Aug 152018

(c) Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

I love the way that so many inventors in the Georgian era came up with what were basically fakes – and I will be featuring some of them in my next-book-but-two*. Imitation  stone (Eleanor Coade) imitation gold (Christopher Pinchbeck) and imitation silver (Thomas Boulsover) are just a few. But there was also the interesting story of  John Baskerville, a man who made his fortune imitating the lacquer work previously imported from the Far East. Japanned tea sets, trays, boxes, clock cases – you name it, he made and embellished them, especially with flowers and classical motifs.

In the case of John Baskerville he is remembered, if at all, for the exquisite typeface which he designed and which is named after him. But printing was a hobby which he came to later in life – after he had made his fortune manufacturing  ‘japanned wares.’ The problem was that the tree used to extract the lacquer in the Far East (Toxicodendron vernicifluum, better known as the Chinese Lacquer Tree) was not available in Europe. In the second half of the 1600’s a way had been found to take a base material, such as wood or paper and coat it with layer after layer of coloured resin, like shellac. The procedure was described in publications such as Stalker and Parker’s Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, which appeared in 1688, and which does little to hint at the dirty, odorous and often hot working conditions endured by the people doing the japanning. The resin was applied in layers to produce a lustrous finish, usually black, achieved by mixing lamp-black into the resin. Stalker and Parker’s Treatise explained how to get the lamp black:

To make lamp black: Being furnished with a lamp that has 3 or 4 spouts, for as many lights and cotton-week (wick) which you may have at the Tallow Chandlers, twisted up so big that it will but just go into the nose of your spouts; for the greater light they make, the greater quantity of black is afforded. Procure a quart of oyl, by the oyl shops rated at 6d., and so much will make black enough to use about a large cabinet. Get a thing to receive your black in, such in shape and substance as you may often see is planted over a candle to keep the flame and smoak from the roof or ceiling of a room. Having placed your weeks (wicks) in their proper apartment, and put in the oyl, fire or light ‘em and fix your receiver over them so close, that the flame may almost touch them. After it is continued so the space of half an hour, take off your receiver, and with a feather strike and sweep off all the black on it. Snuff your weecks, and put it on again, but forget not to supply your lamp with oyl, as often as occasion shall require, and when you imagine that more black is stuck to the receiver, do as before directed.

Different manufacturers used different varnishes. One, known as “tar varnish” or “Jewish pitch”, involved a mixture of black asphaltum, amber, linseed oil and rosin in turpentine. In order to achieve a higher gloss this would then be coated with a mixture of copal resin in linseed oil – or with a variety of spirit varnishes. But as each layer was built up the japanners had to resort to frequent stovings – which in turn had a tendency to warp and crack the underlying base material. In time many japanners turned to tinplate as an alternative to a wood or paper base, because this was more resistant to the damage caused by the stoving process. The high glossy black finish was often embellished with gold decorations – used in order to make an ideal display for the tea ceremonies which developed throughout the eighteenth century.

Very often japanning was done in small factory units and during the Georgian period these started to be clustered around towns in the West Midlands, such as Wolverhampton and Bilston. And then John Baskerville appeared on the scene to develop a way of japanning onto a papier-mâché base. It produced a strong but lightweight material which did not warp when the resins were being oven-dried, and Baskerville set up in business in 1740 at 22 Moor Street in central Birmingham. Five years later production was moved to workshop premises in the 8-acre grounds of the fine house he built at Easy Hill on the edge of Birmingham and before long he was supplying the market with a range of high quality products. He continued to make papier-mâché products from that address for the remainder of his life, taking on a succession of apprentices (seven in all) during the period between 1754 and 1765. Baskerville loved flaunting his success, and had a reputation for wearing clothes richly adorned with gold lace. And, to make sure that no-one could mistake him, he  bought a pair of cream-coloured horses to draw his carriage, which had its doors and side panels made from papier-mâché richly decorated by the Master’s hand. Here was a man who did not believe in hiding his light under a bushel…

