The Beauty That Was
Burmese Glass

By: Robert Reed

Burmese cabinet vase by Thomas Webb. Hand-painted decoration of leaves and berries. England, ca. 1880's

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, October, 2005

Production of the original Burmese glass lasted only a brief period at the end of the 19th century, but its legendary beauty has endured through more than a century of collectors.

Burmese was a blown glass which traveled in the company of a number of other notable wares with enchanting names. For a time the shapes and colors of Amberina, Agata, Peachblow, Pomona, and Burmese charmed the Victorian public like no other glassware.

Perhaps more than anything, Burmese glass was remarkably  colored. Generally speaking the color shadings of the pieces would radiate from deep pink to a wondrous yellow, although to this day the experts disagree on exactly what the degrees of color were involved.

In addition to the dazzling colors Burmese glass could be crafted into a shiny surface ware or one with a dull satin-like finish. The majority of Burmese glass however was given the duller acid-induced matte finish surface which, in turn, was ultimately more popular with the public.

Likewise some tableware was created from Burmese glass, but far and away makers fashioned decorative items including lamps and vases as their most profound Burmese glass pieces. And the decorative delighted of the upscale populace.

Queen's Burmese art glass fairy lamp. Flared skirt is crimped. Combination of deep pink and lemon chiffon. Ca. 1890s.

The single-layered glass was first developed in the 1880s by Fredrick S. Shirley. Shirley found that by adding certain minerals to uranium oxide. The mixture including calcium fluoride was not all that different from the ingredients used by Joseph Lock in his Amberina art glass, other than a more generous use of uranium.

Shirley patented his Burmese glass formula in 1885 in agreement with the Mount Washington Glass Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts. According to some accounts Queen Victoria had ordered a Burmese glass tea set sent to her in England, and was duly impressed. Reportedly when Burmese glass was licensed to England's Thomas Webb and Sons in 1886, it was dubbed Queen's Burmese Ware in her honor and with her official permission.

The agreement with Mt. Washington provided for Webb and Sons to not only produce products in the original American form but also to adapt their own designs and shapes. In fact Webb and Sons were said to be so exacting to the American versions in many cases, that it would be difficult decades later to determine one from the other.

Overall according to Ruth Vose author of  A Collector's Guide to Antique Glass, most all of the English type of Burmese glass was of the dull acid added finish. Mount Washington meanwhile produced both the dull and glossy or shiny finish.

Single horned Burmese glass epergne with ruffled edge and crimped base. It is 10 inches tall.

Vose points out that the exceptional Burmese glass was at one point most often used for so-called fairy lights and similar small individual candle shades. Both were quite popular in the United States and England during the late 1880s and early 1890s.

Basically the process began with an ordinarily translucent (allowing light but not fully clear) white glass. The addition of the uranium oxides accounted for the warm yellow colors of the Burmese glass, while the high degree heating or re-heating of the gold resulted in the rosy pink shading. Intense heat in particular directly influenced the extent of shading. The combination of all three elements in varying degrees created a breath-taking array of colors.

Alternatively it may be called canary yellow, pale yellow, canary yellow, creamy yellow, lemon yellow,  primrose yellow, or warm yellow along with an equal range of varied  pinks.

The final result in a candle lighted lamp glowing into the evening, for example, was mesmerizing. If further decoration was needed it might be the barest of attachments.

"Pieces made of Burmese were rather shy in their outlines and were sometimes given neat, applied handles and feet," observes Emma Papert in The Illustrated Guide to American Glass, "as the pale color ruled out any blatant or unseemly ornamentation."

Beyond that were some instances where some Burmese lamps were given colorful enamels, and further applied themes varying widely from booming flowers to swimming fish. "One of the most astonishing renditions was the vase painted with standing ancient Egyptian figures borrows from tomb walls and adapted to this eclectic use," adds Paper. Such pieces were typically signed by the superintendent of the Mt. Washington factory Alfred Steffin himself.

Queen's Burmese art glass bowl by Thomas Webb and Company. Hand-painted raised enamel floral detail, decorated with green vines.

Yet another decorating technique sometimes used in regard to Burmese glass was a process known as coralene. The process involved attaching very small glass beads to the glass surface by the use of a enamel paste. Bright light passing through the beads and reflecting off the surface of the enamel paste created a 'glowing' effect in the overall piece.

Gilded decorations were applied in some instances providing a raised image surrounding the glass. However  tempting it may be to further decorate the ware, Papert adds that thankfully there were few exceptions to the "rule that Burmese be handled with tasteful restraint."

For all of its beauty there was some confusion regarding Burmese glass even as it was being turned out. Some of the pieces were permanently marked with an engraved or carved image directly on the glass. However sometimes in other cases, particularly Webb and Sons in England, only paper labels were used. On occasion items manufactured at the two plants were almost identical and without a marking would be almost impossible to attribute to a specific location. To further complicate the issue, it is known that other factories in Europe and the United States began making ware similar to Burmese glass shortly after original production was begun.

Mt. Washington determined by early 1900 that despite the popularity of the remarkable glass it continued to be quite expensive to produce. As a result its manufacture ceased there.

Accounts indicate that at some point, perhaps in the 1930s, Pairpoint made some of the Burmese glass pieces for distribution. Later the Gunderson Glass Company also provided some examples of the Burmese ware. Early in the 1970s the Fenton Art Glass Company reproduced a great deal of Burmese glass which was marked on the mold of each.

Today experts note that it would be quite unlikely for any firm to fully reproduce original Burmese glass in its full glory for many reason. One significant factor would be access to the important ingredient of uranium. Unlike the 1880s, uses of uranium presently are greatly restricted by the federal government.

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