on to plain old 18th century glasses and they sold as antiques.
Many of these were sold during the Civil War. In Confessions Of A Dealer (London, 1924), Thomas Rohan describes the appearance of a spate of Volunteer glasses in Dublin "during the recent trouble". These were early 20th century copies, freshly engraved by Tieze.
Because Tieze decorated genuine 18th century glass, many experts were fooled and a number of his pieces made their way into international museum collections.
Eventually, the forgeries were discovered but Tieze's engraving was so fine (and the story so interesting) that they were allowed to remain, now politely relabelled as "historicist glass".
Peter Francis, Ireland's leading expert in Pugh glass, is based at Agar Antiques, Saintfield, Co Down. See also adams.ie.
In the salerooms
If it's information on Irish silver that you're after, Jimmy Weldon is better than any book. Based at the Weldon shop on Clarendon Street in Dublin, now run by his son Gareth Weldon, Jimmy continues to be a walking lexicon on Irish silver.
Some of his personal collection of silver is coming up for auction at Adam's on Tuesday at 3pm. Expect gems such as an oval two-handled tray (below, est €10,000 to €15,000), made in Dublin in 1844. It's an elaborate piece chased with marine iconography - coral, seaweed, shells and foliage, with the handles formed as sea creatures holding shells.
Those who live in smaller houses might prefer to invest in a rare Irish spoon, made in Kinsale by William and/or Joseph Wall in 1712 (est €8,000 to €12,000). There are also more modest pieces, such as an Irish silver Masonic jewel (est €200 to €300) made in Dublin around 1810. See adams.ie.
LEV MITCHELL & SONS
The sale of contents of Our Lady's Bower Convent, Athlone, will take place on the premises on Sunday at 12pm. The auction is conducted by Lev Mitchell & Sons Auctioneers and Valuers of Slane, Co Meath, with Joe Lennon Milltown Country Auction Rooms.
The sale will include a pair of Georgian mahogany sideboards (est €3,000 to €4,000) and a 24ft run of library bookcases with mesh grill doors (est €5,000 to €8,000). There will also be a Victorian mahogany D-end dining table with three extra leaves (est €2,000 to €3,000); a carved oak writing desk with sliding top on a barley-twist stretcher base (est €800 to €1,200); and an antique pine horseshoe library table in three sections (est €600 to €800). This piece is 35ft long with 27 drawers.
HIBERNIAN ANTIQUE FAIRS
There's a bittersweet flavour about the forthcoming antiques and vintage fair at Kinsale, which takes place at Acton's Hotel on Sunday. One of its most colourful regulars will be sadly absent from the proceedings.
Expect all of the usual dealers, with one sad omission. Although business takes place as usual, the team behind Hibernian Antique Fairs is mourning the loss of one of their stalwart dealers, Tom Lenihan from Cork.
Robin O'Donnell described Tom as "a rogue, but, boy, was he a likeable one. He was the John McEnroe of the antiques business. He was special, he was different, but above all, he was a great gentleman."
An antiques and vintage fair organised by Vintage Ireland will take place on Sunday at Clontarf Castle Hotel, Dublin 3.
Expect everything from traditional collectibles, rare books, bank notes and coins to collectible pottery, crystal and glass. There will also be traders in antique and vintage jewellery, fashion and accessories, as well as art from Dublin's Balla Ban gallery. The fair runs from 11am-6pm, admission is €3.50. See vintageireland.eu.