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Objets d’art: Design Classics

The English have always loved wine, and so appropriately it was an Englishman who designed the decanter. ANDY MCCONNELL picks 9 of his favourite objets d’art of the last three centuries.

Wine has been stored in and served from all manner of containers or objets d’art since shortly after grapes were first fermented. Pottery jugs have proved the most popular, with forms developed under the Greek and Roman empires surviving virtually unchanged for thousands of years. The Romans invented glass-blowing during the first century AD, yet the decanter as known today dates back just 300 years.

The English have always ranked among Europe’s greatest drinkers, annually consuming almost 100 million litres of Bordeaux wines alone during the 14th century, when its entire population numbered under four million. The wine trade endured a recession under the Puritans, but the restoration of Charles II in 1660 heralded a return of the Good Times.


So, when Arnaud de Pontac developed Bordeaux’s first premier cru wine, Haut Brion, he naturally targeted England. The venture was a storming success. Samuel Pepys was soon complimenting the ‘perticular taste of Ho Bryan’.

With fortunes being spent on fine wine, demand grew for appropriate vessels in which to serve and consume it. English glassmaking had been undistinguished until George Ravenscroft, who exported glass and lace from Venice, returned to London around 1670. Joining forces with John Baptista da Costa, a Genoese glassmaker, in 1673, Ravenscroft patented ‘a perticular sort of Chrystaline Glasse resembling Rock Crystall, not formerly exercised or used in our Kingdome’. The material in question, now known as ‘lead crystal’, helped transform British glassmaking into a world-leading industry.

Ravenscroft’s output included Venetian-style wine jugs, but the development of the first decanters, around 1700, was attributable more to necessity than fashion. This was because until the 1780s most wines were shipped unfiltered and contained a bitter sediment, the lees, which was obscured when served from dark bottles, pottery or metal.

The first references to ‘decanters’ in English appeared in customs records around 1700. The modern spelling was formalised by Kersey’s Dictionarium of 1712, defining it as ‘a Bottle made of clear Flint-Glass, for the holding of Wine, &c, to be pour’d off into a Drinking Glass’. The term had crossed the Atlantic by 1719 when ‘Decanters imported from Bristol’ were advertised in the Boston News-Letter.

The design principles behind the decanter are largely unchanged since the 18th century. It remained the leading vessel of the glassmaker’s repertoire between 1765 and 1900, attracting the attentions of the world’s leading designers.

The practice of decanting has declined among the broad population, but those in the know still appreciate the need to decant. Even so, few today would go as far as Lord Cadigan, who, while commanding the 11th Hussars in Canterbury barracks in 1840, placed an officer on a disciplinary charge for pouring wine from a bottle rather than a decanter.

Andy McConnell is the author of The Decanter, An Illustrated History of Glass from 1650 (£45, Antique Collectors’ Club)

Objets d’art 1: Ravenscroft decanter-jug c1670

One of the oldest surviving decanters, made in London of lead-based ‘flint-glass’ shortly after George Ravenscroft had patented it in 1673. In the absence of the word ‘decanter’ from the English language at that point, Ravenscroft used a variety of terms to describe such vessels, including ‘bottle’ and ‘crewitt’, available both in pint and quart sizes. Its style conforms to the Venetian style, or façon de Venise, which had reigned supreme across Europe since the Renaissance. However, English makers would abandon such flamboyant protrusions in favour of more sober forms, a characteristic generally absent from contemporary drinking sessions.

Objets d’art 2: Shoulder decanter with matching glasses c1760

Decanters were more usually found in taverns than in fashionable homes before about 1760, as dining etiquette required that glasses be refilled away from the dining table according to a ritual that achieved an almost religious formality. Each glass was removed from the table between the thumb and index finger of a footman’s left hand before being placed on a silver tray. It was then refilled from a decanter or bottle. This decanter, engraved with its owner’s name, would have been used to refill its matching glasses after the meal, when the ladies had departed to a withdrawing room.