John had been born near Kidderminster in 1707 and initially had made a living teaching calligraphy, and carving gravestones. As a twenty-year old he had moved to Birmingham and set up a school in the Bull Ring where he taught writing and book-keeping, while still maintaining his work as an engraver. A slate inscribed with the words ‘Grave Stones Cut in any of the Hands by John Baskervill, Writing Master’ is all that remains  of his business. He was in his late thirties when he stumbled across the use of papier-mâché as a substrate for lacquer-work – allegedly as a result of following another papier-mâché maker around the city’s apothecaries, noting exactly what products were being bought. He ended up producing products which had the appearance of being made of wood, but which were feather-light, durable and with a very even high-gloss finish.

Having amassed a fortune making lacquered papier-mâché with his innovative production methods he turned back to his first love – the printed word. During the 1750s he developed the use of wove paper (as opposed to laid paper). Wove paper, which was used for a smooth white finish, had been invented by James Whatman and Baskerville was the first person to see its commercial possibilities. He also experimented with using clearer, more lustrous, inks, and developed a system for drying the ink quickly and evenly – preventing it from being soaked into the paper and instead giving a consistent and clear finish. He also brought about changes to the way that the metal type was cast, making the printed word appear really crisp. He really was a pioneer in the field of print-making, design and book production, and his name quickly became a by-word for quality.

All these developments were reflected in the production of his first book in 1757, a superb edition of works by Virgil. The care taken by Baskerville was astonishing – the production of that one volume took three years but the result was so impressive that Baskerville was appointed printer to Cambridge University. Shortly afterwards he started work on the production of a remarkable folio edition of The Bible, which was finally published in 1763. The care taken was all the more surprising when you consider that Baskerville was an atheist – not a closet atheist but a highly prominent and vociferous atheist who was not afraid to demonstrate his rejection of Christian doctrines. This even extended to his refusal to marry the woman generally referred to as his wife, the long-suffering Sarah Eaves. Sarah was originally a servant girl and was still married to a Mr Eaves. She had two children by her husband but John Baskerville treated them as his own, and brazenly set up home with Sarah for some twenty years. It is thought that the couple eventually did marry, after the death of Mr Eaves, but to eighteenth century moralists ‘living in sin’ for two decades with an adulterous woman was not generally acceptable.

John Wilkes said that Baskerville shocked him with his openly atheistic stance and that he was ‘a terrible infidel’ – which makes it all the more amazing that during his life Baskerville printed three bibles, nine common prayers, two psalm-books, and two Greek testaments. When he started as a printer he announced: ‘It is not my desire to print many books; but such only as are books of consequence, of intrinsic merit, or established reputation.’ These books included the works by Milton, Addison, Congreve, Shaftesbury, Virgil, Juvenal, Horace, the Italian renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto and a number of other classical Italian authors.

As a printer he was able to direct John Handy, his punch-maker, to design and produce a new and exceptionally clear and simple typeface. It so impressed Benjamin Franklin (a fellow printer) that when he returned to the newly-created United States of America Franklin directed that federal government documents were to be printed using the Baskerville typeface. Baskerville was elected a member to the Royal Society of Arts, and became an associate of many of the members of the Lunar Society. As a result of this sort of networking he became an important influencer – a major player in Birmingham’s industrial scene. In effect he became mentor to the young Matthew Boulton, encouraging him in his early endeavours and at one stage lending him the not insignificant sum of £1470 in 1767. Boulton, of course, went on to fame and fortune as one of the great architects of the Industrial Revolution, but it is worth remembering that he only achieved that pinnacle because of the support and   encouragement given to him by others in his early years.

