Sunday, 19 February 2017

Birmingham's Silver Fish*


At the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle in County Durham is a magnificent swan automaton made in silver in 1773 by James Cox in conjunction with John Joseph Merlin; both were inventors, the latter keeping Merlin's Mechanical Museum (from 1783), and the former a jeweller, toymaker and producer of large and extravagant 'sing-songs' that were sent to the East.* The Swan was formed of intricately shaped and layered silver to produce the feathers, hiding the mechanics that make the swan preen itself and then curl its neck to the stream below (made with twisted glass rods that turn and catch the light to mimic water) and catch a little silver fish, one of many that wiggle amongst the ripples (see below). The swan then lifts its head and gobbles down the little fish. It is a beautiful piece of mechanical art.


In 1774 it was in display in Cox's museum in London, and was still there in 1791, once Cox's Museum had become Davie's Grand Museum, but after that its movements are hazy till it is next heard of in France in the 1860s. What is interesting is that in the early 1800s the Birmingham silversmiths seem to have, either by accident or design, copied the design of the fishes to make intricate saleable items (below).

A silver fish vinaigrette made by Joseph Taylor in
Birmingham in about 1814.
These are vinaigrettes, which were designed to contain a sponge soaked in a sweet smelling oil that could be surreptitiously sniffed if you were unfortunate enough to be sat next to an unpleasantly fragrant person at dinner, or elsewhere. These were made by Birmingham makers such as Joseph Taylor, William Lea, Joseph Willmore, John Lawrence and others. Like Merlin's fish, they are delicately engraved with the fish's scales with an articulated body, cleverly riveted inside, so that the fish wriggles from side to side.

The Mount Holyoke Museum in Massachusetts have
an eighteenth century fish in a shagreen case,
definitely English, but the exact location of
manufacture is unknown.**

It is impossible to know if the Swan influenced the small silver fish produced later (or if earlier fish vinaigrettes, like the Mount Holyoke fish, influenced the Swan), especially as the automatons movements are hazy in the early 1800s, but it is not too fanciful to postulate that Merlin and Cox's Swan inspired a silversmith, who saw the impressive bird, and had a moment of inspiration. Whatever is the case, the little silver fish are some of the quirkiest productions from the Birmingham silversmiths, and frequently unknown as a Birmingham artefact.



* Possibly made by Merlin and bought by Cox to show in his museum
** They date the fish at circa 1750 to 1760, but as a rough estimate, it is difficult to know whether this fish was made before or after the Swan.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Filigree Nutmeg Grater*

#ObjectOfTheDay
#Filigree
Silver filigree nutmeg grater, probably Samuel Pemberton, c. 1800.
Held at Birmingham Assay Office.
Find out more about Birmingham filigree here. This delicate object was made to be carried on the person, and would have held a nutmeg in the larger compartment [see below], and had a surface for grating which opened the other side. It was fashionable over the eighteenth century to carry nutmegs which could be grated into coffee, chocolate, punch and other alcoholic drinks. Nutmeg was beautifully fragrant, it was expensive -so was a sign of prestige - and some believed it to have medicinal qualities too.

Showing the opening of the grater, with a section
to hold the nutmeg and another for the grater.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Birmingham Enamel Box Nᵒ.1

#ObjectOfTheDay
Lid of enamel box, transfer printed in red and over-painted
in orange and purple. Birmingham, c. 1750-1755.
Held at Wolverhampton Museum and Art Gallery.

The base is gilt copper, which has been
elaborately ornamented.

This enamel  bonbonniere (for sweets) has been transfer printed; the original engraving thought to be by Robert Hancock from a print by Laurent Cars [below], itself copied from a painting by Watteau [also below] called Les Fetes Venetiennes. The scene has been altered slightly, and the couple on the box dance by a river. The base is designed to imitate a basket, complete with handles. It is probably an early example of Birmingham's transfer printing - it has been slightly over-painted, suggesting that it was produced before the technique was mastered. It is though that Robert Hancock was apprenticed in Birmingham, and there are several years after the typical end of the apprenticeship and him being placed producing transfer prints for the Battersea enamel factory in London.

Les Fetes Venetiennes by
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).
Painted c. 1718-1719.

Print of Les Fetes Venetiennes, by 
Laurent Cars (1699-1771).
Date of production unknown.



