Within this embossed velvet box lies a supreme quality desk-set.
Of superior quality, this set is made to impress. From the shape of the letter-opener and the detail of the engraving, it was ‘exotic’, reflecting the riches of the Eastern cultures – it would not have been out of place in the courts of Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. But clearly, this example was made in the second half of the 19th century.
The clue to who, when & where is found on the nib of the pen. The inscription there reads ‘RICHARD MOSLEY & Co. / LONDON’ . The nib was English made – and the style of the piece, while possibly attributable to a French workshop, could also be English. A little more research reveals a fascinating story that supports this attribution.
Richard Mosley & Co.
Richard Mosley was the son of Richard Mosley, silversmith in London, and became a supplier of superior writing implements by the mid-19th century. In his 1852 London Directory advert he states he supplies superior steel nibs that do not wear, as seen on the pen in this set. He also states he stocks a “A LARGE STOCK ON HAND OF EVERY DESCRIPTION OF INK STANDS, CUTLERY, LEATHER GOODS, IVORY AND PEARL GOODS, AND VARIOUS OTHER ARTICLES SUITABLE FOR STATIONER & JEWELLERS”. Clearly, these were not all manufactured by him, but sourced from various workshops and retailed by him – once he had included one of his superior non-wearing nibs.
His secret to a superior product was to embrace the latest technology: stainless steel. This was the ‘holy grail’ of industry in the 19th century, to have a durable steel product that would resist rust. By embracing a new technology, he was able to produce a novelty ‘tech gadget’ of his time.
The method of decoration is acid-etching steel. This technique was exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition by Thomas Skinner of Sheffield. He had obtained a patent the same year for an efficient way of producing complex etched designs on steel, which could then be enhanced with gilt, as seen on our desk set.
The technique used was simple and efficient for such complex designs, previously only possible at the hand of a master-engraver. Basically, a copper plate engraving of the required design was printed onto tissue paper (such as potters use for transfer printing) – in ink & linseed oil, which could then be pressed onto the steel surface; once this had hardened, water applied to the paper allowed it to be peeled off. A powdered ‘resin’ was then dusted over, binding with the sticky linseed oil/ink. Applying hot water solidified the design in the same places into a hard crust, resistant to acid. This was then ‘bitten’ – the very descriptive term used by engravers for the action of acid onto metal! Once cleaned off, the acid etched depressions could be gilded, and a low temperature firing in a kiln ensured a strong bond for the gold.
The Mosley firm exhibited pens in the 1851 Great Exhibition, but did not win a medal. Curiously, they did not enter their pens into the ‘Iron & General Implements / writing implements’ category (Class 22), but rather in the ‘precious metals’ category (Class 23, exhibitor 107) – such was their regard for the quality of their products. This set is certainly ‘exhibition-worthy’, but the question of wether it was a Mosley product or if he just added one of his tips to a fine quality Sheffield product made using Skinner’s patent remains debatable.
Wine has always been a part of an English gentleman’s meal. In the past it was considered safer to drink than the water…. and to do so with style was important. Glasses were once pretty basic, but as the Georgian period continued, they became works of art. So too did the presentation of the beverages; wine accessories such as decanters, silver plaques with the names of the drinks, and coasters became a necessity at any refined table.
The ultimate recently ‘rolled’ through our door; a wheeled cart to transport two full decanters down the table with ease!
This piece is constructed from a copper/silver body known as ‘Old Sheffield Plate’. Old Sheffield Plate is a fascinating collecting field, and the go-to book is the 1912 ‘Old Sheffield Plate by Frederick Bradbury. He was active in the late 19th century, and published his lavish book full of hundreds of photographic illustrations and records of the manufacturers and their products. The information he records is important as it was compiled just a generation or two from the time the Plate was last in production, and many of his sources were the workmen trained in the production of the type, 50 years later. He also had a personal connection, with an ancestor being one of the manufacturers he was writing about.
