Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Glass Transfer Painting

Today's post is by Kelli Lucas and it is about one of the more unusual types of antique "prints":

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, printed paper was gobbled up as a consumer good. Cheaply made from inexpensive materials, prints of high and low quality were so ubiquitous in the early Atlantic world as to be nearly superfluous. Sometimes reduced to ephemera, prints nonetheless represented the highly refined crafts and technologies of engraving and printing images. Accessible in both material and subject, prints were the ideal form for manipulation and became fodder for authors of arts handbooks. As one such author, Robert Dossie, noted, glass transfer painting was such a simple endeavor that even those doubting their artistic abilities could attempt it with success.

Using readily-obtained art supplies and a commercially available engraving or mezzotint, one could easily mimic fashionable reverse-painted glass, utilizing a painting technique that bears some semblance to modern paint-by-number. After soaking an engraving for a few days (this step varies according to the instructor), the print was laid against the glass. Turpentine (or some variant medium) was then applied until the paper appeared transparent on the glass. Glass and paper were then left to dry, usually for more than one day. Once dry, the paper could be rubbed away with the fingertip, leaving only the transferred ink of the print. To complete the effect, the outlined and shaded design could be colored in with oil paints applied on the verso. Thus transformed, the print-cum-glass transfer painting could be suitably framed and displayed.

With greater detail and prose, Robert Dossie elaborates in Handmaid to the Arts (London: 1753):
Of the taking of mezzotinto prints on glass, and painting upon them with oil, or varnish colours.

The painting on glass, by means of mezzotinto prints, is performed by cementing the printed side of the prints to the surface of the glass, by the assistance of some glutinous body which will not dissolve in water; and then destroying the texture of the paper by water, so that it may be rubbed interely [sic] off from the cement upon the glass; leaving, at the same time, the whole of the ink of the print upon the cement, and glass, in the same manner as if the original impression had been made there; by which method, a complete drawing of the picture designed is obtained on the glass; and may be coloured by the use of oil, varnish, or water colours.

The method of preparing this is as follows.

Procure a piece of the best crown glass as near as possible in size to the print to be taken off; and varnish it thinly over with turpentine, rendered a little more fluid by the addition of oil of turpentine. Lay the print then on the glass beginning at one end; and pressing it gently down in every part in proceeding to the other: to prevent any vesicles of air being formed, in he laying it on, by the paper touching the cement unequally, in different parts; and to settle the whole more closely to the glass, it is well to pass over a wooden roller over it; which roller may be made of any kind of wood turned, and may be about two inches in diameter. Dry the glass, with the print thus laid upon it, at the fire, till the turpentine be perfectly hard; and afterwards moisten the paper well with water, till it be thoroughly soaked. Then rub off the paper intirely [sic] from the cement, by gently rolling it under the finger; and let it dry without any heat: the impression of the print will be found perfect on the glass; and may be painted over with either oil or varnish colours.

The choice and treatment of the colours for painting in this way upon glass, in either oil or varnish, my be the same as for any other method, and it is therefore needless to enumerate any further particulars….

[As quoted in Ann Massing, “From Print to Painting: The Technique of Glass Transfer Painting.” Print Quarterly, ed., David Landau. VI: 4: December 1989, 383-393.]

Dossie wrote largely to professional or would-be professional artisans, instructing them on a variety of technical issues, of which glass transfer painting was the simplest. But the ready availability of prints, sold in large numbers and for small prices, meant that they could exist as both finished product and raw material for the aesthetically-minded with leisure time and discretionary income. Accomplished women, especially, were expected to cultivate artistic abilities, including painting and drawing, as well as fine taste for art and style. Not unlike modern so-called “domestic goddesses,” these women were encouraged to use their time and talents to beautify their lives. From embroidery projects to drawing lessons, techniques were perfected in genteel homes to add beauty and refinement to the family environment. Glass transfer painting, which mimicked fashionable reverse-painted glass, was one pastime that retained popularity from the mid-eighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth.

As a process, glass transfer painting is fascinating, as it manipulates one material (paper) to produce something entirely other (glass). Amateur artists who worked with this process began with a finished objet d’art (that is, an engraving) and enhanced its properties, transforming it from ephemeral to substantial. Harder to cast aside and yet vastly more fragile, the engraving was made more precious by its transfer to glass, and more permanent. As pieces of paper, engravings and other prints have always been extremely fluid objects: they can easily be moved from one frame to another, or removed from a scrapbook to be tacked to a wall. For modern collectors and scholars, this ephemeral nature can be maddening: it is often difficult to find information on how prints were displayed and used within their period of production. But attaching a print to glass via transfer transformed the print from ephemera to object, an object that could be more easily preserved, collected, and studied over periods of time. Finding one such object today is a chance to learn about how prints were valued and which prints were particularly prized (presumably, one would not go to the trouble to make a glass transfer painting with an image one did not like).