NOTES
Height: 3cm, Diameter: 5.9cm  EM131

A box with the same imagery was sold at Christie's in 1996 (no picture available) and was described:
'A Birmingham enamel snuff-box 1751-56 Oblong, printed and painted on the cover with Les Fêtes Venitiennes, after Hancock from an engraving by Laurent Cars after Watteau, the slightly waisted sides with figure groups on islands including Infancy, the interior cover printed and painted in sepia with Infancy and Youth after Hancock after Boitard, the base with Autumn after Watteau, with engraved basketweave mounts and shaped thumbpiece 3 3/8in. (8.5cm.) wide'.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

A John Wilkes Lock

#ObjectOfTheDay

Birmingham made 'detector' lock, John Wilkes, c. 1680. V&A.

This lock is from about 1680 and is one of three Birmingham locks made by John Wilkes at the V&A. The working of the lock is described: 'The master of the house could select, by turning the small knob at the top of the lock, the number of bolts (1 to 4) that he wished to put into operation. When set at number four, which is maximum for locking the top four bolts are locked out by just turn of the key, but four turns of the key are required to withdraw these, i.e. one at a time. There is however literally a "sting in the tail" of the top bolt, the one last withdrawn, for it triggers off the twin anti-burglar bottom bolts, and these can only be unlocked by a reverse action of the correct key.'*

Similar locks (or at least parts of them) are held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the MET Museum in New York [below]. The layout and workings are slightly different, but overall the designs are very similar.
Lock,  John Wilkes (of Birmingham), c. 1680. BMAG.

Birmingham lock, c. 1680. MET Museum.
Attributed to John Wilkes as the lock is unsigned.
See more John Wilkes locks here.
*From V&A website.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Filigree Caddy Spoon Nᵒ.3*

#ObjectOfTheDay
#Filigree
A caddy spoon with filigree inset, Thomas Willmore,
Birmingham, 1804. Private collection.
Another Birmingham-made caddy spoon for today, this time by Thomas Willmore, a prominent maker of silver goods in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Find out more about Birmingham's filigree making here.
Hallmark on the spoon, above.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Filigree Thimble & Smelling Bottle Set

#ObjectOfTheDay
#Filigree
Filigree thimble with smelling bottle insert, c. 1780-1800.
Private collection.

In 1779 Matthew Boulton's Soho sold a number of silver and gilt 'Filligree Thimble & Smelling Bottle' sets to Thomas and Theophilus Richards, who ran (probably) Birmingham's finest toy-shop on High Street, sometimes called the 'Birmingham in Miniature'. Silver filigree was exempt from being marked, so it is hard to trace who manufactured it, but the object above is likely to be of Birmingham manufacture.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Filigree Caddy Spoon Nᵒ.2*

#ObjectOfTheDay
#Filigree

'Jockey cap' caddy spoon, made in filigree probably by
Samuel Pemberton, c. 1800. Assay Office
It is difficult to determine where eighteenth-century filigree was made, due to filigree being exempt from being hallmarked. This piece, though, is probably by Samuel Pemberton and is held in the collection at Birmingham's Assay Office, and is personalised with the initials 'JMWG'. Filigree was made in Birmingham from at least the 1740s.

Caddy spoons were used for serving loose tea leaves, and the Birmingham silversmiths made a variety of different kinds.

Find out more about Birmingham's filigree trade here.

Filigree Caddy Spoon Nᵒ.1*

#ObjectOfTheDay
#Filigree
Caddy spoon with filigree inset, Samuel Pemberton, 1802.
Held at Birmingham Assay Office.

Birmingham's filigree making has been little explored, though evidence reveals that the town made large quantities of filigree goods in the eighteenth-century.

Caddy spoons were used for serving tea, and the Birmingham silversmiths made a variety of different kinds. This example was made by Samuel Pemberton in 1802, and has a delicate pattern of engraving on the handle and around the spoon, with a filigree inset.

Find out more about Birmingham's filigree trade here.

Filigree: A Forgotten Birmingham Craft*

#Filigree
Filigree nutmeg grater, probably made by Samuel Pemberton
in Birmingham, c. 1790-1800. Held at the Assay Office.

