A Spittoon Born in England



Born in England

As director of the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., since 1992, David Whitehouse knows his way around the antique glass market. But even he can stumble across real surprises.

In October he went to London to preview a Sotheby’s sale of Islamic art. “There were two pieces I desperately wanted to see, but when I was at the preview, I noticed a glass-fronted cabinet filled with metal things and another piece of glass,” he said. “I saw the glass was slightly crizzled, a condition caused by a defect in the composition of glass that makes it liable to absorb water and lose little flakes from the surface, like dandruff.”

Mr. Whitehouse asked to examine the piece, a spittoon, 11 inches wide and 4 inches tall, with a wide-rimmed, bulbous ribbed bowl. It was listed as “a rare Mughal mould-blown glass spittoon, India, early 18th century.” The catalog said: “A spittoon of similar form and date is in the Victoria and Albert Museum.”

When he picked it up, he found a tiny seal stamped on the side. Using a loupe, he saw the seal was in the form of a raven’s head, the mark of the 17th-century London glass factory of George Ravenscroft. Though not an authority on British glass, Mr. Whitehouse recognized the seal. He said he tried to contain his excitement about discovering such a rarity: “I sauntered out. The agony was waiting three days for the sale, to see if anyone else had spotted it.”

Mark J. West, a private glass dealer in Surrey, England, said: “Ravenscroft glass with the seal is very, very rare. There are probably 20 pieces with a seal on them.”

Mr. Whitehouse’s museum made the winning bid, paying $36,000 — at the low-end of the presale estimate — for the spittoon, which is already on display in Corning.

Ravenscroft (1632-1683), an English merchant who spent years in Venice, opened two glass factories when he returned home.

“In the 1670s people began to experiment and add lead oxide to glass because the presence of lead gives glass such brilliance,” Mr. Whitehouse said. “But Ravenscroft got the formula wrong, and his glass began to crizzle.”

In 1675 he rejiggered the formula to address the problem, but no one knew he had done it. “He had a marketing problem,” Mr. Whitehouse said. “To distinguish the new glass, he applied a pellet of molten glass on it and had it stamped with the raven’s head.”

By 1681 Ravenscroft had retired, and his factory soon closed. Most surviving Ravenscroft pieces are goblets. Why did he make a spittoon in 1676?

“It may have been intended for the Indian trade,” Mr. Whitehouse said. “The English East India Company had already been in India for three generations. In Mughal times it was a fashionable social custom to chew betel nut and then spit the juice into a spittoon.”

The spittoon was wrongly catalogued twice. In March 2007 at a sale of Oriental and Indian art at Christie’s in Paris it was listed as “Indian, end 18th-beginning 19th century.” A German dealer bought it and in turn consigned it to Sotheby’s in October. Sotheby’s Islamic glass specialist, Edward Gibbs, concluded it was early 18th-century Mughal.

No one had correctly identified the source until Mr. Whitehouse came along.


A kingfisher, mouth open, devours a squirming fish. Two male yellow-breasted chats do an elaborate mating dance, midair, above a female in a nest. An osprey in full flight grasps a gasping fish with its enormous talons.

These are a few of the dramatic scenes depicted on the 40 watercolors of American birds by John James Audubon in “Audubon’s Aviary,” at the New-York Historical Society through April 5.

“Audubon does action poses,” said Roberta J. M. Olson, the society’s curator of drawings and the organizer of the show. “It’s really cinema. Audubon had a photographic memory, not only of birds but how birds moved.”

Shown among the Audubons are depictions of birds by his predecessors, including the 16th-century artists Pierre Vase, Konrad Gesner and Pierre Belon; the 18th-century naturalist Mark Catesby; and Audubon’s contemporary Alexander Wilson.

“No one did life-size birds until Audubon,” Ms. Olson said.

Nonetheless Audubon occasionally borrowed parts of compositions from others. In his portrait of the American golden eagle he painted the bird against snow-capped mountains that he lifted from Jacques-Louis David’s 1800 painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps.” By referring to David’s famous composition, Audubon was asserting his equality with the master, Ms. Olson said.

“With Audubon there is always an ironic twist,” she said. “There are layers of meaning. The more you look, the more you get from them.”

Magnifying glasses help visitors study Audubon’s painstaking techniques, including the use of graphite to add eyelashes and whiskers or the application of gold leaf to a bird’s wings.

The show is the museum’s final rotation of the 435 Audubon watercolors in its collection done for “The Birds of America.”

There are usually some Audubon prints at the “Works on Paper” fair opening on Friday at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. This year there is at least one contemporary bird painter: Scott Kelley, a Maine artist who shows at the Sigrid Freundorfer booth. He has been doing watercolors of birds for 13 years.

“Audubon is part of my world, and his watercolors are amazing,” he said, “though I’ve learned more from Wilson and Catesby.”
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