Baskerville’s typefaces mark a high point in the transition between Old Style and Modern type design – they are beautifully cut, and although they went out of fashion they were subsequently picked up in the twentieth century by type foundries such as Linotype and Monotype. Baskerville helped establish Birmingham as the leading city for print and publishing outside of London, with a reputation as a leader in design. He may have made his money by making cheap imitations of Far Eastern handicrafts but he spent his money in becoming one of the finest printers of the Age. And if we think of elegance as being the mark of the Georgian era it is worth remembering that elegance does not simply consist of a neo-classical tea-pot, or an Adam fireplace or a fine façade designed by William Chambers – it is also defined by the beauty of the printed page.
Baskerville died in January 1775 at his Easy Hill home, having left very specific instructions that his mortal remains were not to be buried in consecrated land, but in a vault which he had created in an old mill building. As he said: ‘Doubtless to many [this] may appear a Whim – perhaps It is so – but it is a whim for many years Resolve’d upon, as I have a Hearty Contempt for all Superstition [and] the Farce of a Consecrated Ground…’

In practice his coffin was to have a somewhat nomadic existence – Easy Hill was burnt down in the Birmingham Riots of 1791 and the mausoleum was knocked down when a canal was re-routed across the site. The lead-lined coffin was moved to a warehouse in 1821 where is was used as a workbench and later became something of a tourist attraction as people asked to see the corpse. Originally in a good state of preservation, this constant exposure to the air caused rapid deterioration to the body. Finally the oderous corpse was secreted in a family vault belonging to a local publisher. Years later even this building was demolished, and the coffin moved again before finally being re-buried in catacombs at Warstone Lane Cemetery.  So, even after two centuries, John Baskerville has still not got his final wish, although there are occasional attempts to get him buried yet again, this time on un-consecrated ground.

Baskerville left most of his fortune, some £12,000, to his widow Sarah as well as making various bequest to family members and to charity. Sarah carried on with John’s printing business for some months after his death, and also maintained the type foundry for another two years. She died in 1788.


*My next book to be published, by Pen & Sword, is due out in November and will be on the topic of Pirates and Privateers. After that comes one to mark the anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe next April – all about castaways and violent storms and disasters at sea. And after that comes one on lesser-known Georgian inventors, discoverers etc. I have also just been commissioned to write what will probably be my final book, on Sex and Sexuality in the Georgian era. Watch this space! And if you find my blogs getting fewer and fewer, it is probably because I am too busy trying to keep my publisher happy!

Mar 192018

Yup, I am a sucker for 18th Century boxes, and a trip to the website of Mark Goodger Antiques never disappoints. Here he has a fascinating apothecary’s box, manufactured by Ireland & Hollier in the last decade of the eighteenth century. The label has the details: Ireland & Hollier, Apothecaries & Chemists, N22 Pall Mall. Family Medicine Chests complete and genuine. Patent Medicines etc” 

The site describes the cabinet as being an antique ‘Duke of York’ medicine chest, made of mahogany with a brass escutcheon and door latches. It has doors to the front and back, secured by brass latches and also by a special locking mechanism  which engages when the lid is closed. I had not heard of the ‘Duke of York’ as a type of medicine cabinet before. Mark’s site description says this of it: “In the early years of the nineteenth century the so-called Duke of York medicine chest became popular…The name derives from a medicine chest in the Wellcome Collection originally thought to have belonged to the Duke of York, younger brother of George III.”

However it turns out that the name was a misnomer, because the chest in the Wellcome collection was made in 1789, whereas the Grand Old Duke died in 1763. But the name stuck and there are all sorts of variants – some with double doors front and back, some with extra doors at one or both of the sides. This one is lovely, with four drawers inside, one of which contains two lidded pill compartments. It also contains three glass bottles. Opening the rear compartment reveals eight bottle compartments complete with bottles, some of them still containing traces of their original contents. Some are labelled and reveal a fascinating cornucopia of exotic ingredients. There is ‘James Powder’, Best Indian Rhubarb, Carbonate of Potash, Colocynth and Dr Gregory’s Pills, Calomel,  Dover Powder and Jalap Powder. No home should be without them!

Sir William Forbes, Copyright Glasgow Museums.