Birmingham may have been the ‘city of a thousand trades’, but some of those trades are more well-known than others. One that is less recognised is that of filigree making, which involved using flattened wire soldered together to form decorative and delicate patterns, usually in the making of jewellery and small boxes. These small filigree items were popular in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, and many examples survive; though because silver filigree was not required to be marked, their place of production is frequently guesswork. There is evidence though, that Birmingham was central in England’s filigree making during this period. The Encyclopaedia of Geography (1837), for example, highlights the main trades of the town as ‘pins, buttons, nails, paper trays, filigree, and toys’; the other trades are well researched, but information concerning the filigree trade remains elusive.

Matthew Boulton’s Soho produced a great deal of filigree goods. When, in 1774, Thomas Percival was researching how lead could poison those working with it, he visited the filigree workers at Soho (who used a lead-based solder), one of which had been making silver filigree for thirty-five years, so, since the 1740s at least. An inventory made at the Soho works in 1782 recorded a wide range of silver filigree, including smelling bottles, thimbles, handkerchief pins, purse runners, buckles, tea measures, toothpick cases and money boxes. Some of the merchants buying Soho’s filigree were Theophilus and Thomas Richards, who ran the fine toy-shop on High Street, which William Hutton called the ‘toyshop of Birmingham’. Thomas was a filigree worker, so the Richards’s probably bought from Soho to top-up their stock. Another local filigree worker was John Moody, who had run the Richards's toy-shop since the 1740s.

I will be added a selection of filigree articles over the next couple of week, to see what's been added, click here.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Charles Jones's Love Tokens

#ObjectOfTheDay

The reverse side of the Love Tokens, with
the makers name, Charles Jones.

These ‘Love Tokens’ were made in Birmingham in bronze and gold gilt in the 1830s by Charles Jones of the Pantechnetheca (a grand toy-shop/repository); these are gold gilt examples of the whole set of six. Each token depicts two cupids rolling dice on the reverse [above], and a different scene (again, each with Cupid) on the obverse, as follows:

'AMOR FURIOSO', or, Furious Love

'AMOR VILE', or, Vile Love

'AMOR POETICO', or, Poetic Love

'AMOR NOBILE', or, Noble Love

'AMOR LENTO', or, Slow Love

'AMOR VOLUBILE', or, Changeable Love

These would have been made as collectable items, and Birmingham produced a vast range.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Georgian Menagerie: Enamel Boar

#ObjectOfTheDay
Enamel wild boar, c. 1760-70.
Sold at Bonham's for £1.375 in 2011.

An enamel bonbonnière (sweet box) of a wild boar, complete with tusks and pink snout, and the lid is painted with a boar in a woodland scene.
Lid of the above box, 7.5 cm wide.

A detached lid [below] depicting a scene of a wild boar hunt is held at Wolverhampton Museum and Art Gallery, with two men and two dogs- the man on the horse blowing a horn. The shape of the lid is exact to the box above, so suggests, along with the imagery, that this was attached to a boar bonbonnière.

A lid (mounted for display), probably from a boar bonbonnière.
Held at Wolverhampton Museum, and dated at 1747-67.
EM78 Suggested to be painted in Birmingham. 6.7 cm wide. EM78

For comparison, below is another boar from a private collection, with detailed painting over the head. The lid depicts man on a horse spearing a boar which is much more crudely painted than the other lids, as well as differing from the intricate painting of the head.
Enamel wild boar, c. 1760-70. Private collection.
Bilston or Birmingham.

Lid of the box above.
H: 5cm. W: 7cm. D: 8cm.
An even cruder example is the boar below, which is probably a later example, made of a poorer quality for a wider market. The shape has also been simplified, fitting a circular lid. .
Enamel boar, c 1780, private collection.
Bilston or Birmingham.

Lid of the box above.

Interior of the box above.

NB: Boxes from private collections have been used for comparison only. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

A Bath Adonis

#ToysInUse

A Bath Adonis, c. 1775. From
the Lewis Walpole Archive at Yale,

And here is a very beautiful man, admiring his image in an ornate mirror at the Pump Room in Bath. He is decked in finery, with buttons on his coat and waistcoat, buckles, a dress sword, and a snuff-box ajar. He is just lovely (well, he thinks he is), and below the image is the inscription 'A Bath Adonis worshiping [sic] the Idol of his affections'.

Etched and engraved, possibly from The Matrimonial Magazine (18.3 10.3 cm).