‘THE ORIGIN OF PAINTING’ IS A TRIUMPH BY GEORGE WOODALL
By Samantha Robinson
Developed in the Roman Empire circa 30 B.C., cameo glass served as an alternative to engraved gems such as agate and onyx, offering more consistent and predictable layers. To produce cameo glass, a glassmaker gathered one layer of molten glass over another, inflated them with the use of a blowpipe and, once cooled and annealed, painstakingly carving the top layer to reveal a design in relief against the exposed ground.
As a result of their fragility, few examples – 15 complete objects and approximately 200 fragments – of Roman cameo glass survive. The most well-known is the Portland vase, a two-handled amphora with a white cameo figural scene against a dark cobalt blue ground, first recorded in Rome in 1600 and acquired by the British Museum in 1812. The Portland vase profoundly impacted British decorative arts of the 19th century, igniting a vogue for Neoclassical cameo wares in a variety of media, including the Jasperware of Wedgwood, the pâte-sur-pâte porcelain of Mintons, and the cameo glass of Stourbridge manufacturers, including Thomas Webb & Sons.
British brothers George (1850-1925) and Thomas Woodall (1849-1926) are among the most important names associated with 19th century cameo glass. Heritage Auctions’ upcoming Tiffany, Lalique & Art Glass Signature® Auction includes an unprecedented offering of signed George Woodall for Thomas Webb & Sons examples, foremost among them an exceptional and important George Woodall for Thomas Webb & Sons cameo glass vase, The Origin of Painting.
Founded in 1837, Thomas Webb & Sons quickly established a reputation as the “Crystal King of England,” cementing this title with prizes at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 and Paris’ Exposition Universelle of 1878. Prompted by the success of Portland Vase replicas by competitors Northwood and Locke, Thomas Webb & Sons shifted its focus from crystal to cameo glass by 1880, hiring George and Thomas Woodall, who formed the firm’s Woodall Team. The Woodall brothers, who trained as apprentices at J. & J. Northwood and later served as designers at Dennis Glass Works, revolutionized cameo glass with both technical innovations and aesthetic achievements. The Woodalls developed and utilized blue-tinged, rather than opaque, white glass gradually removed to produce a wide range of shades over a plum or burgundy ground, creating a semi-transparent, luminous effect. They also employed cutting wheels extensively in order to increase efficiency and meet the public’s voracious demand. George Woodall, considered the greatest cameo glass artist during its height from 1880 to 1910, was renowned for the breadth of his design sources, including Neoclassical and Oriental, his technical prowess, and his prolific output.
In the form of a ginger jar with low neck, high shoulders, and tapered body, The Origin of Painting vase features the opalescent white over dark plum color scheme for which the Woodall brothers became known. It features a depiction of the Maid of Corinth outlining the shadow of her lover cast on the wall by a torch held aloft by an encouraging Cupid and a nearby lantern. The scene, derived from a legend recorded by Pliny the Elder known as The Origin of Painting, was a popular subject among artists from the 18th century onward. The subject matter is particularly apt given Woodall’s affinity for the interplay between light and shadow, translucence and opacity, in both cameo glass and photography, a medium Woodall utilized personally and professionally to document and advertise his works.
The source of Woodall’s The Origin of Painting is a painting by Giovanni Battista Cipriani (Italian, 1727-1785), likely via an etching by Louis Charles Ruotte (French, 1754-c. 1806) or Francesco Bartolozzi (Italian/British, 1727-1815). Woodall first executed the design in the form of a circular plaque, completed in 1884 and now held by the Corning Museum of Glass. The present example was the first of three vases executed by Woodall, completed in 1887, promptly sold, and eventually acquired by Dr. Ernest H. and Karin Rieger of Wichita, Kan., and then the late Dr. Jerry N. Black of Buckhannon, W.Va.
Woodall’s The Origin of Painting vase demonstrates a high level of fidelity to the etching by Ruotte, with exquisite detail, delicate shading – especially to the lover’s shadow and the diaphanous fabrics draped on the figures and nearby table – and adeptly rendered perspective, reinforced by the addition of intersecting lines to the floor and the wall. Among the three extant examples, the level of detail and finish of the present example is paramount. The scene is bordered by vegetal motifs in scalloped arches below the neck and stylized, blade-like leaves to the foot, while the reverse is enlivened by an exuberant foliate scroll terminated by a jaguar’s head.
The artist engraved his signature and the date of completion – G. Woodall, 1887 – to the lower left corner of the scene, while the manufacturer etched THOMAS WEBB & SONS, GEM CAMEO to the underside. The GEM CAMEO mark, which refers to engraved gems that Roman and later cameo glass emulated, was reserved only for the firm’s finest examples, of which The Origin of Painting vase is a singular triumph.
Heritage’s Tiffany, Lalique & Art Glass auction also features three additional George Woodall signed works for Thomas Webb & Sons, two shaped plaques and the Flora vase. The shaped plaques, dated circa 1885 and offered by the Birks Museum at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., each features a shaped edge decorated with vegetal and scrolled motifs that frames a depiction of personified Music or Poetry with customary accoutrements to the center. The latter can be seen in an unfinished state in an archival photograph of the artist at work in his studio. The George Woodall-signed Flora vase depicting a maiden among irises is also included in the auction, an unprecedented opportunity for collectors of British cameo glass to add a masterwork of George Woodall to their collections.
SAMANTHA ROBINSON is a junior specialist in the Fine & Decorative Arts department at Heritage Auctions.
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2020 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.