On the other side of the the glass. History of faceted glass from Peter the Great to Petrov-Vodkin

September 21, 2019

11 September is celebrated in Russia as the Faceted Glass Day. On that day in 1943, the first faceted glass was produced. The design now familiar to everyone is believed to be created by one of the most famous Soviet artists. Before that, faceted glasses used to be entirely different. We have asked Violetta Mikitina, Head of the Glass and Ceramics Department in Kuskovo, to tell about their permutations from the times of Peter the Great to the dawn of the Soviet era. The museum boasts the largest glass art collection in Russia. Mosgortur and mos.ru now jointly present to you the most fascinating pieces from Kuskovo’s holdings.

The mystery of the faceted glass

We traditionally think of a faceted drinking glass as a 20th century tableware. In 1918, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin immortalized it in his ‘Morning Still Life’. Although the glass captured by the painter is not exactly the same as the ones we are familiar with: it’s cylindrical instead of tapering toward the bottom, the facets are wider and there is no smooth un-faceted band around the top. We can find pieces like that in the glassware catalogues published before the October Revolution.


Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Morning Still Life. 1918

We believe that a glass of that type was invented by Yefim Smolin, a glassmaker who lived in the late 17th – early 18th century in what we now consider the Vladimir Region. He presented his product to Peter I with assurances that the glass was impossible to break. According to the legend, the Emperor drank some vodka from the glass then smashed it on the ground. Although the glass broke, that didn’t sour the impression it made. ‘Let’s have that glass!’ cried Peter, the phrase that later became ‘Let’s break that glass!’ That’s how the custom of breaking glassware for luck came to be. The first classic faceted glass with 16 facets and a smooth band around the top was produced on 11 September, 1943 in Gus-Khrustalny. The design is attributed to sculptor Vera Mukhina, although no documental evidence of her involvement exists. It is true though that the artist who created the sculpture Worker and Kolkhoz Woman used to experiment with glasswork a lot.

Violetta Mikitina, Head of the Glass and Ceramics Department, Kuskovo Museum Reserve:
The origin of the Soviet faceted glass is shrouded in legend. Whether or not it’s true that Vera Mukhina was involved in its design is a matter that’s still waiting to be researched.
Today is the Faceted Glass Day, so let’s take a look at the glass art pieces that are going to be displayed in our museum till mid-October. The name of the exhibition is ‘Collection of A.V. Morozov: Porcelain, Ceramics, Glass’. The exhibits are nothing else but drinking glasses with a fascinating history that represent the milestones in the development of the Russian glass industry.

The first glass

The first Russian glass factory opened in 1635 (during the reign of Mikhail Fyodorovich) in the Dukhanino village near Moscow. The second one, a factory in the Izmailovo Tsar Residence, was created in 1668–1669 by father of Peter the Great, Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich. The factory was managed directly from the Tsar Palace, producing ‘Venetian style’ glass for the monarchs. It remained in operation till the 1710s.


Shot glass with two-headed eagle and an image of St. George. Clear glass, engraving.  Izmaylovsky Glass Factory, early 18th century

During Peter I’s reign, in 1705, the first mirror factory was built in Moscow, on Vorobyovy Gory, but soon relocated to St. Petersburg. All those factories were primarily run by specially invited foreigners who shared their experience with Russian craftsmen.

Violetta Mikitina:
This shot glass made by Izmaylovsky Factory and with an engraving of a two-headed eagle and a horse rider wearing a Strelets hat and wielding a lance is the oldest piece in the Morozov glass collection. Interestingly, it has the Tsar’s full title inscribed on it in Latin: Petr Alex Magn Czar Mosc (Peter son of Alexius Grand Duke and Tsar of Moscow). The inscription is not particularly correct grammatically, some letters are missing, some words shortened. It looks like it was done by a Russian engraver who was quite inattentive while copying the phrase from a language he did not understand.

It’s unlikely that Peter I used glasses of that sort for drinking, but it’s quite possible that he could award some of them as gifts to his associates. We know of another shot glass like that, from the famous Selivanov’s collection. Selivanov bought it from the one of the Tsar’s valet’s family members.

Vershinin’s trick glasses

Drinking glass depicting a hunting scene. Inscribed: ‘Midday view on a fowl hunter 1797’. Bakhmetyevs’ factory, 1797. Blue glass, gilded and silvered By the end of the 18th century, there were several regional glass industry centres in Russia: St. Petersburg and the surrounding lands, Vladimir, Smolensk and Kaluga Governorates. In 1764, Aleksey Bakhmetyev, a retired Army officer, founded a cut-glass factory in the Penza Governorate.


