A well-known figure in the garden and museum worlds, Barbara Wirth built up a remarkable glassware collection making play with transparency, refinement and rarity.
France, late 16th/early 17th century, conical glass standing on a blue and white enamelled gadrooned knot, surmounted by gilded fleur-de-lys discs and blue enamelled glass fili, the cup decorated with twists and foliage in white and yellow enamel, gilt metal glass holder, h. 22 cm, diam. 10.7 cm.
Antique glassware collections are few and far between in the French market, let alone any of this extent. This one, patiently built up over three decades by a lady whose passion for French culture in the noblest sense is known and respected by all, will obviously be in the sightlines of private art lovers and institutions alike. Barbara Wirth and her husband Didier became leading champions of gardens when, after buying the Château de Brécy estate in Normandy in 1992, they decided to restore all its leafy verdure. It has since been awarded the "remarkable garden" label. And on 22 January 2012, when French Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand awarded her the insignia of Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, he said: "this evening, I am particularly happy to honour one of our country's great women gardeners" – also on the board of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
Precisely 179 glass pieces make up the collection, until recently housed in a dedicated cabinet in the chateau and protected from view by wood panelling: a layout rather like a Schatzkammer (treasury). This highly elegant group contains some exceptional works, like a Bacchus chevauchant un tonneau (Bacchus straddling a barrel) by Bernard Perrot (€8,000/9,000), an important piece in several respects, as it is made in vitro-porcelain (also called "blanc de lait") and translucent red glass. Perrot, an inventor, developed the former technique, and rediscovered the famous transparent red glass of times long past, lost since the Middle Ages, obtaining exclusive manufacturing rights for it. Also remarkable is an enamelled glass with a gold mount, made in France in the late 16th century. As we learn from expert Sylvie Lhermite-King, "Only fifteen or so enamelled glasses made in France at this period are listed to date." At that time, Venice reigned supreme in this art, while the kingdom of France was only in its infancy. The Italians introduced the technique to the rest of Europe, in fact. Here it is impressively illustrated by a large blue glass dish with a blind gilt frieze decoration of foliage, made in Innsbruck (diam. 42 cm, €8,000/10,000). The "Venetian style" spread rapidly, and it is often hard to know if a piece was made in the Serenissima or in a transalpine workshop. This is the case with some airy hemispherical tazze with hollow feet, of which several late 16th-century models are on offer at between €3,000 and €5,000.
The collection provides a real overview of the various glassware models found in the 16th and 17th centuries: they might be conical, cylindrical, octagonal or bell-shaped (campaniform) or designed for fruit (known as a "gobichon") – but they always stand on a foot. Whether full, tall, baluster, multi-foiled, twisted, finned or bulbous, this was the feature that defined the silhouette. It is important to stress that none of these pieces was intended for use. In owning them, people proved their liking for novelty, and would display them on sideboards, which was also a way of showing off their wealth. Today, estimates start at €1,500 for the simplest models (with most at around €3,000) and go up to €10,000 for a late 16th-century Venetian glass with a foot formed by a hollow knob on a base decorated with fine white fili. The expert is overjoyed to find this collection again, which she knows well: in 2008, she presented several pieces from it in her gallery as part of "One hundred French glasses, 1550-1750 - Treasures from private collections". One was a long-necked bottle produced in Champagne in around 1722 (h. 44 cm, €9,000/12,000): a historical piece bearing the seal of Louis XV's coronation. The group is rounded off by some curiosities, including a remarkable Allegory of the Immaculate Conception in translucent enamel on copper and coral in a painted wooden frame (€30,000/40,000), bought from the Kugels. While not illustrating the art of glasswork, this piece is bound to attract attention as well.