Old Sheffield Plate is an important step in the evolution of silverwares, and should not be confused with silver plating, or electroplate. This modern method, invented in 1840 by Elkington, meant that any base-metal item could be moulded and then dipped into the plating solution, coming out covered in silver. Quick, easy & very cheap. Old Sheffield Plate is the opposite. The basic material was laboriously made by hand. Basically, a slab of Sterling grade silver and another of copper were heated, then rolled together through a press to form a sheet. These flat sheets could then be formed into the desired shapes, ie. teapots, trays, or wine coasters. There is a seam on anything that required a vertical wall, and this was silver-soldered. A breath on a suspected seam results in a clear indication of a seam, and is a collector’s favourite method of identifying Sheffield Plate. Another feature is the rims of a vessel; if left exposed, the layered nature of the body is obvious, and so the intricately stamped-out silver borders, often Rococo scrollwork, was laboriously silver-soldered along the rims.
Bradbury illustrates the exact same ‘Wine Wagon’ we have, and identifies the maker as Battie, Howard & Hawksworth, dating it to 1820.
He has a tale on the subject, and saw in interesting enough to include in his book:
The origin of the ” wine wagon ” we must attribute to the inventive genius of Sir E. Thomason, of Birmingham, and in this connection the following extracts from his memoirs will be read with interest :
” Many years since, Lord Rolle called upon me at my establishment, and said that he had dined with His Majesty George IV. the day before, and that His Majesty was pleased to remark that he regretted that his noble guests who sat on either side of him were constrained to rise from their seats to pas the wine, and observed to him (Lord Rolle), ‘as you have said that you are going to Birmingham to-morrow, you had better call upon Thomason who may invent some plan to obviate this inconvenience.’
I suggested to Lord Rolle that decanter stands upon wheels was, in my opinion, the only method to be adopted ; and as I held the beautiful dies containing the victories of the late war, forty in number, viz., from the landing in Portugal to the capture of Paris, and the settling of Napoleon at St. Helena, I recommended to place these medals around the flat perpendicular edges of the bottle stands, which would fill up four, thereby adapting them to two waggons, the whole made of silver and richly gilt, and each waggon to have beautifully ornamented wheels.*His lordship approved of my suggestions, and requested that no time should be lost in executing them, and when done to forward them to the Marquis of Conyngham. On their arrival, His Majesty expressed his entire approbation of the thought. Some time afterwards the King presented them to the Duke of Wellington.”
Frederick Bradbury, 1912
This is the story related by Bradbury, via the memoirs of Thomason, one of the major manufacturers of Old Sheffield Plate luxury items in Sheffield in the early 19th century. The items he is describing are these remarkable constructions, created for George IV who then presented it to the Duke of Wellington in 1826. The pair can still be seen in his preserved residence at Aspley House, on the corner of Hyde Park, London – considered the only preserved example of an English aristocratic townhouse from its period.
However, Bradbury was not convinced in this being the actual origin of the type, stating in a footnote:
Notwithstanding what is here recorded, wine waggons not very dissimilar to those illustrated are to be met with in both silver and Old Sheffield Plate apparently made late in the 18th century. Whether, however, such have been put together at a more recent date in the form of wine waggons from pairs of coasters, cannot be said with certainty.
We are pleased that our example of a ‘Wine Wagon’ is absolutely original, being a documented product of Battie, Howard & Hawksworth of Sheffield. It is in splendid condition, despite being completely ‘black’ when it came in. Many hours of patient cleaning later, the original silver was found to be in excellent, unworn condition – a rarity with Old Sheffield, which is well known for its tendency to ‘blush’ as the copper starts to show through the silver. It is now ready to grace the table of some fresh Stylish Imbiber….
We often underestimate our distant ancestors, but some of the pots in today’s fresh stock release show clearly an ingenuity familiar with our own 5,000 years later.
The pieces are from the Neolithic period in China, the time when foraging for survival was replaced by a more sophisticated & settled life. At this time, on the fertile plains of the Yellow River in modern-day China, settlements have become permanent, crops are being propagated, and while metal working is not yet evident, pottery is being made – although the wheel has not yet been invented. The pottery is therefore made using a coil technique, literally rolling a long ‘snake’ of clay which is then coiled up on itself to build up the wall of the vessel.
While processing this group of Neolithic pots, and being short on space, I instinctively placed one onto another in a stack. Normally, this would result in a precarious pile susceptible to slipping; however, this stack was quite stable.
The reason for this stability is the odd lugs you see protruding on these vessels at times; they are not decoration, but essential stabilisers for stacking pots!
Being able to stack saves on space, but could also allow a processing of food in layers, for example over a heat source. It brought to mind the Chinese dumpling pots we still use today.
