Treasured: Star Object – Chemistry Glassware


Hello again!

We have more to tell you about are fabulous exhibition, Treasured, which is on right now at the Gateway Galleries, St Andrews, displaying some of the University of St Andrews’ hidden treasures. The exhibition will close 14th December 2013 so run along fast. In past blogs we’ve told you about how the exhibition came together and how we created the programme of events to go with it. Now we want to look in more detail at the stars of the show….the objects! This is the first in a series of blogs picking out individual objects that we think are inspiring or intriguing or beautiful and deserve a moment in the spotlight.

Kirstin Bruges (former Curatorial Trainee) has chosen to highlight the fragile Chemistry glassware. Read on to find out more, and keep your eye out for more Treasured star object blogs to come.

Star object

For me, the stunning chemistry glassware dating from 1811 is a star object of the exhibition as it displays high levels of skill and execution by its maker.  This piece of chemistry glassware is believed to have been purchased by a University professor, Robert Briggs, through the Edinburgh dealer and instrument maker Alexander Allan. Our University archives hold the receipt, dated 7th October 1811, for the purchase of 100 pieces of scientific equipment, including chemical glassware. The glassware was found in the tower of St Salvator’s Chapel in the 1920s. Despite being so fragile it has survived in near-perfect condition. The piece on display in Treasured is one of 12 rare surviving glassware items from the same date (The others are kept in our Collections Centre – to see these and many more Treasures behind the scenes in our store, come along to a special tour ‘Hidden Treasures of the Store’ on 6th November – see our website for more details

University Glassblowers

Yes it is true; a glassblower was employed by the University from around 1900 until 2010. They worked onsite in the Chemistry department making it possible for academics to develop complex experiments quickly. It was common for glassware pieces to be manufactured onsite in the laboratories, as once they were made they were often too large to fit through the doorways!

Colin Smith was the last glassblower employed by the University (1979 to 2010). Here he is in action on site in the Chemistry department.

glassblowing glassblowing1

And here is what he had to say when we asked him what the job had been like:

“Being onsite, instant repair of glassware that was damaged was a great advantage. Some large research items such as Vacuum Lines, could span over 10ft long by 6ft high were built in the lab.

Glassblowing in a chemistry department is a very complicated thing to describe  as every day there was a new task. The only thing that stayed the same in my work was that the glass was heated in a flame from either a bench burner or a hand torch and with bigger items I used a lathe burner.

In the early days before borosilicate the temperature for melting the glass was lower and it only needed a gas and air mix in the burner, the air was produced by foot bellows below the bench or at the lathe which the glassblower would pump by his feet. Today the burner is a gas and oxygen mix coming from an oxygen cylinder”.

In the Gallery

In the exhibition we also have a magnificent glassware sculpture by Antony Stern, Golden Jubilee (2003). This piece has also been created with blown glass, but for a very different purpose. Golden Jubilee is an artwork and Anthony Stern has used molten glass colours to behave like liquid paint which freeze in a moment of fusion; layering the colours to create depth and perspective.

detail, 'Jubilee Glass' by Antony Stern
detail, ‘Jubilee Glass’ by Anthony Stern

Come and take a look for yourself to see these two different but equally Treasured pieces of glass from the University Collections.

Bye for now! Keep a look out for our next blog to find out more about the lithograph of the ‘Interior of St Paul’s Cathedral (Dundee)’ by Stewart Carmichael.

Written by Kirstin Bruges, Curatiorial Trainee (Collections), 2012/13


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