Adding to the interest is that the owner of the box has been identified as Sir William Forbes, a prominent Scottish banker who lived between 1739 and 1806. His wife had a weak constitution, having had 13 children over an 18 year period, and Sir William decided to embark on a Grand Tour in the hope that the Mediterranean climate would prove to have restorative qualities. The couple set off in June 1792, returning to Edinburgh exactly a year later. His diaries even record encountering a problem in Naples when he ran out of ‘bark’ – presumably Jesuit’s Bark (ie quinine). As Mark says on his site it is tempting to think that the chest which is now for sale was the same one which was carted round Europe during their tour. As it happened Lady Forbes soldiered on for another ten years, dying in 1802.


William Forbes Bank One Guinea proof note (1825).


Sir Willam was a partner in the Scottish banking house known as Forbes, Hunter, & Co, later becoming part of the Union Bank of Scotland. It issued its own bank notes and was well-respected. Sir William was highly regarded by the Government, advising Prime Minister William Pitt on such varied matters as bills of exchange, the need for a new Bankruptcy Act, and so on. In 1803 he published his “Memoirs of a Banking House” and after he died he was buried at Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirkyard.

The Union Bank developed  and flourished with other take-overs and mergers,  and eventually it joined up with the Bank of Scotland, ending up as part of the Lloyds Bank group. 


Jan 112018

I see that there is an auction next week under the umbrella of the Sotheby’s series “Of Royal and Nobel Descent” – and with a whole host of Nelson memorabilia on offer it is bound to be of interest. The highlight, picked up in the national press, is a piece of the Union flag flown from the Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar. This  is expected to reach £100,000. *

The catalogue calls it an “evocative and impressive relic of Nelson and Trafalgar” and  gives the following explanation:

“Nelson’s ships sailed into battle at Trafalgar flying the national flag rather than just their squadron colours, as a result of an order issued by Nelson in the days before the battle: “When in the presence of an Enemy, all the Ships under my command are to bear white Colours [i.e. St George’s Ensign], and a Union Jack is to be suspended from the fore top-gallant stay” (10 October 1805). HMS Victory consequently flew two Union flags and a St George’s Ensign, which were returned to England with the ship and the body of Nelson.”

The catalogue continues “… battle ensigns, unique patriotic mementoes of Nelson’s final and greatest victory, were later woven into the solemn and dignified series of ceremonials that marked his state funeral in January 1806. The body lay in state at the Painted Hall at Greenwich for four days before processing upriver in a funeral barge with a flotilla of naval escorts, disembarking at Whitehall Stairs and resting overnight in the Admiralty. The following day, 9 January, a vast procession followed Nelson’s remains to St Paul’s Cathedral, the site of the funeral. Incorporated into the funeral cortege was a group of 48 seamen and Marines from HMS Victory, who bore with them the ship’s three battle ensigns and were, according to one eyewitness, “repeatedly and almost continually cheered as they passed along”.

They did rather more than cheer – they then shredded the various flags and kept them as souvenirs, and over the years several have come up for sale.

Also in the auction are some impressive paintings of the Battle of Trafalgar and a plethora of Nelson memorabilia – everything from medals commemorating Trafalgar and the Battle of the Nile, to dinner plates and pill boxes….






There are also printed ephemera and pieces of jewellery…


and enough statues, sculptures and portraits to satisfy any enthusiast.


I will be interested to see what some of the Lots reach on 17th January – you can see the Sotheby’s catalogue online here or you can buy the catalogue itself  from Sotheby’s for just under £30 here. All images shown here  are provided courtesy of the auctioneers.


*Post script: the piece of flag actually sold for an unbelievable £297,000 – nearly three times the estimate placed on it by the auctioneers! Given that the piece measured 36 inches by 34 inches, that is one very expensive piece of material…

Dec 162017



I know, I know, I have a thing about boxes, especially if they consist of tea caddies and I have often blogged about them. But here is a sensational example of a caddy set, in a beautiful wooden box, shown on Mark Goodger’s Hampton Antiques site.

The box is a beauty, veneered in Mahogany with a chequered tulip wood cross banding all round. The top has a gilded carry handle but it is when you open the lid and look inside that you see the real quality – a matching silver gilt service. The Hampton’s site describes it as “a tea caddy, jug, and caddy bowl; each with square pyramid-shaped cut-glass sides, radiating design to the bases, and silver gilt reeded band. The jug features an interesting Greek key handle.”




