Glass: Barbara Wirth's Secret Garden

On 02 October 2020, by Anne Doridou-Heim

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.
Estimate: €20,000/25,000

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.
 

Bernard Perrot (1640-1709), Orléans, second half of the 17th century, vitro-porcelain and translucent red glass Bacchus straddling a colou

Bernard Perrot (1640-1709), Orléans, second half of the 17th century, vitro-porcelain and translucent red glass Bacchus straddling a colourless glass barrel with translucent red fillets, h. 19.5 cm.
Estimate: €8,000/9000

Total Transparency

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.
 

Venice or Venetian style, late 16th century, "magelei" cup with gilded rim, standing on a hollow baluster foot with gilt ladder stem mould

Venice or Venetian style, late 16th century, "magelei" cup with gilded rim, standing on a hollow baluster foot with gilt ladder stem moulded decoration, h. 11 cm, diam. 12.2 cm.
Estimate: €8,000/9,000

Shapely Feet

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.
 

3 questions for
Sylvie Lhermite-King
antique glass specialist
 
General view of the wood-panelled cabinet housing Barbara Wirth's antique glassware collection at the Château de Brécy.

General view of the wood-panelled cabinet housing Barbara Wirth's antique glassware collection at the Château de Brécy.


You were at the origin of this collection. Can you tell us how it came about?
We met in 1989. At the time, Barbara was collecting beautiful popular glassware: the pieces presented in the second part of the catalogue. We soon developed a lasting friendship and sense of trust, and together we "constructed" a collection based on her taste and my knowledge. Barbara always preferred pure, elegant forms, like the admirable Venetian and Venetian-style pieces of the second half of the 16th century, and early 17th-century French glassware, especially from the South-west.

What does this group represent in the history of 16th and 17th-century glassware?
The collection we are selling on 13 October is important because of the choice and quality of pieces selected with great discernment for their elegance, and because these objects are the quintessence of unostentatious refinement. Their transparency and delicate execution are due to expertise now lost forever, and the result of an extraordinary alchemical process.

Through your exhibitions and books, you have contributed to the rediscovery of antique glass in France and the crucial role played by French workshops. How is the market doing today?
Traditionally, the taste for collecting glass was more prevalent in Britain and America. French glassware was only gradually discovered, firstly through a few leading French collectors. In the early 2000s, the auction houses Gros & Delettrez and Bailly-Pommery sold a few major collections. Then in my Rue de Beaune gallery, I presented the exhibition "One hundred French glasses, 1550-1750 - Treasures from private collections" with a catalogue, and this helped to foster this interest. Today, there are many lovers of French glass, but these pieces are rare, and several foreign museums are interested and have acquired them. So the arrival of this collection on the market is all the more exciting!
Tuesday 13 October 2020 - 14:00 - Live
Salle 4 - Hôtel Drouot - 9, rue Drouot - 75009
Gros & Delettrez
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