Cameo history told at glass museum

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If at all possible, anyone interested in glass and the history of this marvelous medium should visit the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y.

One of the very interesting exhibits concerns Cameo glass, considered by some as a masterpiece of 2000 years of glass-making.

Cameo history. The making of Cameo glass decoration was expensive, delicate and required sensitive techniques utilized by the Romans during the latter years of the first century.

Early in glass manufacturing, producers learned to encase glass of one color within another colored glass. The encased object was then turned over to another worker who cut through to the encased color, similar to what a lapidary would do in gem cutting.

The delicate cutting and carving of the brittle medium created one of the most outstanding masterpieces of ancient artisan work. Many fragments of cameo work have been found, indicating the extent of the popularity among the more well-to-do members of Roman culture.

Rise and fall. Due to the costly manufacturing and waning of interest in later years, this cameo art declined. It was utilized slowly in the 10th century. The artwork was of renewed interest in China during the 1700s.

During the 1800s, Josiah Wedgewood became an avid fan of this cameo art and, after some experimentation, developed the well known “jasperware”.

One of the most famous examples of early cameo work is the Portland vase, a dark blue body covered with an opaque white layer of glass, very expertly worked to reveal a fabled scene cut in relief from the overlaying white glass layer.

During the 1800s, a revival of cameo glass came into popularity. A challenge was given in England to duplicate the Portland vase. John Northwood accepted the challenge and reproduced a copy of the vase. However, due to the cracking of the copy in finishing, Northwood had to repair the damage before it went on to exhibit.

Techniques. A difference in removing the overlaid glass color was employed by the English glass makers using acid, whereas the Romans carefully ground the layer.

George Woodall produced over 400 pieces of cameo glass. Woodall gathered together other artisans familiar with cameo glass known as the “Gem Cameo” team. The outstanding five-layer “tazza” bowl and platter was made by this group. A “tazza” is a shallow bowl or platter on a stem and broad base. These objects were large enough for bathing.

Due to supply and demand, similar to many other articles, a less expensive item of two or three layers of glass was produced in the 1800s.

In the 1900s, shortcuts were employed to meet less costs and demand and acid was used for etching. Hand work was ended, and thick heavy overlaying of glass was used, thus the end of expert cameo art tradition.

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