Objets d’art 3: Urn-shaped Cordial Decanter c1765

Cordials, now called liqueurs, are among the oldest of alcoholic concoctions. Often homemade, they generally comprised 50% alcohol and 25% sugar and flavoured water. Ratafia, noyau and persico were typically sweet, brandy-based syrups flavoured with almonds, fruit and peels. A recipe for The Lady Hewet’s Water, 1727, contained more than 70 elements, including powdered amber, coral, pearl and gold. One aqua mirabilis, ‘if given to one a-dying, a spoonful of it reviveth him’. This example was gilded by James Giles.

Objets d’art 4: Ship’s decanter c1780

The earliest ships’ decanters coincided with Britain’s naval supremacy, and the shape was popularly named the ‘Rodney’ in honour of Admiral Lord Rodney’s victories. The Duke of Buccleugh bought no less than 151 quart, pint, and carafe Rodneys between 1795 and 1805, and it has remained arguably the most popular of all decanters ever since. Few ships’ decanters would have been taken to sea, though before embarking from Torbay in the Spanish prize-ship San Josef in 1801, Horatio Nelson ordered ‘20 dozen of port, six dozen of sherry and half-a-dozen Rodney decanters’.

Objets d’art 5: Irish ‘Land We Live In’ decanter c1815-20

The Irish glassmaking boom of 1780–1830 was a politically inspired phenomenon. Fears that the Irish would revolt forced the English government into commercial concessions. The grant of free trade status in 1780 and the abolition of the tax on imported coal allowed local entrepreneurs to establish about 10 new glasshouses. Yet despite popular mythology, the products were mostly low quality, such as this partly moulded decanter. It is engraved with wording ‘The Land We Live In’, a popular toast among Irish exiles who followed it with the reposte, ‘The Land We Left Behind’.

Objets d’art 6: Bristol-blue spirit decanters c1790

‘Bristol-blue’ is one of the greatest misnomers of the antiques world as very little blue glass was made in Bristol. The term dates from 1763 when a huge stock of its colouring agent, cobalt-oxide, was bought from Saxony by a Bristol entrepreneur who became its exclusive supplier to glass and ceramic makers across Britain. Blue glass was difficult and expensive to make, a fact reflected in its price. The decanters in this brass-fitted papier mâché stand are gilded with contents cartouches for brandy, rum and hollands (the name used for gin at the time) and would have retailed at prices approaching a labourer’s annual wage.

Objets d’art 7: Whitefriars’ Arts & Crafts decanter c1860

Reacting against the dehumanising effects of the Industrial Revolution, the Arts & Crafts Movement placed great emphasis on the individuality, fluidity and spontaneity of handmade objects, perhaps typified by this wine service of the period. The architect Philip Webb designed it for the use of the movement’s guiding spirit, William Morris, in his new home, The Red House, Bexleyheath. Morris was so impressed that he stocked it in a range of colours at his London shop until 1878. It remained in production at the Whitefriars Glasshouse into the 1930s, and still retains a thoroughly ‘modern look’.

Objets d’art 8: Ruby claret jug c1870

Colourless lead-crystal decorated with geometric cutting was long regarded as the defining characteristic of British glass. However, a craze for glassware tinted in a rainbow of hues swept Europe during the Victorian period. Some of the best pieces were further embellished with laborious deep-profile cutting or wheel-engraving and fine metal fittings. The ingenious silver-gilt mount on this claret jug, patented by Edinburgh glass merchant John Miller in 1857, enabled the lid to be lifted by gentling squeezing the lever fitted to its neck while pouring.

Objets d’art 9: Cockatoo Claret Jug 1882

Drinking vessels in animal shapes date from time immemorial, but Alexander Crichton’s animalistic claret jugs remain a phenomenon. Appealing to the Victorian love of novelty and inspired by Tenniel’s drawings for Alice In Wonderland, Crichton designed a range of claret jugs in the form of at least 20 beasts. The first, an owl registered in August 1881, was followed by others at a rate of about one a month. This example, a cockatoo, designed in 1882, is perhaps the finest, decorated by Jules Barbe, the greatest enameller of his day. As an indication of the enduring appeal of his menagerie, a Crichton penguin jug sold for £20,000 at an obscure Australian auction in 2003.

Written by Andy McConnell

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