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Victorian Reverse Glass Paintings - 1880-1917

Sinking of the Titanic - Apr 1912

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
In the early 1900s, as immigrant traffic to North America increased rapidly, Germany and Britain competed in building the largest and fastest passenger liners to capture the market.

In 1911, the White Star Line launched the sensation of the era, the Titanic, reputed to be so large and safe she was widely considered to be "unsinkable."

On her maiden voyage, in April 1912, racing to win the Blue Riband, for making the fastest passage across the Atlantic, she hit an iceberg in the middle of the night and started to sink.

In a "Night to Remember" she went down with some 1200 passengers and sent a generation into shock.

Sinking of the Titanic, April 1912
Orig. reverse painting on glass - Image Size - 41 x 51 cm
Found - Brampton, ON

A very rare and marvellous period piece, in extra fine condition, is this "one-of-a-kind" reverse painted on glass portrait of the sinking which shocked the Edwardian era before World War I. This is not a litho or a print but an actual painted work. But, this particular image was a "set piece." It was produced from a template which
was copied from a print. So with reverse glass the usual copying process was reversed - while in painting only one original existed, which was endlessly duplicated in mass produced printed copies, in reverse glass paintings, though a duped original picture was copied, an artist painted original was the result.

Canada & the Titanic: The radio was used to send what is probably the first Mayday (M'aidez) by wireless, in history, as the ship was sinking. The signal was first picked up by the remote wireless station at Cape Race, on the far south eastern tip of Newfoundland left. It relayed the message to New York.

Ships from Canada went out to pick up survivors and search for bodies. Some 328 corpses were brought back to Halifax, where they were buried in three city cemeteries. Over a third had no names. The largest group is in Fairview Cemetery, buried in long rows, in a specially marked Titanic plot, so that tourists can find it.

The paint, being on glass, was quite subject to blistering, over the decades, with changing humidity, so few of these have survived the 90 plus years since they were made. This is only the second one of this version of the Titanic we have ever come across.

This must have been a rush job to capture the market while the sinking was transfixing the public's attention - how else do you explain that the liner is sinking stern first, when the enquiry established she went down bow first... The sea was also calm when she sank, not the wild maelstrom of waves that the artist thought made for a more convincing picture to move the audience.

But then again, the artist was at least as accurate as CNN's coverage - on a good day - of the wars in the Middle East.

Sinking of the Lusitania - 1915

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
In 1915, during World War 1, the German Navy was waging submarine warfare against British shipping.

The Cunard liner Lusitania, sailing out of New York, rounded the coast of southern Ireland and was torpedoed by German submarine U-20 under Capt. Walter Schwieger.

She sank in 15 minutes taking some 1200 passengers to the bottom, including 115 Americans.

This reverse glass painting was one version that was produced to commemorate the event.

Sinking of the Lusitania, May 1915
Orig. reverse painting on glass - Size - 46 x 61 cm
Found - Dundas, ON

A fairly rare and marvellous period piece is this "one-of-a-kind" reverse painted on glass portrait of the sinking which shocked the civilized world during World War I. This is not a litho or a print but an actual painted work.

The artist started with a blank piece of glass. A black outline drawing was taped to the front - the viewing side - then the glass flipped over. The black outlines were traced in black India ink or paint. When dry, the paint was applied in stages to fill in the outline panels, very much like in the paint by numbers paintings. So though the paintings were all originals, because they were painted over a traced form, they looked identical though the brush strokes of colour varied.

Being glass, and the paint on glass subject to blistering, over the decades, with changing humidity, few of these have survived the 90 plus years since they were made. This is only the second copy of this version of the Lusitania we have ever come across.

The Sinking of the Lusitania - May 7, 1915

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Another version of a reverse glass painting of the Lusitania that one sometimes encounters.

This one features Schwieger's U-20 in the background left, just after she has shot off the torpedo that explodes against the ship, causing Lusitania to start to heel.

This painting has suffered more paint loss than the other one, especially on the funnels. However a good painter can restore this to mint condition with little effort.

Sinking of the Lusitania, May 1915 - Anonymous
Orig. reverse painting on glass - Image Size - 46 x 61 cm
Found - Dundas, ON

Above, the foil and paint combination on the back of the reverse glass painting.

This version raises one of the controversies that has still not been explained satisfactorily to this day - the second torpedo! - shown leaving the sub right...

A short time after the first torpedo strike another massive explosion tore through the side of the ship just abaft where the first torpedo had struck.

The British press denounced the savagery of shooting a second torpedo into a passenger ship that was already mortally crippled. To many, the second torpedo was morally worse than the first!

Below, the second torpedo strikes just behind the hole left by the first in a British postcard from 1915, which has more than just the date wrong!

Captain Schwieger's log says clearly that he fired only one torpedo... So how do you explain the second explosion?

Some say illegaly carried munitions for the war effort must have been ignited and blew the ship up, not the torpedo of the Hun at all...

The most recent research - by Lucien Ballard's diving team - suggested that maybe coal dust in an empty bunker ignited and caused the second deadly explosion.

Nothing conclusive has been proven. Except that the second torpedo, which the artist clearly shows leaving the sub, was never fired. Just another example of war propaganda.

The Old Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, ON - 1916

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
The first Canadian Parliament Building was built in the early 1860s, on Parliament Hill, overlooking the Ottawa River left.

In 1916, in the midst of the war hysteria of World War I, fire broke out in the middle of the winter, and destroyed the entire centre block that is shown here.

It had to be torn down completely - with the exception of the library in the background.

The Ottawa Germans were blamed, but likely a malfunctioning stove caused the blaze.

This reverse glass was painted in 1917 in commemoration..

The Original Parliament Buildings, burned in 1916 - 1917
Orig. reverse painting on glass - Size oa - 61 cm
Found - Milton, ON
This reverse painting on glass is painted on convex glass, which was often favoured for this kind of work.

Shannon & Chesapeake Reverse Glass Painting
Sold for $5,100 at auction, East Dennis, Mass, USA
July 28, 2006

Reverse painting on glass was at the height of popularity from 1815 to 1850, when it was widely used to decorate the glass doors and window panels on mantle clocks.

It flourished again, with a burst of popularity, at the end of the Victorian era of the 1890s.

This time the technique was used on larger glass panes of the 51 x 61 cm size and frequently featured scenes of castles and bridges, often in moonlight.

Memorabilia or commemorative subjects - such as the Shannon and the Chesapeake, of War of 1812 fame, above, are much harder to find, especially in the fine condition as this one is.

Many reverse paintings on glass were done on large oval convex glass frames, a favourite being the Capitol, Washington, DC, left, and the Statue of Liberty below.

The Spanish-American War, and the exploits of the American fleet in battle, made naval themes a popular subject. Below, the Battleship Georgia.

Above, the Georgia shows the detail that was possible with reverse glass painting, with the black outlines that were first applied before the colour was added. The Blériot type airplane helps date the painting to circa 1909.

It and George Washington left, done sometime in the late 19th century, also shows the ravages of a hundred years of changing temperature and humidity as paint and glass expand differently over time, causing paint to flake off in spots. An artist can fix that up.

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