They were colourful and extravagant. And that was just the glasses. John Sandon finds out about the Bohemian lifestyle
During the 1830s something happened to glass in Europe. It suddenly became colourful, and it also got much bigger. The country-house class had been used to colourless glass. Suddenly here was a new kind of ornament – glass from Bohemia that was large enough to show off in a grand hall, and glistening with colour. A private collection of 60 pieces of the very best of this glass is to be offered by Bonhams New Bond Street in December and it really is a sight to behold.
The new glass came from Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic, though at the time the province was within the Austrian Empire. The centre of the glass industry was Meistersdorf, a town in the north of Bohemia only 60km from Dresden where they made the famous porcelain cupids and flowers. By contrast, Bohemian glass was in a very different taste known as Biedermeier. It was a product of the peaceful interlude in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. Biedermeier is linked to the rise of the bourgeois/middle classes, with stark, strong shapes that show off the finest technical craftsmanship.
Bohemian glass is shaped by the two principal activities of the region – deer hunting and health spas. The town of Carlsbad was established, according to legend, when King Charles IV's hunting party chased a deer over a cliff. In their pursuit, the hunters descended into the valley and found a bubbling hot spring. The king established a town there and a statue of a deer is one of its symbols. By the 19th century, aristocratic visitors from all over Europe combined hunting trips with a spell of detox, drinking the water and bathing in the health-giving spas.
The Bohemian spa towns offered rival water cures for every ailment, especially gout. For instance, at Franzenbad you could take a particularly popular and messy mud treatment. Beethoven went to Carlsbad for spa treatments, taking walks there with Goethe. The spas were the place to go to spot celebrities on holiday, writers and musicians such as Chopin who liked to relax at the spas; others went there to convalesce. The Carlsbad spa was the principal attraction of the city and nearby hotels became meeting places as well as shopping arcades. This was the place for 'retail therapy'.
Jewellers and other tradesmen soon opened 'pop-up' shops. In Franzenbad, artisans, such as Dominik Biemann, could rent small 'boutiques' in the colonnades of the wooden spa building for the duration of the tourist season. Biemann was a master glass engraver, considered one of the greatest exponents of his craft. His diary records that in 1840, Austrian Archduke Francis Charles bought two beakers engraved with horses and a hunting scene from his boutique at Franzenbad for 12 and 20 guilden.
Biemann had learnt his skills at the Harrach works in Neuwelt from Franz and Joseph Pohl, who had made the German art of glass engraving fashionable once more. He had also studied art and drawing in Prague where he spent the winter months carving glass with horses and city views. His exhibits at the Industrial Exhibitions in Prague in 1828-31 received much praise from the juries. In the season, though, he set up his work bench at Franzenbad spa, and engraved portraits of the wealthy visitors from life – and even their pets.
Biemann worked mostly in clear glass, but the Age of Romanticism brought with it a desire for colour. Glass makers in Bohemia, led by Friedrich Egermann, responded with endless experiments. The secret of ruby glass that had been made from gold a hundred years earlier was rediscovered, along with recipes for rich blue and green glass. But while solid coloured glass was exciting, it wasn't suitable for engraving as the carving didn't show up. What was needed was a thin layer of richly coloured glass that could be applied on the surface only.
In 1818 Egermann invented a yellow (or amber) coloured stain made from silver chloride. He followed this with a new ruby coloured stain made using copper rather than gold, which was perfected around 1832. The romance of glass made from gold and silver was naturally exploited by shops.
When the gentlemen had drunk enough spa water they left their wives to enjoy the shopping while they escaped into the forests and hunted deer and wild boar, often at the invitation of the surrounding princes and dukes. Rather than present yet another stag's head to mount on the wall, these aristocratic hosts would give a different kind of prize to the successful hunters. A Bohemian glass goblet engraved with stags was thought to be the perfect trophy.
Only a handful of the master engravers of the glass in the Bonhams sale can be identified. Three exceptional goblets are signed by August Böhm who excelled at carving figures on horseback. Böhm was the best of the engravers from Meistersdorf, where he married in 1833. He left his wife and children to travel to Britain and America to seek his fortune. But in spite of his success, he eventually returned to his home town where he died penniless.
Looking at the stags in woodlands on these magnificent goblets leads me to suspect some could be by master engraver Carl Günther, whose life can only be described as 'Bohemian' in the modern sense of the word. He had wanderlust and went to Paris seeking work from major glassworks including Baccarat. He returned to Munich and, after several arrests, was deported to his home town of Steinschönau. There he went to great lengths to help the needy, bathing lice-ridden tramps and even stealing a cooked goat to feed the poor. For a while he lived in a cave. He set up his glass engraving tools in the woods, carving the trees and animals he saw around him. Sadly he earned little money peddling his glass in the streets of Prague and he too eventually died penniless and half blind.
Glass engravers from Meistersdorf and Steinschönau exhibited in Paris, winning medals at the Exposition Universelle in 1855. But by this time Bohemian glass was no longer unique. In 1835 a delegation from France visited Bohemia and returned with samples of glass for French factories to copy. The imperial glassworks in St Petersburg followed suit. Furthermore, revolution in the Austrian Empire in 1848 led many craftsmen to seek work in Britain and the United States.
The masters of Bohemian glass felt let down by history. Dominik Biemann, for example, was angered that he was regarded as a craftsman rather than an artist. On one occasion he learnt that an opera singer in Vienna earned 12,000 guilden a year, while his glass earned him a mere 500. He wrote, "Singing is transitory. But my work will live on after my death and will be paid when I don't need it any more".
John Sandon is Director of European Ceramics and Glass and an expert on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow.