This distinctly shaped glass vessel, with its thin tapering neck and wide body, was specially designed for growing flowering plants in their off-season, a process known as ‘forcing bulbs’. It is often called a hyacinth vase, after the fragrant flower commonly grown indoors. One would fill the vase with enough water that the bulb, when placed on top, would just touch the surface of the water without being totally immersed. As the flower began to grow, the bottom of the vase would fill with long, white roots.
Europeans began cultivating hyacinths and forcing flower bulbs in vases during the seventeenth century. The Dutch were forerunners in the practice, which quickly spread to England, Germany and other nations. In the early eighteenth century, new species of hyacinths were introduced to England from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Considered too delicate to thrive in the natural English climate, these flowers would be grown exclusively indoors, where their heady aroma and bright colors could be safely appreciated. Great pains were required in cultivating a hyacinth; bulbs grown from seed could only be brought to flower after four or five years. Because of this, flowers could reach prices as high as fifty or a hundred gilders in the mid-eighteenth century. Although hyacinths were greatly valued, their worth never reached the astronomical heights that the tulip had during the seventeenth century speculative bubble now known as ‘tulipmania’.
Numerous botany publications offered instructions on forcing flower bulbs. In April, 1734, the Englishman William Curteis advised the use of glass jars, as opposed to clay pots, “for seeing the progress the roots made and for knowing when they want to be cleaned.” The same year, the Dutch florist Nicolas Kampen advised displaying the flowers “in a pyramidal form upon semicircular shelves, rising one above the other, and gradually diminishing“. This arrangement recalls the delft flower pyramids that were popular for the display of tulips. By the mid-eighteenth century, the hyacinth was held by many in greater esteem than the tulip. In 1768, the Marquis de Sainte Simone, published Des Jacinthe, the first comprehensive study of the hyacinth. He asserted that there were nearly two thousand named varieties in Haarlem at that time, indicating the extraordinary popularity of the flower’s cultivation.
This vase is made of clear, uncut glass and is considered to be Anglo-Irish. Undecorated British glass was common until the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Ireland’s glass production closely followed English fashions and did not develop a distinctly national style until the late eighteenth century. From 1745-1780, Ireland was prohibited from exporting glass to England; during these years, the Irish only supplied glass to their own market. In time, however, Irish glass came to be recognized as among the finest in the world and is still eagerly sought on the international market.
Rebekah Pollock is a decorative arts historian specializing in European ceramics and eighteenth-century print culture.
- Miller, Philip. The Gardeners Dictionary: Containing the Methods of Cultivating and Improving the Kitchen, Fruit and Flower Garden, As Also the Physick Garden, Wilderness, Conservatory, and Vineyard. London: Printed for the author, and sold by C. Rivington, 1735.
- Kampen, Nicolas .The Dutch Florist, Or, True Method of Managing All Sorts of Flowers with Bulbous Roots. London: Printed for R. Baldwin, (1764), 37.
- William Curteis. Experiments and Observations on Bulbous Roots, Plants, and Seeds grown in water. No 432. P. 2670, April 1734.In The Philosophical Transactions (from the Year 1732, to the Year 1744…Abridged: And Disposed Under General Heads, the Latin Papers Being Translated into English.by John Martyn, F.r.s. Professor of Botany in the University of Cambridge. in Two Volumes, Viz. Vol. Viii Containing, Part I. the Mathematical Papers. Part Ii.the Physiological Papers. Vol. Ix. Containing, Part Iii.the Anatomical and Medical Papers. Part Iv. the Historical and Miscellaneous Papers. London: Printed for W. Innys, C. Hitch, T. Astley in Pater-Noster-Row, T. Woodward, C. Davis in Holbourn, and R. Manby and H.S. Cox on Ludgate-Hill, (1747), 825.
- Kampen, 34.