Trick and Playful Vessels, Collaboration across Glass and History Design by Ellie Wadman & Laura McKinley
One attraction and advantage to studying at the Royal College of Art is the possibility for interdisciplinary practice with the potential for collaboration across schools. Thus students can be in dialogue about the same explorations and learn through encountering one another’s different methodologies and processes. This article brings together an initial step of such collaboration as the first outcome of hopefully more to come.
Ellie (History of Design) and Laura (Glass) were triggered by their own course projects to respond to an object in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection to investigate, research and produce a prescribed outcome. Both were drawn to the same milieu of drinking vessels from the 17th and 18th centuries – whether trick, puzzle, playful or ritual led – they are vessels designed to be used predominantly in drinking games and challenges. Each of them describes what initially drew them to these objects along with their questions, findings, methods and processes in approaching them with differing outcomes of essay and making.
A Bohemian Puzzle Jug – Ellie
The puzzle jug is designed to challenge its user in how to drink from it. The lack of spout and decorative twists prevent any attempts of pouring, sipping, or holding the handle in comfort; at least assumed without spillage. However, its hidden features reveal how to handle successfully as its siphon has two holes, one at its top and another at the base of the handle. Thus the drinker would cover the first hole creating a vacuum, and then suck the contents out of the bottom – a feat perhaps easier said than done particularly when intoxicated!
When confronted with the decision of choosing an object for my essay the puzzle jug and its family of vessels peaked a variety of interests. Firstly are these objects funny? How popular was their embodied physical comedy of soaking their victims? Or was their trick in fact a spectacle to be performed? Knowing the object’s secrets to impress or be shared amongst a group? Thus if the objects are always to have a victim or performer, what social hierarchies can they reveal? Including insights of their contemporary drinking culture and communal settings? What games, bonds of friendship or business could have been played or formed over the act of shared drinks, toasting and play?
I discovered that other trick vessels embodied the same challenge of knowledge. The two animal topped vessels similarly contain siphons and holes for users to suck out contents, whilst the other more complex form has multiple chambers to control the speed in which liquid is discharged into its sipping bowl. Others made misfortune unavoidable, with examples shaped as boots, animals, or abstract bulbous forms designed to cause the last draught of beverage to gush suddenly out.
In exploring the manufacture of these objects I encountered one particularly rich primary source housed in the British Library – a series correspondences dated 1667 – 1672 between Alessio Morielli a glass manufacturer in Venice, and John Greene a member of the Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers in London. Amongst detailed instructions of smuggling the letters true value is as an in depth representation of fashions of glass by the inclusion of hundreds of drawings of designs for vessels – which include trick glasses! With this, alongside the other countless surviving examples it is clear such glasses were a particular fashion of the international glass trade.
As the puzzle jug is glass with fragile parts and not easily transportable it could be assumed that it remained in one place, for instance a tavern or private drinking space such as a guildhall (although the fact it survived its drunken users frustration is another consideration!). Thus I focused on these spaces and the drinking rituals they encompass, utilising further object analysis of a broader range of vessels and the extensive literature on Early Modern intoxication. The function of drinking according to rules and ritual were made most pronounced within the guilds system. Toasting within the hierarchy of the company reinforced statuses – with often around a dozen compulsory toasts made drunkenness was an unavoidable consequence! Prescribed amounts of alcohol were attributed to members, and drinking punishments and initiations developed associations with manhood – with the last man standing establishing his masculinity by drinking peers under the table.
Specific vessels were created for these rituals. The Shoemakers Guild jester shoe tankard had bells attached requiring the drinker to drain it without ringing them, necessitating a steady hand. Pasglasses were more prolific, originally introduced as a means to control drinking through assigned portions, they were quickly evolved into competitive use with drinkers attempting to take each other down ‘a peg or two’. These accompany the bell-shaped glasses (such as Laura’s) which are impossible to put down without emptying – said to have originated from George IV who began the custom of snapping the stems of wine glasses at parties to ensure they were drained.
Throughout my essay I considered the networks and histories the jug facilitated through its design, manufacture, export, consumption and of its contemporary cultures of drinking and humour. Looking to the future, and after seeing Laura’s work it would be amazing to develop my own awareness of the materiality of glass, and the potential of how it guides making processes and form.
A Bavarian Drinking Goblet – Laura (Glass)
During the first project of my MA in Ceramics and Glass at the Royal College of Art I was asked to choose a piece from the glass gallery in the V&A (made before 1950) that struck me as visually interesting and that I felt some kind of connection with. The challenge then was to create an object, based on the research found, to bring this museum piece into the modern day.