The only difference between ‘us’ in the present and our distant ancestors is our access to the accumulation of knowledge through our history, such as metalworking and engineering techniques. The ingenuity of us Humans is still the same creative force.
Commonly called ‘Darwin’s Water Lilly’ , or just ‘Darwin’, it is one of the few Wedgwood printed patterns of the first decade of the 19th century that was not Oriental in inspiration, and in fact an original creation.
The inspiration for the design was pulled from several different engravings in Botanical magazines of 1803-6, and shows specimens of three types of the ‘Nymphaeaceae’ family, commonly called ‘water lily’ – left to right they are: 1 -‘nymphaea stellata’, or starry water lily, 2 -‘nelumbium speciosum’, or sacred Lotus of India, 3 -‘nymphaea lotus’, or Lotus of Egypt.
The original version designed in 1806 was printed in brown as a basis for enamel decoration; this is said to be the earliest instance of printing in brown that can be accurately dated.
The difference between this earliest example and those slightly later is very subtle; a half-submerged leaf at 5 o’clock is the best indicator, not appearing in the 1807 version, but there by the circa 1815 examples.
Onglaze red was used from late 1809. In 1811 blue was introduced and become a favourite. Underglaze red appears in 1828. A later 19th century version was named ‘Old Water Lily’.
But why is it so often called the ‘Darwin’ pattern? It turns out it’s a family affair. In the British Museum is a plate, very similar to our brown printed example, and another is in the Victoria & Albert, both from the same source: the family of Charles Darwin. In older literature, there is a story about them being from a service made by Josiah I Wedgwood for his friend Dr. Erasmus Darwin, on occasion of his marriage in 1781. However, this date is far too early for the pieces we are examining. The present conclusion is it was designed by John Wedgwood – the eldest son of Josiah Wedgwood, a noted horticulturist who was co-founder of the Royal Horticultural Society, Kew.
It was ordered in 1807 by Dr. Robert Darwin, son of Erasmus Darwin, and father of the famous Charles Darwin. He received it in 1808.
The Darwin family and the Wedgwood family were intimately linked. Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin were both part of the ‘Lunar Society’, the incredibly forward-thinking group of scientists and engineers that regularly met to discuss the exciting new world of science & technology – and botany – that was emerging in the late 18th/ early 19th century. A friendship was obviously formed, and several generations of inter-marriages followed. Erasmus’s son Robert married Josiah’s daughter Susannah, and their son, Charles Darwin, married his cousin – Emma Wedgwood, daughter of the second Josiah Wedgwood and his wife Elizabeth. She was therefore the daughter of his mother’s brother, and genetic problems are obvious in the generations that followed… Much has been written about the irony of Darwin’s fascination with aspects of genetics and evolution in nature – including how in-breeding caused a species to be fragile – and he himself wrote of his genetic concern for his own family….
Analysing the image source reveals the draftsman who created the ‘Water Lily’ design used multiple images, combined. Four source botanical images have been identified in the literature, one of which is a double – the following diagram shows which part comes from which publication. (Slide the divide for the arrows. )
The use of five different prints, from two of the botanical journals of the time, shows the designer was well aware of ‘botanical correctness’. They keep the leaf type of all three specimens separated and correct, and by combining the two prints of the Nymphaea lotus – no. 3 below – they show their scientific interest in the accurate description of species the botanists were striving for. The suggestion that it was John Wedgwood, co-founder of the Royal Horticultural Society (along with Sir Joseph Banks) makes perfect sense.
In the Wedgwood archives, a letter written to John’s brother Josiah Wedgwood II by the manager Thomas Byerley, states:
‘Your brother is extremely active and intelligent, and is fast paving the way for a radical form, and will greatly benefit the concern ’.
Unfortunately, John retired from the firm in 1812, leaving just a handful of fascinating precise botanical statements as his ceramic legacy.
We’re pleased to have a selection from the earliest products of Wedgwood in this mesmerising pattern – a chamberpot and dish in the blue of the 1820’s, three red plates from around 1820, and an example of the earliest short-lived brown print. The final piece is a 20th century Wedgwood re-creation, limited edition for the Wedgwood Collectors…… enjoy!
Some beautiful buckles have just arrived at Moorabool.
