Friday, 27 July 2007

Monart magic

When I wrote here about collecting antiques from Scotland, I didn't anticipate seeing a collection of glass like the examples pictured here up for auction recently in my local saleroom.

They were made in a glassworks in Perthshire and such is the universal appeal of antiques and collectables, I felt I needed no excuse to stay north of the border with this week's column.

In the event, telephone buyers from Scotland took three pieces, a Hampshire collector had travelled to the sale to buy two, while the remainder was shared between three local buyers.

The most valuable piece was a circular fruit bowl in purple, shading to green and amber with aventurine flecks, which sold for £280, more than twice the top estimate.

Aventurine is the name given to opaque or semi-translucent glass flecked with small metallic particles, which is a particularly attractive feature to much of the most desirable pieces.

These beautiful and remarkable creations are examples of Monart glass made at the Moncrieff glassworks in Perth between 1924 and 1961 by a Spanish glassworker named Salvador Ysart.

Today, they are highly sought after by a relatively small but well-informed group of collectors who prize anything produced by the factory and pay considerable sums for the privilege of taking a piece home.

This is rightly so, in my opinion, for this is glassware that will never be produced again.

However, to the uninitiated, pieces seen in isolation look like so many examples of Sixties kitsch and not everyone appreciates their gaudy colours and flashy styles.

See a group of the pieces properly lit and displayed and understand more readily the skill involved in making them, and their significance becomes increasingly apparent.

Salvador Ysart was born in Barcelona, the son of a glassmaker, although oddly enough, his first job was in a bakery.

However, it was not work he enjoyed, and he soon quit and followed in his father's footsteps.

At around the turn of the century, the champion of Art Nouveau design, Emile Gallé, established the School of Nancy in France and Ysart was one of many artist craftsmen who left their native land to join workers in the school in 1909.

He subsequently worked for a number of glassmakers around Paris until 1915, when he was recruited to move to Scotland to help the British war effort making such things as laboratory glass and light bulbs.

He and his wife had four sons: Paul, Augustine, Vincent and Antoine who joined their father as apprentices, working first in Edinburgh and then Glasgow until 1922, when they were recruited by John Moncrieff, proprietor of the glassworks of the same name in Perth.

The company was primarily involved in manufacturing industrial and laboratory glass, but Salvador's interests lay more in decorative objects that he had been producing for Gallé at Nancy.

Tradition has it that in 1923, he made a vase as a raffle prize for his local church which was seen by Moncrieff's wife, Isobel, who saw its commercial potential.

Herself a talented artist and well-connected in London, she persuaded her husband to invest in the new product line and Monart glass -- combining the first syllable of the company's name with the last syllable of Salvador's surname -- was born.

Production began the following year but was limited to fulfilling orders from leading department stores including Liberty's of London, the Ysart family working only in their spare time on the project.

Nevertheless, by the early 1930s Monart pattern books were crammed with all manner of glassware ranging from vases and bowls to ink bottles and table lamps.

The glass proved to be a great success and production continued until 1939 and the outbreak of the Second World War which necessarily halted output to concentrate on the war effort.

What made Monart glass special was not necessarily the shapes but the vibrant colours in which it was made, much of its inspired by Isobel Moncrieff.

The method of manufacture was complex. It involved mixing coloured glass granules or canes, supplied from Germany, with clear glass which was shaped and moulded and then covered with a layer of clear glass.

Adding crushed charcoal to the mix created air bubbles and gold powder, aventurine, metallic foil or mica flakes were added to give pieces a unique sparkle.

Ironically, the local Woolworth's was one source of the silver in the form of glitter, but only at Christmas time, when it was used as tree decoration!

Salvador and his sons Vincent and Augustine left the company in 1946 and set up their own business, called Ysart Brothers Glass, producing glass under the name "Vasart".

By 1949, Vasart was enjoying some success, but the death of both Salvador and Augustine left Vincent to carry on alone and production was in decline by 1956.

Paul Ysart, Salvador's oldest son, became interested in paperweights and went on to become one of the most important manufacturers of the 1930s.

He remained at Moncrieff's and restarted Monart production in 1945 but on a much reduced scale. Paul left Moncrieff's in 1961, joining in Caithness Glass two years later.

It is virtually impossible to tell whether Monart glass dates from before or after the war. Somewhat in contrast to what one might expect, colours were much more subdued, probably because of supply difficulties from post-war Germany.

Even identifying a piece is Monart is problematic. The Vasart glass made by Ysart Brothers was made to compete and is therefore very similar, although this is generally etched with the signature Vasart in script on the base.

Generally speaking, Monart glass is not signed but it has a distinctive pontil mark -- made at the time the piece was handblown -- which is ground down and polished to a smooth disk surrounded by a smooth circle.

The pontil mark on Vasart glass was usually only ground off to remove sharp surfaces.

Before it left the factory, Monart glass was given a sticky paper label applied to the pontil mark although, of course, they were often lost with the passage of time.

Monart has also been faked over the years. The solution is based on experience. Handle pieces which are known to be authentic and compare them with others that are known either to be wrong or made by competing factories. With time, it'll become obvious.

And one other tip: Monart and similar pieces made from several layers of glass are known to shatter if exposed to strong sunlight which causes the layers to expand and contract to different degrees. So keep it off the window ledge!

Pictures show a selection of Monart glass showing the range of colours and styles available. The table light is particularly sough after and has an auction value £300-500. Other pieces in the pictures can be had for £100-300

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