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A name in antiques... the beilby family

In July 2011, a lucky UK car boot sale enthusiast sold three opaque twist wine glasses at auction for $24,000. He had paid less than $1 each for them. The secret of his success was in the name - the glasses came from the famed Beilby workshop.

The Beilby family of William, Ralph and Mary were all skilled glass decorators working in Newcastle in the UK in the 1760s. It's been suggested that they pioneered the technique of firing enamels onto glass, but what has never been in dispute is the amazing quality of their work and its attraction to collectors.

William Beilby was the oldest of four boys and a girl born to goldsmith and jeweller William senior and his wife Mary. When the family moved from Birmingham to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1757, William jnr and his sister Mary found work as enamellers for local glassmakers. In 1761 William Beilby became the first man in England to fire enamels into glass, a technique that allowed the decoration to become integral to the glass itself.

In his 1946 book, English Glass, author W.B. Honey notes: 'Painting in enamel colours was not attempted in England until the 18th century. But soon after 1750 two softs of enamel decoration were practised with great success. The most original work was done by a family named Beilby...in particular by William and Mary, brother and sister..the enameling is exquisite in colour, as cool bluish white and a soft turquoise predominating.'

Although William taught Mary to paint enamels and they worked together from 1760 to 1778, her skill is not considered to be quite to the same standard as her brother. As William's reputation grew he became sought after for commissions of commemorative pieces and heraldic glasses, with the most complex works produced by the firm being the large glasses and decanters that were made as special orders for aristocratic families or special events (ship launches were a favourite). The Beilby output ranged from simple white floral or bird motifs that were often painted around the bowl of a wine or cordial glass, to complex architectural vignettes and polychrome enamel armorials (some with fictitious heraldry, for customers whose ancestry was not quite as aristocratic as they would perhaps have liked). Today, less than 100 armorial goblets by Beilby are known to exist.

In 1767 a young artist named Thomas Bewick joined the Beilby firm as an apprentice to Ralph Beilby, who specialized in the engraving of heraldry. He fell in love with Mary, but nothing ever eventuated and in 1774 Mary suffered a paralytic stroke, ending any likelihood of a marriage. After their mother died in 1778 William Beilby moved to Battersea and in 1785 he married Ellen Purton, who was twenty-five years his junior. The couple moved to Fife three years later and were joined there by Mary, who died in 1797. William Beilby died in 1819.

The majority of the firm's output centred on drinking glasses, and the ones seen most often are those with simple decoration - usually fruiting vines or swags - on an opaque twist stem. Even simple examples can sell for anything between $1500 and $6000 and when we look at the more complex designs, such as landscapes that often incorporate details from contemporary printed sources (The Ladies Amusement was a favourite of the times, especially with porcelain painters) there's not much change from a price range of $3000 to $15,000. And even that seems cheap compared to the record-breaking price of $175,000 paid for a Beilby goblet in November 2011 (pictured left).

Sold in London by Bonhams, the goblet featured the coat of arms of Prince William V of Orange and was one of only four Beilby goblets featuring royal coats of arms still in private hands. "It's also one of only 16 glasses to be signed," said Bonhams Head of Glass, Simon Cottle, "and at an imposing 30.2cm it's by far the largest of all Beilby goblets." Cottle believes the goblet may have paved the way for William's entry to a contemporary valuable Dutch glass market. "Its large size and colourful enamel decoration would have been particularly impressive to the Dutch at a time when their craftsmen were producing smaller, engraved pieces," he added.

Beilby remains impressive to collectors today, so much so that even quite significant damage can be overlooked. In 2006, a polychromed goblet that had been provenance as being made for the Beilby-Thompson family of Mickelthwaite Grange, but had lost its foot, was sold at auction for $19,500. When it reappeared at auction four years later with restoration, it more than doubled that price to sell for $48,000.

This information first appeared in Issue 50 of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.