Shoe Buckles were a 17th century invention, before which shoes were tied in place. As the 18th century progressed, they developed into extravagant displays of wealth & status. At the end of the century, in France where the buckles of the Aristocracy were very large & bright, the Revolutionaries seized on them as a symbol of the Aristocracy, and one of their slogans to shout aloud was “Down with the Aristocrat Shoe Buckles”!
Fashion changed in the late Georgian period, and buckles on shoes decline in the early 19th century. The Victorians and Edwardians did re-visit the idea, reproducing the earlier styles but adapting to the modern shoe. But one area of shoe-wearing kept the tradition going strong – the Court of Law. This archaic dress code, with the wig, robe, and shoes of antique design meant a small number of firms in England were still producing such pieces into the 20th century.
At Moorabool, we have a choice for you – Scottish, Dandy, or Judge! (Or could there be a Scottish Dandy Judge out there somewhere, for whom we have one for every occasion….)
The first is this magnificent pair of Scottish Sterling silver buckles. They are solid, cast into a mould and then hand-tooled with Scotch Thistles. Little surprise to learn they were made in Edinburgh, although their date of 1919 is surprising – they are an example of ‘historical’ pieces, made by the Edwardians in a much older style.
The second pair are simply ‘Splendid’, and well worthy of a modern day Dandy. They’re large, suitable for a man’s shoe. Ladies buckles were similar, but smaller. In the Georgian era, men really knew how to dress – silks and satins, cane in hand and stylish shoes with bold buttons was the ‘in’ look. The Macaroni, a mocking term for such dandies which soon became their label, would seek to out-do each other with the ‘Bling’, and shoes were an important part of the costume. This bold style, with large sparkly stones packed together, are known as ‘Artois’ buckles, named after the brother of the French King Louis XIV. The Comte d’Artois had come to Britain as ambassador at the time, and would have been seen in all the in-circles amongst the gentry; it’s no coincidence the French fashions he brought with him were mirrored by the English. The Royal buckles would have been a feast of diamonds; these examples are glass ‘paste’. While the Victorians knocked out endless imitation ‘costume jewelry’ pieces in paste, when it was first developed and marketed in the Georgian era it was regarded as a luxury man-made stone, advertised by the jewelers alongside their diamonds.
The same applies to the ‘gild’ that appears along the edges; this is ‘Pinchbeck’, an alloy that appears as bright as gold, but is in fact an alloy of copper and zinc. Christopher Pinchbeck, a London watchmaker, had invented the metal in the earlier 18th century. Its inclusion in buckles would have lowered the cost of the item – but also afforded more strength and durability than the 18-carat gold that was used at the time. Once again, the Victorians used the technique as a way of making ‘cheap ripoffs’ look expensive – but in the Georgian era, Pinchbeck was a luxury material. ‘Lux’ is a great word to describe these beautiful Dandy buckles.
The final pair are the serious ones…. these date to around 1910, and are definitely out of date fashion-wise – but are absolutely necessary in the world of Law. This set includes the shoe buckles alongside the smaller side-buckles for your ‘breeches’ . They are in the Georgian cut-steel style, and would have been a part of the costume of a Judge or Magistrate, alongside the required wig & robes. The box has the makers name – Ede & Ravenscroft – which indicates they must have belonged to someone very important, as this firm is regarded as the ‘best of the best’.
Ede & Ravenscroft are regarded as the Oldest Tailors in the world, having gained the Royal Warrant from William & Mary in 1689, then maintaining it by making the Royal Robes of Office for every British Monarch since.
They have always been the most desirable robe/wig/hat maker for those needing traditional formalised outfits. Their address at 93 Chancery Lane, which they still inhabit, is very convenient to the Inns of Court and the English legal system – their main clients. As an English newspaper put it, “….one of the oldest tailoring firms in the world, still family-owned and still enrobing the nation’s bigwigs, literally.”
In 1902, Ede and Son merged to make the partnership shown on this box; the name changed again in 1921 to Ede & Ravenscroft. These buckles can be dated to this Edwardian – George V period, 1902-1921.
This group of silverplate trophies are an interesting insight into the origin of Australian’s obsession with Sporting Events, which were used as a means of bringing the newly established colonial communities together and giving them a sense of ‘Pride of Place’ that is still very active today.
Moorabool recently discovered this trio of interesting local trophies, all won by a Mr R. D. Booth, Banks Club.
