Copper wheel engraved glass can be categorised into two distinct finishes matt and bright polished. Matt is the finish created by the action of the copper wheel and abrasive fluid. It sometimes has polished highlights, created by lead or wooden wheels, to give articles more body and form. The bright is polished with acid and was developed to resemble rock crystal; it is covered in a separate section.
The technique of copper wheel engraving was described by O’Fallon in his article for the Art Journal, entitled “Glass Engraving as an Art” published in 1885. However, the technical description does not convey the skill required. It should be considered that the engraver is to all intense and purposes working blind, his view of the actual cut is obscured by the wheel and the abrasive sludge. When creating a three dimensional form, like the human body, the part nearest to the viewer is cut the deepest; the nose on the face is the deepest, the ears the shallowest. This phenomena makes viewing engraving through the glass very rewarding.
Initially engraved glass in England was rudimentary and not particularly realistic in presentation. By the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 this started to change with very fine examples of engraved glass being contributed by London manufacturer/dealers such as Messrs., Apsley Pellatt & Co., Mr Conne, Mr W. Naylor and Mr J. G. Green. The Stourbridge area was represented by Messrs. W.H., B. & J. Richardson whose crystal glass excelled in brilliance and purity; the principal designer and engraver of their glass being William J. Muckley.
Copper wheel engraving was slow to develop in England but flourished in Bohemia and it was with the influx of Bohemian artisans into Stourbridge that engraved glass was to develop. O’Fallon praised their skills but derided their design ability, although somewhat harsh, it was indeed people like Daniel Pearce who created designs that brought the accolades and reputation to Stourbridge engraved glass. However, with people like Fritsche, Kny and Kretschmann at Thomas Webb & Sons and Schiller, Keller and Miller at Stevens & Williams their creations speak for themselves.
Joseph Keller did in fact produce various volumes of “A collection of Patterns for the use Glass Engravers“. English engravers were few and those that did master the skills, people like George Woodall and John Orchard, went on to excel in the related disciplines of cameo carving and rock crystal respectively.
A look at the Pearce designs will show that the work carried out, at Thomas Webb & Sons, on magnum claret decanters were intricate, fanciful and expensive. They were exhibition pieces shown at their height at the Paris 1878 Exposition. However this level of skill was also employed on all forms of table glass as can be seen on the odd wine glass that appears from time to time.
Copper wheel engraving is primarily associated with crystal glass. However, at a time when John Northwood had recreated the art of cameo carving by producing a copy of the Portland vase, James O’Fallon, at Thomas Webb & Sons, utilised engraving on coloured, cased, opaque glass to give the appearance of cameo work. This innovative technique was exhibited at the Paris 1878 Exposition to great acclaim. As the technique of producing cameo glass developed the art of the glass engraver was fundamental in its execution.
At Stevens and Williams the records do not show engraving designs to the same high level as at Webbs, much was in the Keller style. However, pieces by Miller indicate a comparable level of competence.
Bohemian glass engravers also settled in the lowlands of Scotland and produced some very fine examples of classical copper wheel engraving. One such artist was JHB Millar who established an engraving shop with the John Ford Glass Works, in Edinburgh in circa 1862. The style of work and the design of the blanks make these articles almost indistinguishable from that produced in Stourbridge.
The cased engraved glass, produced by Thomas Webb & Sons, has often erroneously been associated with Northwood or Hodgetts but there are no records to substantiate any of these attributions.