Purple and Green
Much more information on Rolled Figured Glass is available on this page
Take a stroll through a federation-era neighbourhood and you will see many windows fitted with figured and colored glass, mostly in bottle green or purple with the occasional panes of blue or amber. The glass is used in doors, door sidelights, fanlights, multi-paned windows and transom windows and it comes in a fairly predictable range of patterns and colours. In our house the main doors into the central hallway have large, green panes of dimpled “Granite” pattern glass and the living room French doors a purple "Japanese" floral pattern.
The technical term for this type of glass is “rolled figured glass” or “cathedral glass” and in colonial and federation-era Queenslanders it was a popular choice for formal spaces. For some reason the more widespread use of lead lights in NSW and Victorian houses was not adopted in the Brisbane suburbs.
The panes were manufactured by squeezing semi-molten glass between two water-cooled metal rollers where the bottom roller was imprinted with the negative of the pattern and the top roller was smooth. Traces of the process can be seen particularly on the “flat” sides of old panes which are rich in small cracks, undulations and other imperfections giving them a very rustic and organic look - like boiled candy hardened on a marble slab. Due to the chemical impurity and many imperfections the light penetration is low compared to other types of window glass, contributing to the dusky interior of period houses.
The glass was mainly produced in the UK by the leading manufacturers Chance Brothers in Birmingham and Pilkington in Lancashire. There was no locally manufactured alternative - throughout the 19th century and well into the 1920s all “flat” glass for windows was imported from Europe. The first Aussie manufacturer was Australian Window Glass in the late 20's followed by Pilkington Australia, both using European technology. Australian Window Glass was the first local producer of rolled figured glass starting as late as 1931.
Rowe Bros & Co catalogue, 1907, ornamental glass designs. Copy courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum. Click to enlarge.
If you have this type of glass in your house and a pane is broken don't despair - reproductions of some of the classical patterns are available. The reproductions include the "Jap Floral" patterns used throughout our sitting and dining rooms, which is reassuring. In fact one of the panes was replaced by a previous owner. The new glass is almost identical to the original although the modern version is thicker as it is a laminated product (the patterns are made in clear glass and backed with colored glass to match the traditional tints) - and - the new product is perfectly flat on the reverse as opposed to the antique glass. You may be able to find the original product in salvage yards.
The green glass in our external doors filters the daylight and floods our central hallway. Many have pointed out that the colour is overpowering and they are probably right, but it's been a green hallway for a century and we are not about to change it. One day the panes will break and be replaced with something else, but I’m hoping that's a project for a future owner.
- National Library of Australia,
- The Federation House, a Restoration Guide; I. Evans; 1986
- Powerhouse Museum;