The technique of verre églomisé (or églomisé from fr. ‘gilded glass’) has not varied greatly over the centuries, and it continues to be a very time-consuming and highly skilled process. There remain a few craftsmen working in the United Kingdom who are capable of carrying out this magical process at the level of excellence required for bespoke interiors, and Gosling has worked closely with such craftsmen to keep this fascinating and magical technique alive.
Verre églomisé is a process where the reverse side of a piece of glass is gilded with gold, silver or metal leaf, and sanded down; often a design is then etched into this base. A coloured background (or bole) can also be painted over the back of the panel, showing through the etching to various degrees and giving the eglomise a distressed appearance.
Attributed to René and Thomas Pelletier, a mirror with verre eglomisé border, London, England, C.1707. a full length, cast glass, mirror with borders of verre eglomisé and silvered pinewood. The ornamental pattern used here is close to the engravings of Jean Berain (D. 1711), court designer to Louis XIV (R.1643:1715). The figures in the lower borders represent flora, the classical goddess of flowers, and her husband Zephyr, the west wind of springtime.
The origin of the name is generally attributed to Jean-Baptiste Glomy, an eighteenth-century French frame maker to Louis XVI, who used the technique extensively to decorate mirrors for Marie-Antoinette. Dealers began to refer to such work as being ‘Glomyised’, (Fr. ‘églomisé’). however, there is still some controversy over this theory.
Although the finest examples of eglomise work were carried out in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (for example the tearooms of the Caffe Florian in St Mark’s Square in Venice) the technique of decorating glass with engraved gold leaf dates back to pre-Roman times. The earliest known examples of verre églomisé were found on two bowls from a tomb at Canosa, in Italy, dating from the third century BC, and displayed today in the British Museum. The Romans developed a method of fixing the gold between two layers of glass in order to protect the delicate leaf; the edges of the bowls were then sealed, with no visible joins, resulting in what is known as ‘sandwich glass’. Other examples of verre églomisé from the third and fourth centuries are to be found on medallions cemented into Roman burial chambers, where the motifs in gold leaf upon the glass included both Jewish and Christian symbols, together with portraits and inscriptions.
Verre églomisé is extremely labour intensive and requires great skill, so as a result its popularity has waxed and waned over the centuries. from the late fifteenth century to the early eighteenth century the most impressive examples came from European workshops, with many splendid pieces being made in Roman Augsburg (in modern-day Germany) where verre églomisé had been popular since medieval times.
In Peter Binnington’s studio silver leaf is placed on the gelatin size applied to a sheet of glass.
During the seventeenth century, shellac became a common material used as a background for verre églomisé, as the translucency of shellac was enhanced by overlaying silver leaf, adding more luminosity and depth. Eglomise also began to be used extensively on mirrors, and inset into pieces of furniture and other decorative items in the form of panels.
The Queen Anne period was one of the most prolific for engravers and gilders. As a result of the dearth of mirrors before the 1690s — almost certainly resulting from the expense of foreign mirrors — the Duke of Buckingham started a glassworks in Vauxhall in 1662, but its skill was limited. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, other factories had emerged and the quality of production had improved. Larger, better quality mirrors became available and pier glasses, which filled the space between windows, became popular. Verre églomisé was frequently used as decoration on mirrors during this time. One theory suggests that, given the standard of the draughtsmanship displayed, and the delicacy and range of line engraving, the gold leaf was in fact being etched by highly skilled steel engravers.
A pattern is etched onto the back of the silver leaf using a bone or ivory scraper; a deep red bole is then applied to the pattern – it will show through where the silver leaf has been etched.
The popularity of verre églomisé was at its height in France by the late eighteenth century, with exquisite paintings characterized by opulent gilt ornamentation being shipped around the world. In Europe, thousands of churches and chapels in Germany, Austria, Romania and Czechoslovakia, as well as Spain, Portugal and Italy, provided a constant demand for reproduction paintings, eglomise provided a beautiful and appropriately ornate method of framing these pictures.
The fashion for verre églomisé spread to the New World toward the end of the eighteenth century, where it was centred around Baltimore. furniture, mirror-frames and wall clocks incorporating eglomise panels were produced, for example the 1800 American federal-style mirrors where the columns on either side are bridged by a frieze of verre églomisé panels.
Verre églomisé’s next period of vogue came during the 1920s and 1930s. furniture designers incorporated panels into tables, cabinets and cupboards where the shimmering, luxurious surfaces provided an elegant complement to Art Deco interiors. By the mid-twentieth century eglomise painting once more faded into obscurity, but in recent years more awareness of the discipline exists and it is beginning again to find favour in sophisticated interior decors on table-tops, mirrors, and wall coverings, or is integrated into other elements of furniture such as libraries.
A late Roman ⁄ Early Christian verre eglomise medallion showing a married couple with Christ. probably from the catacombs, Rome, 4th century ce. A gold-glass ‘medallion’ bearing the busts of a man and woman are encircled by a plain border and the inscription ‘DULCIS ANIMA VIVAS’ (‘Sweetheart, may you live [long]’). The medallion would have originally decorated the base of bowl made as a wedding present. Between the two figures a youthful man (Christ) dressed in a cloak and tunic holds wreaths over their heads.
In modern workshops little in the eglomise process has changed since the techniques of the fifteenth century. The first step of the process involves a glue or size made from gelatine and water, which is applied to a sheet of glass; this is then followed by the gold or silver leaf. At this stage, before the size dries, the craftsman is able to move the metallic leaf around and place it exactly. Once correctly placed, the back of the glass is then dried relatively quickly using a stream of hot air, after which the leaf adheres tightly, taut and burnished, onto the glass, giving a mirror-like reflective finish.
At this stage the metallic leaf can be sanded down, using a pumice stone, until it is translucent on the surface of the glass, and a pattern can be traced or etched, in reverse through it, using a sharpened bone or ivory scraper. As the fifteenth century handbooks describe, this must be done with painstaking care as it can never be erased or corrected. A coloured bole is can then be applied to this reverse side, so it shows through where the foil leaf has been scraped away, resulting in glimpses of colour in contrast to the shine of the silver.