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Sometimes objects are not what they seem

Posted on July 27, 2020 at 2:00 PM by Adrienne Gennett

When I first started at University Museums just over seven and a half years ago, our Director, Lynette Pohlman, took me into the Brunnier Art Museum to show me the empty central space she had left for me to curate a small exhibition within…which was a terrifying first day surprise. But I knew what I needed to do to quickly create this exhibition--to spend the next two weeks in the then cramped storage rooms digging through the crowded shelves to put my hands on all of the decorative arts I could find. It was in this time that I first realized the diverse and eclectic interests of Ann Brunnier and found a kindred spirit who loved the decorative arts as much as I do.

That small exhibition included several themes, one of which was “Imitation,” a subject that I love to explore with students and visitors when touring them through the decorative arts collection. One of my favorites, and our Collections Manager Allison Sheridan’s favorites, is a small toilet bottle that one would never think could be glass, but as you get closer and the light hits it just right, the secret is revealed. Glass has always been a great imitator, used for thousands of years to imitate more precious and expensive stones. This small bottle is a perfect example of imitation, as it looks as though it is made of carved agate, the beautiful stone filled with swirling colors often used for jewelry, seals, and much more. The ruse is revealed when you peer closely and notice a few spots of translucency within the cut facets of the bottle, but you REALLY have to look to find them.

This bottle was made in the Bohemian glass workshop of Friedrich Egermann around 1830. An accomplished chemist and innovator, the polished marbled glass he created was a great success. He called it Lithyalin and patented his technique, but it was quickly copied by other Bohemian glassmakers. The layered and marbled colors are uniquely beautiful and often highlighted with hand painted gilding.

As the 19th century progressed there was growing prosperity and new wealth led to new desires to display the decorative objects individuals now had the ability to purchase. But, of course, some materials were still out of reach for many consumers, large agate being one of those precious stones. Yet glass was not expensive and readily available. When made by a skilled glassmaker, these objects were exceptionally beautiful in their own right, but within reach of a more middle-class market. Today we might call it “keeping up with the Joneses,” buying things that display our good taste to those who may see them, even if they don’t say that much about who we really are as a person.

I continue to use this sweet little Toilet Bottle throughout exhibitions and in classes to discuss the many layers of context we can learn from exploring it – from the historical, to the cultural, to important innovations made in glass. It was one of Ann Brunnier’s first donated objects that I put on display and often makes me wish I had a chance to pick her brain about her great and eclectic tastes in the decorative arts.

OBJECT: Toilet Bottle with Stopper, c. 1830, Workshop of Friedrich Egermann. Lithyalin glass. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the Ann and Henry Brunnier Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 3.6.81ab


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