This story is a bit convoluted, so you’ll have to bear with me. We were visiting one of those grand, two-day collectors’ fairs, a bit like the ones you see on the telly where people buy things and then try to sell them for more than they cost. That’s not why we were there, but in the course of our meanderings, we found a pair of nightlight stands that would have beaten all-comers on any Bargain Hunt!
“Excuse me,” says I meekly, “but how much are those glass candle stands?” “Oh, you can have those for £6,” says the stallholder. The cash came out of my pocket quicker than wink!
The reason why they were cheap, of course, is because the nightlight shades were missing. But the stands — each one is about eight inches high — are not readily found today. Finding a couple of replacement shades was not going to be a problem, I tried to convince myself.
So, the search was on. It was harder than I anticipated. In the end, though, we found what we were looking for on the ubiquitous eBay: a dealer in New York who was selling new, collectable nightlights made by an American glass company called Fenton.
The one for sale on the eBay web site looked charming. It was made from red glass and was decorated with a picture of a small boy in contrasting white glass. The problem that it was new concerned us less than the fact that there was only one. So we didn’t place a bid.
Instead, we e-mailed the dealer and asked if he had any more. Ideally, we said, we wanted a matching pair and we were prepared to pay a reasonable amount if they were as good is the one we saw an eBay.
Not a problem, came the swift, electronic reply. The deal was struck and about 10 days later, the postman rang the doorbell.
“Duty to pay on these,” he smiled. Yikes, we’d forgotten all about import tax and what’s worse, we had to pay the Post Office a premium for acting as debt collector for the Revenue.
Ah well, you live and learn. But the second disappointment came when we opened the package. Yes they were red, and yes they matched the one on eBay, and yes they were modern, and yes we said we didn’t mind that, but the two Fenton nightlights — in the so-called Mary Gregory style — were horrible.
Each is decorated with a plump, Shirley Temple look-alike dipping her toe in the waters of a stream (see picture). They look to have been painted with a distemper brush. That’s the problem when a. You buy sight unseen and b. When you buy modern Mary Gregory style glass. So let that be a lesson to you.
There are, it seems, two very distinct classes of Mary Gregory glass: that made from about 1870 to 1939, when manufacture was almost entirely by hand and pieces were blown either freehand or into a mould in glassworks both in this country and in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, and that made after the Second World War until the present day using mass production methods anywhere where cheap labour is readily available.
But first of all, why is it called Mary Gregory glass? Truth is, no one is really sure. Apparently, there was a woman by that name working at the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company in the 1880s as a decorator.
The phrase Mary Gregory glass was first coined in the 1920s but extensive research has been unable to identify any of the wares she is reputed to have made there. What’s more, she had retired by the time production of the glass attributed to her had begun. Nevertheless, the term has remained a generic one, even among today’s collectors.
What is beyond doubt are the distinguishing features which set the glass apart from the rest. Attractive (some would say sickly sentimental) paintings, usually of children, are applied by hand with white enamel after the object has been made and cooled. The piece is then re-fired, giving the enamel a glass-like finish. In better pieces, further enamel is applied and fired again to produce tonal highlights and texture.
The children who feature on the glass are usually placed in landscapes, chasing butterflies with nets; blowing bubbles; fishing; playing with hoops or just looking demure. Almost invariably the figures are set among trees and foliage that has been applied with such skill that it looks quite realistic.
The glass is also interesting from a social history point of view. The children invariably wear clothes of the high Victorian period, so sailor suits and knickerbockers are the order of the day. The features of the children are also quite well-defined and in the some more scarce examples, faces are picked out in flesh coloured enamel.
Today’s collectors are most interested in acquiring pieces of cranberry-coloured Mary Gregory glass, and as a result, it is the most expensive. Cheaper examples can be found in bottle green glass and cheapest of all are clear glass examples.
The decoration is more correctly called painted cameo glass and probably derives from the much more expensive Bohemian and German cameo glass in which pictures and patterns were achieved by cutting through and exposing different coloured layers of glass.
The fashion for Mary Gregory glass saw something of a revival immediately after the Second World War, particularly in the United States and most of what comes onto the market today should be treated with suspicion. However, once you have seen and handled some old pieces, it is easy to tell the difference between new and old – as we found to our cost.
Interestingly, old glass tends to be thin and delicate. The modern versions are heavy and chunky. Needless to say, the quality decoration is streets ahead in Victorian examples, while modern pieces are crude by comparison. Double firing, where the enamel has been applied on two separate occasions to produce highlights, is rarely if ever seen in the latter.
Look also for wear. A decanter or vase that has been around for 100 years or more is likely to show its age, particularly on its base, which will appear scuffed and dull when compared to the surface elsewhere. Don’t be fooled by scratches, which could have been applied to mislead.
The bases of old Mary Gregory glass present buyers with another clue: almost without exception they have a rough pontil mark where the piece was broken off the glass rod from which it was made. Even this featured is faked, though, so take care.
Just as there is uncertainty over why Mary Gregory glass is called what it is, so too are there different theories about who invented cranberry glass.
According to some, in 1612 an Italian glassmaker by the name of Antonio Neri added gold to molten glass, causing it to turn into “wondrous red glass that shimmered with the natural beauty of rubies”. Others believe the secret was discovered in Bohemia in the 17th century.
Which theory is true is anyone’s guess, but in fact the Romans got there first, producing ruby glass as early as the fourth century by adding gold, so presumably the recipe had been lost. Indeed, Venetian glassmakers had tried to produce red glass unsuccessfully for centuries.
The Victorians loved cranberry glass and pieces were churned out in their millions covering everything from decanters and matching sets of glasses to elaborate epergnes (table centres) and light shades.
It too is still being made today and it too continues to fool the newcomer. Old cranberry glass is thin, delicate and very red. New cranberry glass is thicker, maroon in colour and distorts the vision when one looks through it. Try it for yourself.
Top: These two good Victorian Mary Gregory glass vases are decorated with images of a boy and a girl standing among foliage. Note that they face each other when placed side by side, indicating that they are a pair. Expect to pay £80-100
Above: A good Art Nouveau cranberry glass epergne. It’s worth £80-100