There is also a pair of matching silver gilt sugar tongs. The silver gilt edging  to the glass has an 1803 hallmark and the silversmith is given as William Rudkins, He died in 1807 and his burial is noted at St Luke, Finsbury. He was 57 years old when he died and had previously practised as a silversmith from Gee Street in Middlesex. His son James was also a silversmith.


I cannot be sure about the maker of the glass ware, but my hunch is that the pieces may well have come from John Blades, Glass Manufacturer of 5, Ludgate Hill. I have come across other pieces  which resulted from a shared Blades/Rudkins cooperation. John Blades opened his Ludgate Hill showrooms in 1783 and remained there until his death in 1829. He was appointed Cut Glass Manufacturer to George III and was known as ‘the great glass man of Ludgate Hill’. The National Portrait Gallery has a portrait of him wearing the robes of the Sheriff of London and Middlesex. According to the Burghley Collections site his was the first glass company to open a branch in India, in Calcutta, and was famously commissioned to create a great glass Gothic tomb for the Nabob of Oudh. So now you know! More to the point he made wonderful chandeliers, and was a master of manufacturing the sort of glassware shown in this caddy box.

The whole thing makes for a beautiful  item – I don’t have a spare £9,500 – unfortunately! But if I had, it would be my Christmas present to myself. Stunning.


Sep 292017

The new catalogue from Mark Goodger contains a remarkable Regency sewing box and, being a sucker for antique boxes, I am delighted to showcase it. From the outside, it all looks fairly straight-forward – a kingwood box with ornate brass inlay to the front and top, standing on four turned wooden feet. But open it up and there is an absolute gem of  a sewingbox/writing case.

The website has this description:”Opening the door to this exceptional sewing and writing cabinet reveals gold tooled leather book spines, these are in fact three drawers that are disguised as four books with a divider. The books are labelled “British Poets Vol I” & “II”  and “British Classics Vol I” & “II”. This impressive regency cabinet contains its original interior. The bottom drawer is paper lined and has a single large compartment for storage. The middle drawer contains several compartments stocked with sewing supplies including thread spools, thimbles, pincushion, tape measure and a fitted tool pad with tweezers, scissors, pricker and needle case. The top drawer features two inkwells, pen tray and other compartments for storing other writing supplies.”

The contents have obviously been assembled as a labour of love
by the recent owner – and make a fascinating display of utensils appropriate to a box made
in the Regency period – probably around 1815.
I think it is really fabulous – it is only just over 9 inches tall, but has been beautifully restored.
Two centuries on and it is a remarkable reminder of how exquisite the workmanship of the
time could be. Who else thinks this would make a rather nice present for Christmas?
Well, at £4,500 maybe not – but it is a sumptuous delight for the eyes. Thanks, Mark!
Jun 272017

I recently came across the webpage of the Corning Museum of Glass and was rather taken with this beautiful item called the Thompson Goblet,  made at the Newcastle factory of the Beilby’s in around 1765.

William Beilby was originally apprenticed in Birmingham and used his knowledge of enamelling to develop a range of fire-enamel paints which fused with the glass. So, no wearing off, or scratching. The results are wonderful, and later in the year I will do a proper blog on Beilby and his legacy.

This particular glass was made in conjunction with his sister Mary Beilby and the coat of arms apparently belonged to one Beilby Thompson of Micklethwaite Grange at Collingham, in Yorkshire. He was a  prosperous landowner who served as a member of Parliament from 1768 to 1784 and again from 1790 to 1796. Needless to say, works by Beilby are ludicrously collectible!


Just as another example, here is another goblet, made circa 1762 and now in the National Gallery, Victoria. Quite stunning!

Jun 102017

I know, I know, I am a sucker for old boxes but here is one which really is absolutely splendid. It was made in 1840, so it is a bit later than my usual period of interest, but I think it is so good that it is worth show-casing! The craftsmanship is incredible – and I love the shape of the basket.

