It’s 150 years since the birth of René Lalique. Roadshow specialist Eric Knowles celebrates the work of this master glass designer
René Lalique and I go back. Well, certainly as far back as 1971 when, while working for a local antiques dealer, I came across a set of dessert bowls moulded as scallop shells and found myself well and truly mesmerised by their strange, milky blue opalescence. French luxury goods tended to be thin on the ground in my part of Lancashire so when I moved down to London in 1976 to join Bonhams auction house, it was a revelation. The capital appeared to be awash with Lalique glass, which had me totally captivated and hungry to discover more about the man behind it.
Prices have been stable in recent years and, although his larger and rarer pieces command prices that might make you wince, individual wine glasses and other small pieces of tableware can sometimes be had for less than £100. Around £200 will buy really a rather respectable piece – a small price to pay for something by a man who is, in my opinion, the premier glass designer of the 20th century.
Born in 1860, René Jules Lalique had a love of nature from an early age. Having been apprenticed to Parisian jeweller Louis Aucoc, he found fame around 1900, also as a jeweller. But in many ways, it was glass, not jewellery, that was Lalique’s first love. From the early 1890s, he owned his own glass furnace for making small items that he incorporated into his jewelled creations, which were the toast of the aristocracy. In 1902, he designed the massive glass and steel doors for his new home and atelier at 40 Cours la Reine, today renamed Cours Albert.
In 1907, Lalique’s neighbour, celebrated perfumer Francois Coty, invited him to design embossed gilt paper labels for his scent bottles. Legend has it that Lalique took umbrage and undertook the commission on the strict understanding that he design both bottle and label. The result was a rapid increase in Coty’s sales and, before long, many of the country’s perfume houses were knocking on Lalique’s door.
Just two years later, demand was such that he purchased his own large-scale works at Combs la Ville, about 40 miles east of Paris, where he began to produce a demi-crystal type of glass that contained 12 per cent lead oxide content (half the usual amount). The result was a more malleable medium that had good definition and a warmer colour. Demi-crystal continued as Lalique’s preferred choice until as late as 1950, after which the company decided to favour the much whiter full lead crystal still in use today.
A very good year
The great Paris exhibition of that year, known as the ‘Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes’, brought Lalique further fame. Not only did he design some of the lighting, he was also the man behind the exhibition’s foremost attraction: an enormous illuminated fountain, described by eyewitnesses as ‘the work of a magician’. Standing some 50 feet high, it was composed of 17 graduated tiers supporting eight frosted and polished glass figurines known as Source de la Fontaine and won international acclaim.
Lalique also walked away with the gold medal for the best piece of industrially produced glass in the exhibition with his ‘Tourbillons’ (or ‘Whirlwinds’) vase in polished clear glass heightened with black enamel. A rare find today – only a few hundred were produced – these can easily achieve £25,000-£30,000 at auction.
The pieces, often echoing his childhood fascination with nature, or suggestive of a more adult fascination with the female form, were equally bewitching. It appears my Roadshow colleagues consider me to be something of a kindred spirit in the latter department and I concede that I never tire of Lalique’s women, whether as cavorting nudes in a Bacchanalian orgy of excess or as nymphs swathed in gossamer drapery. Happily, it seems I’m not alone. A 1927 ‘Bacchantes’ vase sold last year for £11,500, while a rare ‘Vitesse’ car mascot made £14,500.
Perhaps his most adventurous designs were for the SS Normandie, launched in 1932, for which he created a dazzling first-class dining salon with an illuminated glass ceiling and side panels, plus a dozen glass fountains thrown in for good measure. Alas, the ship was destroyed by fire while at anchor in New York in 1942 – but another of his architectural commissions still stands testament to his genius at St Matthews at Millbrook on Jersey.
Here, at the request of Lady Trent in memory of her late husband Jesse Boot (of pharmacy fame), Lalique installed a massive glass cruciform moulded with lily flowers and a lady chapel guarded by attendant angels. The building is now referred to simply as The Glass Church and is visited by Lalique admirers from all over the world.
Lalique died in 1945 and was succeeded by Marc, his son. Marc was recognised as a highly competent designer, as was Marc’s daughter, Marie-Claude, who succeeded her father as art director. But today, most collectors are concerned with René Lalique designs produced during his lifetime (and mostly signed ‘R. Lalique’ – Marc’s pieces are marked ‘Lalique France’). Opalescent in their softer-hued demi-crystal, I will never tire of his ability to convey elegance and sensuality, whether in a leaf-inspired bowl or a lovely vase covered in lean, leggy ladies.
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