The first (on the right, above) is an elaborate fine-quality piece of English electroplate, engraved with fruiting vine & with handles dripping with grapes – a curious choice for the prize for the 1879 Colac Regatta. Most probably, it was simply a case of what was available in the English imports at the Melbourne jewler’s shops.
1879 was the first year that the event was held on Lake Colac, the largest inland lake in Australia. It required quite an effort to organize, with boats being transported overland from Ballarat, Geelong, and even Warrnambool to compete. The freshly laid Colac – Geelong railway connection allowed the logistics of transporting them such a long distance.
There had been an earlier ‘regatta’ on Lake Colac on March 29th, 1879; the newspaper reports on it wax lyrical, describing a crown of 2,500 people from Geelong, Ballarat, Melbourne, and everywhere in-between all having a jolly good time: the Colac Herald reports on April 1st 1879 the “flags of all nations were blowing”, and the sight of all the boats & flags “…brought to the recollection of many the youthful remembrances of bygone years.” – in other words, the gathering was a time of bonding by the settlers over memories of the ‘Old Country’, a nostalgic celebration of what was commonplace in Europe, but a first on this far-away picturesque Australian lake in the Western District of Victoria.
“Old and Infancy; the youth and beauty of Colac and district were there, all eager to witness the interesting excitement of aquatic contests”….
“One or two slight mishaps occurred during the day which tended to amuse those present more than mar the proceedings, and were caused by the capsising (sic) of three boats…. “ One of these was the Maiden Sculling Race: ” only two started. At the start both men pulled away together, but the ripple of the water was too strong for the frail craft pulled by Parkinson, and the result was that he came to grief by the boat swamping when about half the distance had been pulled….. (he) swam to one of the posts and clung there until he was rescued by one of the boats of the Colac club.”
Fine entertainment indeed! And it was this ‘ripple of water’ caused by ‘a strong breeze blowing incessantly during the day (meant) the water was rather too much ruffled for the rowing contest….”
The success of this regatta showed the potential for a regular event to be held on the lake, and also the inappropriate nature of the windy season at the start of the year; and so the committee decided to schedule one for the same year. This second event has gone down in history as the official ‘First Regatta’, held on December 13th.
This event built on the experience of the first, and was a major event for the town.The Most Hon. George Augustus Constantine Phipps, Marquess of Normanby, GCB GCMG PC, in his role as the Governor of Victoria attended until the 8-oared race, after which the crowd cheered him to his special train which was to take him ‘back to town’ (Melbourne). The Australasian covered the spectacle on December 20th, 1879: “That an inland town so far removed from at least two of the principal boating centers should have attracted such numerous entries … speaks volumes for the exertions of the committee to provide first-class sport on their beautiful lake.” The boats were again brought by train: “Several first-class yachts were brought down by rail from the golden metropolis at considerable trouble and expense, while two eights (from Melbourne and Geelong) … made the eights the feature of the day”.
Our cup was a prize for this 8-oared race, and was awarded to the Banks Club as 2nd prize, this cup going to R.D.Booth, the no. 6 in the boat.
The ‘Banks’ club is a famous Melbourne rowing club, established very early, in 1866 on the ‘banks’ of the Yarra River in Melbourne – from where it still operates, producing many champion rowers for the present Australian sporting world. It is the ‘Banks’ club not because of the location, but due to the Bankers who were the founders: only Bankers were welcome to join, and the fees per annum were rather high – £1/1/ to join, then £2/2/ per year – a substantial amount in today’s money. But with secure bank-jobs, and the captain a manager, money wasn’t really a concern – unlike the working class Footscray crew, as we will explore later on in this article.
