This month’s featured museum pieces were especially fun to work on, three sets of rare figural Imperial Glass - a set of candleholders, a set of bookends, and a set of bird figurines. These prize pieces are obviously of Oriental influence and are part of Imperial’s Cathay line.
Thoroughly researching these pieces really put us through our paces! After accessing large sets of Imperial Glass research material, including the redoubtable Imperial Glass Encyclopedia Volumes 1-3, we serendipitously found a monograph of the original work written by the designer of the three Cathay sets we selected! It included an introduction related to the design concept, packaging instructions, a list of pieces, original sketches, and even suggestions for retailers on how to display and sell the Cathay line. Cathay was designed by Virginia Evans and made its public debut on Monday, April 25, 1949. The Cathay literature we found included a polite request not to distribute these items before this date! The opening text in the sales guide includes a lengthy introduction that included a comparison between Western ways of life and those of the east, specifically the Chinese.
Evans designed the Cathay line because she felt that Westerners confined monuments to parks and museums. By contrast, the Chinese treasured and celebrated small, intimate sculptures carved from jade, amber, and wood. For Evans, these miniature objects d’art inspired introspection. In designing the Cathay line, Evans researched Chinese culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History, Cooper Union, The Brooklyn Museum, The Philadelphia Museum, The Field Museum of Natural History, The Carnegie Institute, Freer Gallery, Smithsonian, and Library of Congress. Evans wandered the halls of academia and art making sketches and taking notes. In addition to copious amounts of research in museums and libraries, Evans also consulted many collectors and importers of Chinese antiquities.
After the initial design of the new crystal collection, a name was chosen. “Cathay” was the title given to northern China by Marco Polo. It was commonly used to refer to China throughout the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. By the time Evans designed her line of crystal for Imperial Glass, Cathay had become a literary name for what we now refer to as the People’s Republic of China. In her accompanying literature for the Cathay line (which we still feel VERY fortunate to have discovered for this feature!), Evans indicates that American consumers “are ready for new, different, sound, and interesting gift items in fine crystal.” Further, the literature states, “The finish of Cathay Crystal items is different and interesting! It is not the old-fashioned Lalique-type finish nor is it at all similar to the finishes which have been literally ‘stolen’ from original Lalique pieces by many manufacturers in recent years.” Evans goes on to counsel potential sales people for these items, “Every hostess is interested in conversation topics which will delight her guests and friends. So emphasize that each Cathay piece has a most unusual story – one of significance and basic Chinese lore.”
To that end, our first selected Cathay pieces are a pair of candleholders that Imperial called Candle Servants. The distinct style of these pieces is based on the look of servants in the homes of the highest nobility in Cathay. These candleholders are a variation of a collection of clay figurines that were found buried with nobility between 618-907 A.D. Placing clay figurines of servants with the deceased replaced the practice of burying loyal servants alive with their deceased masters. Our second Cathay selections are bookends in the Lu-Tung design. Evans’ literature states that these pieces are recommended as gifts for men. Lu-Tung is considered one of the eight immortals of Taoism, and the literature advises that Lu-Tung is easily recognized by his head-dress. The story of Lu-Tung indicates that he attained immortality and spent over 400 years roaming the earth, serving the kingdoms of Cathay, and slaying dragons. He carried with him a sword that rendered him invisible. Our last Cathay museum selections are two Scolding Birds figurines, shown in the Azalea pink color with a frosted finish. Scolding Birds resemble blue jays and are representations of native Chinese birds.
As you can see, these Imperial Glass items are some of the most historically interesting pieces that we have in our Museum. However, like all of our featured Museum selections, these pieces are not for sale. We keep them on display though, and we invite you to stop by and visit our Showroom and Museum and view these and many Imperial Glass pieces that are for sale, many with histories just as rich! Our Showroom and Museum are open from 9:00am to 7:00pm ET, 7 days (except holidays). The Showroom and Museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. Make plans to come see us, and leave with a few pieces of Imperial Glass, and a story to tell that will be the envy of your family and friends.