You can make out the tambour roll-top mechanism, which slides back to give access to the compartment for sewing paraphernalia inside. Or I suppose you could have used it for baubles, bangles and beads. Whatever, it really is beautiful, and the brass inlay is amazing.







It appears, (where else?!) on Mark Goodger’s Hampton Antique’s site here.


He describes it as being “a stunning rosewood with ornate symmetrical maple inlays. With a rosewood carrying handle, and four brass ball feet….. it measures 10.75 inches  (27.30 cm) in width, has a depth of 5 inches  (12.70 cm) and is 4.75 inches (12.06 cm)  high.”

Memo to children: you won’t go far wrong if you save up and give this to Dad for his birthday……



Sep 102016


brunn gun

I am not normally that interested in militaria, but every so often come across something which catches my eye – in this case a pair of beautiful pistols on the Metropolitan Museum site, and made by Samuel Brunn in 1800/1801.

The Museum site describes the pair of pistols as being “among the finest known examples of English Neoclassical-style firearms. Each stock is inlaid with engraved sheet silver and embellished with heavy cast-silver mounts. This decoration was inspired by contemporary French Empire firearms, such as those by Boutet. Several of the motifs are based on ancient Roman sources. On the sideplate, for example, the Nereid riding a sea-leopard derives from an engraving of 1762 depicting a wall painting in the recently found ruins of Herculaneum. On the trigger guard, the oval medallion representing Hercules with a defeated Amazon is copied from a well-known antique gem. The Medusa head on the butt also derives from Classical art, but here the idealized model has been transformed into a grimacing, almost humorous caricature of the legendary gorgon.”

The  pistols are sixteen inches long, and are made out of walnut wood and steel, decorated in sterling silver. The silver decorations were probably made by silversmith Michael Bennett, who was active in London until his death in 1823, operating from premises at 36 Cock Lane, Smithfield.

Samuel Brunn had originally bought a share in the business of John Knubley, who had traded at 7 Charing Cross in London. Knubley was the son of a gun-maker and had originally traded in Otley, Yorkshire before moving down to London in 1771, and had built up a successful business until his death in 1795. For two years Brunn was in business trading as “Knubley, Brunn & Co, Charing Cross”, probably in partnership with Sarah, John Knubley’s widow. Brunn then sold  his share to John Mallet, who continued to operate at Charing Cross until 1803. This emphasises the importance of the area around Charing Cross as a centre of exquisite gun-making.

brunn card

Brunn  then set up on his own and operated as “Samuel Brunn, sword cutler and gun-maker” at 55 Charing Cross between 1798 and 1804. He then moved to adjoining premises at 56 Charing Cross and remained there between 1805 and 1820. He was appointed “Sword Cutler and Gunmaker  to the Prince of Wales” in 1800 and remained in that post for eleven years. It is quite possible that these pistols were made for the Prince. He also made pistols and swords for various other members of the Royal family. Between 1797 and 1809 he was Contractor to Ordnance, in other words he was commissioned to make trade muskets, cannon locks, pistols and broadswords for the Board of Ordnance. He was also described as being ‘Cutler to the Patriotic Fund’. ‘The Patriotic Fund’ was founded on 28 July 1803 at Lloyd’s Coffee House – is still going strong – and was launched in order to give grants to those wounded in service to the Crown and to set up annuities to the dependents of those killed in action. It also commissioned the manufacture of high quality swords to be awarded to servicemen who showed exceptional courage and bravery – which is presumably how Samuel Brunn got involved…

It looks as though Samuel continued to operate until 1820 but then at some stage fell on hard times. A newspaper report in 1831 refers to bankruptcy proceedings against Samuel, who by then had fallen from grace to the extent of being described as a ‘chapman’ i.e. a pedlar:

Bunn bankruptcyA sad end for a distinguished craftsman. Presumably when Napoleon was finally defeated the Board of Ordnance were no longer stock-piling weapons, and the Patriotic Fund were no longer dishing out ceremonial swords as a reward for war heroes, so like many other sword cutlers Samuel Brunn found himself on the scrap heap. There is some suggestion that he moved to Bath, where he spent his final years in straitened circumstances. I cannot find a record of his death.