In 1879, Banks Club packed their 8-oared clinker outrigger boat onto a Colac-bound train, and took on the teams of the Corio Bay Club (Geelong), Civil Service Rowing Club (Melbourne), the Ballarat Rowing Club , and the Barwon Rowing Club (Geelong). The prize total for this 8-oared, “about 2 mile” race was £105 – with first price being a decent £80. However, as only 5 entries were received (they were hoping for 8) this was reduced to £60 for first, £20 second and £5 third. The crew of 8 and their cox were all ‘weighed in’, with R. Booth being on oar no. 6, as recorded on our cup. They made their way out onto the lake towards a start position, all five crews trying to line up in a pesky breeze with limited success – and when the question came from the small steamer bearing the race official “….Are you all ready?”, several replied no – but the whistle was blown, and those not ready scrambled to catch up; Banks careered into Ballarat in the scramble, nearly fouling them, and the others gradually pulled away towards their goal. Like the Olympic commentators of today, the reporter described the flow of the teams as they pull up, then drop back…. “Ballarat seemed overmatched from the jump, and were in addition badly steered…. after the first half mile the Banks and Corio forged ahead gradually, Barwon having retired from the foremost position…” Then it all came unstuck for Banks:
When about half the course had been traversed, No 7 of the Banks caught a crab, and this accident, together with the advantage already possessed by Corio, enabled the latter to secure a lead of about a length, which was maintained the remainder of the journey, and Corio were proclaimed the winners by about a length.”
More suitable prizes for the occasion are the other two cups. These are splendid English silver plate examples, the base with coiled rope, the support modelled as three oars lashed together with a ribbon. These are marked ‘Lee & Wigfull Sheffield’, a manufacturer who specialised in sporting trophies, but only formed in 1879: these were brand-new designs from a freshly-formed English company. The cups are engraved with scrollwork framing panels to either side – one with a very nicely executed small sailboat. Once again, these were won by Booth as part of the eight oared race, and then the four oared – but this time on their home turf – in the Melbourne Regatta of 1881.
This event took place on the ‘Salt Water River’ – nowdays known as the Maribyrnong, flowing into the Yarra not far from its mouth. 7-8,000 spectators cheered them on, and The ‘Illustrated Australian News’ for 12th March 1881 carried the report along with an engraving of the winning moment for the Footscray crew, winning the Clarke Challenge Cup. This silver cup, valued at 100 guineas, was the most valuable race trophy in the world at the time, and is still held by the Footscray Club. It has two oarsmen perched on its shoulder, holding aloft their equipment on an angle – complimenting our trophies which would have sat alongside it, as prizes for the ‘Amateur’ races in 1881.
The Footscray crew dominated the race – as they had in their wins the previous 2 years – and this caused problems with the other teams, as these men were “…men who gained their living by manual labour”. This was seen as an unfair advantage, as the other teams didn’t, rather being ‘amateurs’ – ie most probably Clerks, or some other sort of desk-job. The issue raised was these ‘amateurs’ were unable to compete with “..those whose daily vocations are such that they may be said to be in training all year round.”! As a result, a definition of Amateur was arrived at, and applied to certain race classes,
Our trophies relate to the footnote at the bottom of this article, “The Banks Club won the Junior Fours and Eights in excellent style,…”. And on our smaller example, the committee has chosen to make a point about the amateur vs workman debate by inscribing
Maiden Clinker – Four Oared Race – Bona Fide Amateurs …. Won by Banks Club
Robert D Booth was an interesting character who loved his rowing: he has been described as ‘one of the greatest oarsmen of his time’. He was a bank clerk with the Commercial Bank when he joined the Banks Club, during which time he won these three trophies. Soon after, he was a part of the Melbourne Club. He represented Victoria in the ‘Intercolonial’ events for may years, beginning with a win in 1878 against NSW . His list of placings is impressive, with barely a 2nd-place marring the list of first place prizes. In 1887, he was part of the crew who won the title for Victoria against NSW on Sydney harbour. An interview with the Sydney Morning Herald on May 30, 1887 gives us a fascinating insight into this true Australian sportsman:
The interstate rivalry is extremely clear in the rest of the article, a classic press-bashing that would not be out of place on the back page of today’s average paper….. Sport has not changed a bit beneath the surface!
Seen as an ‘entertainment’, these nautical Regatta events – along with horse races, athletic meets, and cycling, were in fact an important part of forming a sense of unity – through competition – amongst what was a large and diverse group of new arrivals to the region. The sense of pride conveyed in the various paper’s reports at the time show a healthy competition between the various regional cities, and between the States of Australia that certainly still flourishes. These trophies, as reminders of the origins of today’s rivalries, are important historical memories.
As the world watches the competition for Olympic Gold in Tokyo, we have a 100-year-old masterpieces of Japanese goldsmith’s work to share.