In the last several years, our print shop has handled a small handful of such prints. One was a very fine image of George Washington, engraved by Jean Nicolas Laugier in 1839 after a painting by Léon Cogniet (which, itself, borrowed from Gilbert Stuart for Washington’s head). Its transformation from print to glass transfer painting illustrates a significant fashion in American culture: a penchant for images of George Washington. During his life and following his death, Washington was elevated to national symbol, and his image graced every possible object from water jugs to neckerchiefs. It is not surprising, then, that this particularly noble-looking portrait of the first president should be applied to glass, offering it a more permanent existence.

While we had the print in our shop, I took advantage of the opportunity to study it inside and out, hoping to learn more about the method itself. Looking on the back of the glass revealed a surface that reminded me of a modern paint-by-number picture. It reinforced Robert Dossie’s assertion that glass transfer painting was a practice that could be “very alluring,” as it allowed for “the production of pictures even without being able to draw” (Dossie, Preface, Handmaid to the Arts). The application of paint was done neatly, but without any great apparent skill.

The finished result, though, was quite impressive in its period frame. When imagined hanging over a fine Empire sideboard, with its polished brasses and gilt ornament, the picture looked sophisticated, indeed. We thoroughly enjoyed having it in the shop and look forward to finding other examples of this intriguing process.


  1. I don’t know If I said it already but …I’m so glad I found this site…Keep up the good work I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say great blog. Thanks!

  2. Im so glad i found this site,keep up the good work,I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and this is one of the best.

  3. I have one of these "prints on glass". are they very rare? do they have any particular value?

  4. Glass transfer paintings are quite rare mostly because they are on glass. Quite a number were made in the 18th and 19th centuries, but if the glass breaks, so does the picture, so most have been destroyed over time. Just because an image is such a picture, however, does not mean it has value. It all depends on the artist, age, subject, condition, etc. Some are quite valuable and some have only decorative value.

  5. I have one also, a fascinating print of Daniel O'Rourke the Derby winning horse of 1852.Made,I suppose at least before 1900 (who would keep a print more than 50 years?!)
    As to value, a couple of glass transfer prints sold on E_Bay not long ago for $70 each. Mine is worth much more than that to me, I often wonder about its creator.

  6. Does anyone have any idea how old or the value of a reverse glass printing of the #5 or the New Top 50, Currier and Ives, American Homestead Winter would be worth? The frame was in bad shape so I currently have it unframed. It is in very good shape with only a couple little pinholes out of the paint just in the bottom on the border. The colors in the picture are very nice. Thanks.

  7. Hello.
    I have 4 all on very thin glass which appears hand rolled (small air bubbles in the glass). The glass is also bowed outwards. All appear Germanic - Due to the dress of the subjects.
    Where would be a good place to value and sell? Does anyone have any advice?

  8. WHen my grandmother passed away, I received a print. It wasn't until I purchased a new frame that I noticed the print was right on the glass. At the bottom of the print it says: no 116 IN DISTRESS. The left hand corner has a tiny chip and all I can make out is Right 1900 and beneath that the only part of a company name I can read is & CO. New York.
    The print is of a mother at a desk with a book and a little girl whose doll's head has fallen off.
    If anyone has any clue as to what this is or where I might be able to find some information on this, it would be appreciated.

  9. I bought one of these recently, and am interested in trying to create one of these (as soon as I find some old prints too damaged to be of value for anything else). Has anyone here tried this?

  10. I found a painting on glass in Andover, MA. Three young (20s) people in a church, in garments suitable ofor the 1890's: hairdos on both the man and the women, beautiful colors, he is in a cassock, the women are in long, loose garments, very proper and prayerful. The church is lovely, with beautiful arches like a cathedral. How does one try to find out about this painting, or where and when it could have been done?

  11. There is no easy way to identify the source of a print like this if there is no title, artist or publisher on it. It really is a question of someone recognizing the image and this doesn't sound like something that would be easy to identify. Wish there was a good way to proceed, but there just isn't.

  12. What a great blog - does anyone know how reverse glass painted items using print outlines were manufactured on a commercial scale in the 19th and early 20th centuries? For example many hundreds/thousands of pin wheels and needle books with reverse glass hand coloured views were sold as souvenir items.

  13. Are these prints also known as treacle prints?

  14. Hello,

    I think that I've got the real " Light Infantry Man ", made by F.D Soiron after H.Bunberry (1791)- with his original frame.
    Does anyone know his value ? Thank you very much.

  15. my print is 250 yrs but the glass is broken can it be saved? or should i just scrap it ???

    1. If it really is a glass transfer print, then it is essentially ruined. I suppose there may be someone who could put Humpty Dumpty back together again, but it would be very expensive and would (I imagine) not look that great...

  16. Hi could anyone help me I have got a reverse glass print by john boydell ...a view of greenwhich hospital .appointed by the House of Parliament 1751 No 16 it's in great condition and an original how much would this be worth any help will be appreciated

  17. I have 2 framed reverse-prints which are chained to each other, one above the other. They are coloured and have gold leaf surround and behind the inscriptions and are of the south west and south east prospects of St. Michael's Mount (in Cornwall) by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck dated 1734. They are in perfect condition. Any information or incite in terms of value would be appreciated.

  18. Actually the date should read May 24th, 1739.