Jul 302016


Eye brooch with diamond tera drop, shown courtesy of the V&A

Eye brooch with diamond tear drop, shown courtesy of the V&A


Eyes on an ivory patch box, 1790's.

Eyes on an ivory patch box, 1790’s.








7  1800



It  may not be to everyone’s taste, but it became the fashion after the 1790’s to commission a miniature painting of one of your lover’s eyes, usually on ivory, but sometimes on parchment, so that it could then be mounted as a pendant or locket and hidden from view – for instance behind a lapel. It was a way of declaring love, but keeping the recipient of that love totally anonymous.

Allegedly it originated with the Prince of Wales, when he fell for the charms of Maria Fitzherbert in 1784. There was no way he could admit his affection for the lady, who was after all twice married – and a Roman Catholic. Aware that their union would never be permitted Maria had fled to the continent, hoping that the Prince’s ardour would diminish. It didn’t – and as a declaration of his love he allegedly sent her a brooch containing an image of his princely eye. She reciprocated.

The Royal Marriages Act expressly forbade any union between the royal lovers by declaring that any marriage ceremony would be invalid unless it was made with the consent of the King.. It didn’t stop the pair going through a wedding ceremony on December 15, 1785 and it is interesting to conjecture that the Prince wore the ‘lovers eye’ on his jacket even when denying point blank to this father George III that such a ceremony had taken place.

5 eye painting on ivory 1790

10 eye ring





16                     15

From being a symbol of secret or forbidden love it went on to become a more general way of carrying a memento of a loved one and often the picture of the eye would be mounted  within a gold frame which also had a compartment holding a lock of hair. In time many became remembrances of a deceased lover, and in that case the eye was usually framed in pearls (signifying tears… typical  of those mawkish Victorians….).

Eye  pendant from the 1830's.

Eye pendant from the 1830’s, with clouds below…

Mostly the eye in question was of a lady – a few exist of male eyes with bushy eyebrows and the occasional hint of side-burns, but more usually the eye belonged to a woman and was painted to be kept by a man. Rarely is it possible to identify the sitter – that was, after all, the whole point of it. Indeed the eye was sometimes surrounded by clouds as a way of disguising other facial features (such as the bridge of the nose).6

Some of them are fascinating pieces of jewellery, and the portraits were set into brooches, rings, lockets, pendants, small boxes, toothpick cases, and other small items. They mostly date from the  period 1790 to 1850 and perhaps as few as a thousand are known to exist. There are however many fakes, reflecting their high value and collectability. One of the largest collections belongs to Dr and Mrs  Skier, from Birmingham Alabama, and for anyone wanting more information it may be worth referring to the definitive book based on their collection entitled “The Look of Love – eye miniatures from the Skier Collection”, published by D Giles Ltd in 2012 and available on Amazon here.

12  book

Jul 212016

1As is my custom I spend many a happy hour browsing the Hampton Antiques site, usually as a device to get out of writing, or house-work and other unpopular chores. I came across this lovely sewing case, believed to have been made in 1815 and described as being “An Early 19th Century japanned sewing cabinet, with chinoiserie decoration on each side in beautiful warm tones against a contrasting black. Unusual arch shaped top standing on shaped bracket feet.
The lid lifts to reveal several compartments for thread spools, pincushion, thimbles and further storage. Once the lid is lifted the double doors can be opened to reveal four drawers with bone handles, each beautifully decorated and lined with matching green paper.”

4 3























It is twelve inches high and some ten inches wide and my mother, who was expert at embroidery, would have adored it!

I find boxes like this absolutely fascinating. It would always have been a high-end luxury item and it is always fun to conjecture who might have owned such a piece. It really is a treat, and it looks to be in superb condition. Mind you, at £4,800 it jolly well should be! Still, dreaming is free….