There’s a beautiful story by AS Byatt about an ice princess who is courted by a number of suitors. The one who captures her heart has made her a sparkling gift of an ice castle and so she agrees to marry him. But the ice castle is made of glass, and glass is made of melted sand, and sand comes from burning hot deserts. She becomes a prisoner in the only safe place you can keep such a person in this environment: deep within the mountain. Even the prince’s passion burns her. It’s a stunning story, and ever since I read it I have never looked at glass the same way.
You can imagine then, what our IWCU trip to the Nationaal Glasmuseum in Leerdam was like. I love the magic of glass, how it is firm yet fragile, how it is a common domestic material yet can yield art that leaves you speechless. The museum is filled with elegant objects that bend light in their prisms or seem from one angle to be the colour of the sea and from another to be as transparent as air.
When we arrived we were told we’d be given a brief introduction, but instead we were given almost a full guided tour – which we found utterly charming, and we suspect our guide was equally charmed by us. He told us myriad details which brought the whole experience to life, such as the fact that red glass used to be made with gold; apart from the expense of this, you must be extremely careful because – like toffee – red turns to brown if you don’t take the heat away at precisely the right moment.
The museum holds a series of ‘orange apples’, the first of which was made to celebrate Queen Juliana's 18th birthday in 1927. In 1938, another ‘orange apple’ was made for the occasion of the birth of Princess Beatrix – but because of the recession they had to make it from recycled reflector glass from bicycles. Isn’t that the most Dutch thing you’ve ever heard?
Even the story of the building itself is interesting: it is two houses joined together by an enclosed walkway (they call them bridges) on each of the three floors. These houses were formerly the residents of the director and financial director of the glass factory.
The Glasmuseum currently has three exhibitions: one about Ma’ayan Pesach that combines glass with second-hand objects to cherish stories told to her by women of Tel Aviv; another about Meesterglasblazer Henk Verweij, his dedication to the craft and the precision of his style and works; and the third about Geir Nustad, a Norwegian glassblower trained in Sweden and the Netherlands about his connection to Sami heritage. A video plays on a loop describing each of these artists and their work.
We didn’t go into the Glasblazerij this time, but they run courses in the spring and there’s a good chance we’ll be back there soon!
NB: The story is called ‘Cold’ and it’s in the book Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice.
By Ruth Davies