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We were stunned when this small yet precious object walked into our shop recently. While we have had similar before, they inevitably are plain on the inside – often just with an empty space for cigarettes. This one is special: on opening, we see a place for a few of the required cigarettes – but inhabiting the other side is everything you need for an outing: this case is an all-in-one ‘evening bag’!
The mirror opens up to reveal a compartment with an ivory plaque, while below the small frieze of birds above is a surprise: two coin holders, such as the Victorians used for sovereigns and half-sovereigns.
The work is intensely beautiful, with two tones of gold along with small silver details (dragon’s eyes) contrasting vividly against a patinated iron ground. We call this ‘Damascened’, as Damascus was a point from which the art spread in the centuries after the decline of the Roman Empire. It reached Japan by the Asuka Period (592-710), and ‘Nunome Zo-gan’ ( ‘symbolizing inlaying‘ ) is the Japanese word for the technique.
You may not have noticed the signature hidden in plain sight… the one inside is well isolated, being inlaid gold on a bare iron ground, and depicting Mt Fuji. This is the mark of the “Fuji Damascene Company”, operating 1912-26. The outside has a splendid view of Mt Fuji off in the distance behind the temple tower – but down in the foreground is this same signature, amongst the plants of the garden.
Mt Fuji was appropriate as the mark, as ‘Fujii’ is the name of the firm’s founder – Yoshitoyo Fujii. Born 1868 into a metal-crafters family, he developed the family business into a thriving international ‘luxury goods’ supplier. They produced brooches, cufflinks, necklaces, card cases, cigarette cases, writing sets, vases, table boxes…. a long list of superbly detailed items. Some of his works were selected to represent Japan in the numerous overseas exhibitions that were so popular of in the earlier 20th century, where he won numerous medals. His works were presented to the Japanese Royal Family – he was regarded as the best craftsman of the Damascene ‘Nunome Zogan’ technique. Ironically, his work is not pure to the ancient Zogan technique: he developed a new technique, for which he received a patent: an etching method of housing his inserts, suggesting an acid being used to get the fine lines needed, not just a chisel.
The results are certainly spectacular, as these close-up photos reveal. This is a remarkably beautiful object to hold, and must have been a pleasure to use on a ‘night out’ by the lucky individual who received this as a gift 100 years ago: it certainly would have been a highlight at any party, back in the 1920’s!
Some fascinating ancient boxes, just released on Moorabool.com
We’re pleased to offer a small selection of South-East Asian ceramic boxes, fresh to Moorabool.com.
These pottery and porcelain objects were produced in vast quantities in certain places as trade goods, and as a result are found all across South-East Asia.
The earliest we have are the Khmer examples, with one delightfully shaped like a small plump bird; his beak and eyes protrude from one side, balanced by a tail at the rear. A small conical cap to the top is almost a miniature Buddhist stupa….
Equal date is the amazing large white glazed porcelain box with a peony rose moulded to the top. This is from Song Dynasty China, 12th-13th century, of a type known as ‘Qingbai’.
I like the Thai pieces from the 15th century for their sophisticated moulded patterns. The ‘Deer’ and the ‘Flower’ boxes we have are particularly tactile pieces, encouraging you to explore their design with your fingertips.
The other Thai pieces are a larger form, made to hold more. These are a distinct high-fired stoneware, and the kiln sites for these were traced & excavated in the 1980’s in Thailand, known as Sawankalok. Australian scholars were a major part of this study, and an important collection of these pieces can be seen in the Art Gallery of South Australia. Interestingly, there is an almost identical box to one of our pieces there, the only difference being a complete reversal of the colour scheme; ours is like the ‘negative’ of theirs!
What were they used for? The answer to that is “whatever you need a box for!” Much like a Tupperware box today, they would have been used for whatever the locals needed a small container to hold. In some regions they were probably highly prized expensive imports, used in such prestigious occasions as wedding dowries and burials of the more wealthy. In some of the Indonesian island kingdoms, for example, they are found in ‘caches’, large groups of buried ‘treasure’ including ceramics and precious metals – probably a local wealthy person burying their prized possessions in a time of conflict and never coming back for them.
Another amazing source of these boxes are shipments that never made it to the market place. Boxes from well-known shipwrecks that we have include the Vietnamese products from the late 15th century Hoi An wreck, and a few from the early 17th century Ming Dynasty Bihn Thuan wreck, sold off in Melbourne a few years ago.