The Glacier – Victorian DIY Imitation Stained Glass
Interior design was a popular hobby amongst women during the second half of the nineteenth century. It was considered an appropriate activity for women, and newspapers, journals and even treatises were addressed to women seeking to embellish their houses (Fig. 1). These publications covered a broad range of artistic expertise, ranging from informative art-historical lessons on style, colour and good taste, to practical do-it-yourself manuals for various crafts. It is noteworthy they often adapted traditional techniques to the expected capabilities of untrained housewives and their limited tool resources. New technologies allowed home-made imitations of traditional materials to be produced, such as papier mâché furniture or paper transparencies imitating stained glass. The latter remained in fashion for a long time.
Transparencies were most commonly used as window decoration. The ways in which they were produced, and the technologies involved, differed from manufacturer to manufacturer. However, they always comprised a translucent or transparent fabric with a design printed or painted onto the surface (Fig. 2). Transparencies could be purchased over the counter, and most were applied onto clear-glass panes and varnished, at home, by non-professional individuals. The designs often imitated stained glass by copying existing windows, complete with lead-lines, or providing a grisaille design decorated with coloured sections suggestive of coloured pot-metal glass. Drawings or paintings were also reproduced in transparencies. Although window transparencies were executed in various materials, by the second half of the nineteenth century it seems that paper transparencies were prevalent. This tendency remained unchanged until the beginning of the First World War.
The nomenclature of transparencies is quite complicated. Sources give them various names, with little consistency. However, it seems that they were mostly called ‘diaphanies’ until the 1880s, when Glacier transparencies were introduced to the market. The Glacier patent only applied to lithographs on transparent paper printed by McCaw Stevenson & Orr (of Linenhall Works Ltd, Belfast). The Glacier transparencies soon became the most popular type of imitation stained glass, and present an interesting case of a traditional craft being adapted for a modern mass-produced product that benefited from inventions in various disciplines (paper produced by new wood-pulp processing techniques, machine lithography printing, varnishes altered to suit a new purpose).
The Glacier production process was divided into highly specialized departments. Firstly, the panels were designed in so-called artists’ rooms. Selected illustrations by these ‘litho-artists’ were transferred onto stones, from which the images would be impressed mechanically. One stone carried only one colour, so a few impressions had to be combined to create a single multi-coloured whole. The printed paper was varnished on both sides at once, and then dried on a rack. Finally, the transparencies were rolled and packed with instructions into ventilated boxes.
Finished designs were displayed in special show rooms. The company also advertised their decorations widely in newspapers. Interested customers could then order a catalogue with designs, with chosen panels being dispatched by post and delivered directly to the customer’s home.
Installation was easy and carried out by the customers (Fig. 4). According to the Glacier catalogue, ‘any person of ordinary intelligence’ and ‘average taste and skill, with a very short apprenticeship’ could ‘produce delightful effect’. Selected paper designs were cut into the required shape and applied to a piece of supporting glass, usually a separate panel from the window glass. It was advised that the brighter (i.e., unprinted) side of the prints be applied to the glass. There were two recommended methods: by soaking the prints in water, or through the application of glue. Superfluous water or cement could then be removed with India rubber. To hide the boundary lines where various designs ended, opaque paper strips – ‘leads’ – were added.
Finally, the whole panel would have been varnished with an oil varnish. Finished panels could be framed to facilitate installation. There were two options: the panel was either attached to the frame of window, or alternatively became part of a separate internal glazing that was affixed directly to the walls. The printed side of the panel was installed facing the inter-space and the external glazing (Fig. 5). The producers of Glacier transparencies strongly advised putting two matches between the transparency and its frame to allow ventilation.
McCaw, Stevenson & Orr displayed their products in the Illustrated Catalogue of Celebrated Glacier Window Decoration. It seems that the catalogues were published every few years and that new editions were updated with new designs. Catalogues were an integral part of advertising and distributing the Glacier decorations. They present an interesting amalgamation of decoration catalogue, interior design guide, practical handbook, and postal correspondence advisory service, and included instructions for installation, materials required, coloured pages with designs, and a few original Glacier samples.
McCaw, Stevenson & Orr developed a sophisticated and flexible system that allowed individual elements (borders, curves, ground fillings, main central panels, lettering) to be combined into single designs that could fit windows of various shapes (Fig. 3). Designs were organized into sections and individually numbered (Fig. 4). The catalogues explained the numbering system and basic rules of composition, and showed possible decorative arrangements that might be copied. Ready-made decoration proposals echoed the practice of presenting fully decorated rooms with all items available for sale.
Imitations were apparently commonly used in many middle-class households. Glacier transparencies were however also installed in churches, hotels, private institutions, and even in prestigious locations such as Windsor Castle. The variety of designs reflects the variety of places in which transparencies were used. Notably, the ratio of secular and religious designs displayed in pattern books changed with time; with religious imagery eventually overtaking secular designs. Some series of images must have been especially popular, as they were reprinted from catalogue to catalogue.
Transparencies were a new product that quickly dominated on the market, bringing great profits to the manufacturers. It seems that they pervaded every-day life: they were seen in windows, advertised and discussed in daily newspapers and journals, and presented in catalogues and décor guides. They attracted the attention of various circles, provoking both controversy and admiration, and transformed a complicated and previously male-dominated craft into a ‘feminine’ hobby. Not surprisingly, the transparencies were broadly criticized by professionals. Still, the invention can be perceived as effort to modernize the craft of stained glass, to make it more available for the lower classes, and to facilitate artistic expression among stained-glass enthusiasts.
1. J. Banham, S. MacDonald and J. Porter, Victorian Interior Style, London, 1995, pp. 23–24; G. C. Winkler and R. W. Moss, Victorian Interior Decoration, New York, 1986, p. 3.
2. G. C. Winkler, Capricious Fancy: Draping and Curtaining the Historic Interior, 1800–1930, Philadelphia, 2012, pp. XXI, XXIII; C. L. Eastlake, Hints on Household Taste, London, 1869; D. D. Morse, The Secret of Pictorial Art, or, Self-instructor in Painting on Glass, China, Satin and Paper: It Teaches the Oil Photo-miniature, Grecian Oil, Antique, Oriental, Crystal and Pastel Paintings, Crystalline, Decalcomanie and Diaphanie Transferring, Chicago, 1879.
3. ‘Imitation of Stained Glass’, Bow Bells, 5 September 1866, p. 141; ‘Imitation Stained Glass’, Decorator and Furnisher, December 1884, p. 80; ‘Hints and Notions’, Decorator and Furnisher, August 1883, p. 170.
4. B. McCabe, From Linenhall to Loopbridge: The Story of McCaw Stevenson & Orr Ltd Printers 1876 – 1990, Belfast, 1990, p. 99.
5. Ibid., pp. 16–20.
6. Ibid., pp. 26–27, 45–52.
7. Illustrated London News, 1 May 1889, p. 461; Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 11 January 1890, p. 541; Graphic, 2 May 1890, p. 517.
8. Manufacturer and Builder, 6 June 1890, p. 140.
9. McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, Pattern Book no. 4, p. 2.
10. McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, Catalogue no. 8, pp. 6–7.
11. Of particular interest was the system for curved borders, which was based on circles available in four different radiuses. McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, Illustrated Catalogue of Glacier Window Decoration, the Celebrated Substitute for Stained Glass, Book no. 8, Section B.