I have been in the glass industry for 9 years now so have visited this particular part of the V&A many times but had never before looked this closely at all of the objects on display. I was drawn to a shelf that housed some elaborate yet understated Venetian drinking vessels from the 16th Century. I was familiar with the technique used to create them (often used to show off as only the highly skilled glassmaker is able to achieve this reticello design) but had never tried it before and was excited to explore this further. Underneath this shelf though was a glass piece that I had never seen, it used a similar Venetian cane technique but also had an element of metalwork that was beautiful and extremely intricate. I read the description and it stated that this glass is a Venetian inspired Bavarian drinking goblet. Standing on its rim with a golden dragon perched on the top made this very hard to believe that this would be used for drinking from. This is when my love of these amazingly humorous and intriguing objects began.
The Process of Making my Goblets:
First I heated the previously made canes of white glass on a ceramic kiln shelf in a gas fired heating chamber. Due to the intense heat of 1300℃ this needs to be done slowly to enable the heat to penetrate all of them evenly. During this process the canes will go in and out of the heating chamber 5 or 6 times so being able to withstand the high temperatures in crucial.
The canes are now ready to be attached to a solid metal rod (a bit iron) to then be coated in clear glass and twisted into shape.
The bit iron is prepared by adding a small amount of clear glass to the end to enable to canes to stick in a row and all at the same level. This early preparation is very important; any small mistakes here will be seen throughout the whole cane once it is pulled to its full length.
Once the canes are heated and secure they can then be coated with a layer of clear glass. In the image you can see me sitting at the bench and the glass technician bringing me clear glass to coat the canes.
Now that the canes are encapsulated inside a mass more clear glass can be layered over the top by dipping the iron into the furnace, this process is called gathering and is like dipping a toothpick into a jar of honey and twisting it to keep the honey on the end. This process of gathering allows me build up larger amounts of material to work with.
While I was able to build layers to create the right volume, more canes are prepared on a metal plate. Keeping even amounts of spaces between canes ensures you will get an even twist, although there are endless patterns you can create from any combinations. The canes are measured using the metal tools; the wide end measures the start and finish of the canes; the small opening on the other measures how wide the amount of glass should be so that the canes cover the whole circumference.
Figures VII, VIII, IX.
In this sequence of photographs you can see the internal structure of canes covered in clear glass with the external canes rolled on the outside. Once the canes are stuck it is all heated in the heating chamber to even out the temperatures and make it malleable.
Now that the canes are in place and secure wet newspaper is used to shape them into an even spherical shape and metal tools called Jacks are used to pinch the end of the canes in order to cut them off. Let the pulling begin!
And TADA! These are the final cane patterns I created to then use to create my modern day take on the drinking game goblet.
The traditional way of creating the goblet from the canes is shown in these few photographs. It is a difficult technique and a very traditional way of working; first the canes are rolled up onto the end of a bit iron like but are worked into a tube and not gathered over, once the end of the tube is sealed they can be blown into any shape you desire – depending on the skill of the maker!
I found this traditional technique very static and not quite fitting for the light hearted quirkiness of the trick goblets. I decided to add the canes in a more free and organic way. I wanted to bring play and fun not only into the final object but also in every part of the making process. Instead of adding the canes in a vertical pattern I decided to celebrate the beauty and elegance of each individual cane by adding them on their own in a horizontal and free formed way. Once added and heated the desired shape can be blown and the pattern spread wider over the form.
Much work went into creating the metal element of my chosen glass, enabling learning of a new process – bronze casting, made possible by the open door policy between departments at the college.
The objects that I chose to cast reflected the playful element of the drinking goblets and also the childlike state that one tends to become when consuming alcohol. Many of these types of glasses have bells to create sound and moving parts (much like the jester shoe tankard Ellie mentions), thus in my pieces the monkey’s symbols clatter and the bird has a winding key. I had the bronze pieces gold plated which was in keeping with the original, and as comment the importance of play – these are no longer plastic toys that can be discarded, but are sculptural statements wrapped in gold plate.
In looking to the future both of us are excited by the potential of collaboration and outcomes of this dialogue. The opportunity to discuss and design our own trick glasses based on these separate projects will enable new historical discourse and contextualisation, raise new questions of the material agency of glass and create opportunity to bring both our work to new audiences – with the prospective physical outcomes able to facilitate the experience to try one of these vessels, to understand the challenge they presented and the feeling of humiliation in falling victim to one.
The title of this article is taken from the painted decoration of a ceramic puzzle jug housed in the V&A’s collection (no. 275-1896)