Drinking glass with double walls with a country landscape. Inscribed: ‘View of fishing’. Bakhmetyevs’ factory, early 19th century. Clear colourless glass, faceted and gilded, the landscape between the glass layers made with paper, straw, stones, shells and moss

At the turn of the 18th – 19th centuries, the factory had its own McGuyver – an incredibly skilled serf by the name Aleksandr Vershinin. He was the one who was making tableware sets for the Imperial court. For his service, Alexander I awarded him a custom engraved pocket watch. Vershinin’s double-wall glasses were an important milestone in the development of the Russian glass industry. Between the glass walls, the glassmaker used to fit realistic miniature landscapes made of whatever trifles caught his fancy: pieces of paper, straws, shells, small pieces of rock. How he was preserving those fragile inlays when melting the glass at about 900 °C is still unknown to this day.

Violetta Mikitina:
Today we know about ten surviving Vershinin’s glasses, some of them are kept abroad. The picture inlays in them are never the same. They are extremely rare at art auctions. The last known piece by Vershinin was auctioned in London in 2000. It was bought for 28,000 pounds, while the initial estimate was 10,000 – 15,000 pounds. Who bought it and where it is now is unknown.

It is assumed that a blue drinking glass painted with gold and silver, with an inlay depicting a hunting scene, was made by Vershinin himself. The piece was acquired by the museum also from Morozov’s collection. There are another two glasses of that type in Kuskovo, though they were most likely made by Vershinin’s apprentices. In any case, the level of craftsmanship in them is not as high.


Drinking glass with a hunting scene. Inscribed on the bottom: ‘Midday view of a fowl hunter 1797’. Bakhmetyevs’ factory, 1797. Blue glass, gilded and silvered

Fancy bugs

Violetta Mikitina:
Glasses featuring decoy bugs and butterflies are a part of the 18th century’s fascination with decoys, both in paintings and in architecture. The enamelled insects look absolutely lifelike, as if they got accidentally trapped in a glass. Tableware of that kind was wildly popular among landowners as gifts and that’s why many of those glasses are monogrammed.

Philologists think that maybe the expression ‘to be (walk) buzzed’ springs from that kind of glassware. The more likely hypothesis though suggests that the phrase originated during Peter the Great’s reign. The reformist Tsar was of the opinion that Russia needed more taverns instead of just drinking houses. The latter were just the places to get drunk while the former offered food to go with drinks. He decreed that the tavern keepers are required to give every customer their first shot for free.

In order to follow the Tsar’s will and not go bankrupt the tavern keepers started offering drinks in tiny shot glasses that could hold about a tablespoon (10 – 15 ml) of vodka. Because of their minuscule size, they were called flies. As for the smart drunks who could visit several taverns per night getting their rightful first shots on the house, people started saying about them that they were ‘buzzing around’.


Frosted glass

Frosted glass became popular, because it looked very much like porcelain, which was the height of fashion in Europe at that time. The painting methods for both materials were the same and furthermore, the craftsmen from the Imperial Porcelain Factory often acted as mentors for their colleagues from the Imperial Glass Factory who had to work with frosted glass.

Shot glass adorned with portrait of Generalfeldmarschall von Blücher. Imperial Glass Factory, 1810s. Colourless cut glass, frosted glass inlays, enamelled and gilded

Violetta Mikitina:
More likely than not, when the Russian Army was abroad in 1813–1814, they encountered the so-called sulphide glass. White lockets or gypsum profiles cast into transparent glass were very popular in Europe at the time. The Russian craftsmen modified the method and started making lockers from white frosted glass. They used to cut a slot in a glass blank beforehand to insert the locket there when the glass was hot. That method was not used in Europe, it’s a uniquely Russian design.

The grandfather of cut glass

George Ravenscroft, an Englishman, invented the prototype of modern cut glass in 1676. Through experiment he discovered the precise content of lead monoxide that had to be added to the molten glass to make the end product stronger, brighter and give it additional spark. All those qualities revealed themselves in their full splendour twenty years later, when they started using faceting to cut glass. For a long time England remained the trend-setter in that field, that’s why many forms of cut glass tableware and faceting patterns originate on the British Islands.

Violetta Mikitina:
Cut glass appeared in Russia, like in the rest of the mainland Europe, in the 1800s. That was when the Russian craftsmen started adopting various faceting patterns. The pattern that the English called ‘strawberry diamond’ and the Russians - ‘stone’ was very popular in the late 1810s – 1820s. It served as the base for the ‘Russian stone’, the pattern that didn’t have any analogues in other countries. The first known example of that cut appears on a table dish that Nikolas I received in 1826 as a gift, but the peak of its popularity was in the second half of the 19th century.

Of all the ornamental arts, cut glass was the first to industrialize and start mass production. That was because you needed just mechanical precision to make it, as opposed to a craftsman’s creative touch.


Glass with a portrait of Field Marshall von der Osten-Sacken. Russia, the first quarter of the 19th century. Colourless glass, Russian stone cut

Photos provided by the Kuskovo Museum Estate.


Source: mos.ru

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