Vinaigrettes

Recently, before Covid, on an Irish holiday of track, trace and view my wife’s relatives, the evening meal found her reminiscing long hot summers (we never seem to remember short cold summers) on the farm and the smell of silage that no one in the farmhouse seemed to notice. I said a vinaigrette would have proved useful, just as they were to the Georgian ladies as they traversed the smelly city streets.

At the end of the 18th century a combination of poor personal hygiene and disastrous sewage control made walking through streets a rather smelly business. Enter the vinaigrette. Used by many in polite society, it was a tiny hinged box which opened to reveal a decorative grill trapping a perfume soaked sponge. When held close to the nostrils the smell was considerably more pleasant than the surrounding odours.

The earliest vinaigrettes were simply the tiny boxes already described. The interior of the box was gilt lined to prevent the acidic liquid from destroying the metal. A side ring would be added, which enabled the owner to wear it as a pendant on a necklace or as part of a bracelet.

As the earliest vinaigrettes were so small their decoration was little more than simple engraving or bright cut patterns. However by the early 19th century vinaigrettes had grown somewhat and now at an enormous 4cms there was room for much more elaborate decoration. They were decorated with intricate scrollwork, flowers and foliage and figural and animal designs. The borders were often cast raised with flowers and shells and the lids could sometimes be engraved with initials or personal Coats of Arms.

The basic rectangular form was eventually abandoned in favour of more exciting shapes and designs. These varied widely from tiny purses and fob watches to books, flowers, fish, animals and shells. These are the details that make the collecting of vinaigrettes such an exciting and vibrant hobby for today’s collector and why they always sell so well in the saleroom.

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

For more information or if you have similar items you’re thinking about offering items in auction or you simply would like a valuation, please get in touch with us, full details can be found on our company website

Cutlery

With the advent of the dishwasher the demand for electroplated cutlery has sadly declined. I feel that today’s diners are missing out on the unprecedented joy (perhaps a slight exaggeration) of owning and using such fabulous flatware. That fact aside, the history of cutlery up to the development of electroplate is actually an interesting one.

In medieval Europe most people had a wooden or pewter spoon at home and if visiting friends or relatives they took it with them. The wealthy tended to do the same, but theirs were silver. Later a knife was added, but spoons, especially silver ones, hammered from a single small ingot, have survived in much greater numbers.

With the exception of Apostle spoons, spoons were not made in sets until the end of the 17th century. Many were, however, given as presents on special occasions, which could account for why so many have survived today.

When Charles II returned from exile in France in 1660, he brought with him the idea of setting a table for eating. This was a wonderful idea which not only dispensed with the embarrassment of forgetting one’s spoon when visiting, but also made the whole dining experience much more enjoyable. As with all good ideas though it took many years to catch on and it is unusual to find complete sets of cutlery that date much before the late 18th century.

Individual designs all have their own names. In Britain, the Trefid pattern gave way to the Dog Nose pattern circa 1702. Throughout the 18th century the Hanoverian pattern was followed by the Old English and finally the Fiddle pattern. The 19th century started with the Kings pattern. These patterns and their variants are still produced today.

Collectors have great fun collecting full canteens by matching patterns and periods. What is even more fun is to collect one maker.

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

For more information or if you have similar items you’re thinking about offering items in auction or you simply would like a valuation, please get in touch with us, full details can be found on our company website

Murano Glass

As a man with no talent whatsoever for the practical or the artistic, I am both jealous and in awe of the lucky gifted individuals who possess these gifts. The world of art and design is full to overflowing of just such talented individuals and Paulo Venini is a perfect example.

Murano is one of a compact group of Venetian islands and has been manufacturing glass since the eleventh century. Glassmakers were forced out of Venice for two main reasons. Firstly because of the ever present risk of fire and secondly to keep some of their most innovative techniques secret.

The eleventh century is a long time ago and from then until now Murano has seen some of the best glassmakers in the world. One of the very best came along in the early twentieth century, his name was Paulo Venini and he was born in 1895.

In adult life Venini was a disillusioned lawyer and he gave it all up to become a glassmaker. In 1921 he purchased a partnership in the Murano glasshouse of Glacomo Cappelin and by 1925 he had overall control and renamed it Venini and Company.

He abandoned the Revivalist styles of other Venetian glasshouses, but never departed from the essential traditions of Venetian glass. Very quickly he established himself as the leading manufacturer of high quality decorative and table glass in Italy.

Not only was Venini brilliant, he employed some brilliant designers. Such people as Taplo, Wirkkala and Ponti.

When he died, the factory was taken over by his widow and his son in law, Ludovico de Santillana and the tradition for excellence lived on.

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

For more information or if you have similar items you’re thinking about offering items in auction or you simply would like a valuation, please get in touch with us, full details can be found on our company website

Ming Porcelain

Ming porcelain is always worth a small fortune. Such a bold statement and so wrong. It is however, a view very commonly held. Why is it incorrect?

To begin with the Ming Dynasty lasted from 1386 to 1644, which is almost 300 years, a very long time to produce an awful lot of pots. But an enormous amount of Ming porcelain is poor quality, provincially produced and naively painted and this together with the fact that they have no reign mark, adversely affects their value.

Taking the “reign” mark a step further, for a piece to have high value it must be a “mark” and “period” piece. The mark is the reign mark on a piece and is composed of symbols that denote emperors. These marks can easily be researched and identified.

The problem is the period. The habit of putting earlier reign marks on Chinese porcelain is common and was practiced for hundreds of years. It is not unusual, therefore, to find an 18th century item with a 15th century mark.

An item made during the reign of the emperor whose mark is on the base is referred to as “mark and period” and the value is often increased twofold or threefold. Better quality pieces which are mark and period are very much rarer than the provincial Ming and are highly prized by collectors.

These highly prized pieces are highly priced and that is the sort of piece people refer to when they ask expectantly “is it Ming?”

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

For more information or if you have similar items you’re thinking about offering items in auction or you simply would like a valuation, please get in touch with us, full details can be found on our company website

Marriages

As if she doesn’t have enough to do, my wife is a regular reader of my weekly missive and I have to say, an all too regular critic. As this weeks subject is marriage I feel it is therefore important to get a few things into the open in the first paragraph. I am a faithful and loving husband. Admittedly I don’t cook anything, but I have other more important attributes. There, that seems to cover things nicely.

The reason I mention this is obviously to say how wonderful married life is, but also to say some pieces of furniture are also married and it is something to watch out for. A “marriage” is the term used to describe furniture that has been “made up” from different pieces, often of a similar date.

Most frequently seen on bureau cabinets and bureau bookcases, but also on larger bookcases, marriages are usually betrayed by differences in colour, grain and quality of the timber, particularly on the sides. As a rule the backboards on genuine pieces should closely resemble one another, both in timber used and in construction techniques.

Married pieces are often out of proportion, showing a visual imbalance between joined parts. In addition, they can often be identified by an examination of the junction of the top and base sections, which may not fit tightly.

On veneered furniture, a marriage may be apparent when the top section is removed. The veneer should not extend far beyond the point where the base meets the top. Finally, a genuine piece will display a stylistic union and decorative embellishments should be identical in both design and execution.

In this instance furniture mirrors life and there are good and bad marriages. A good marriage doesn’t shout at you though it just is a good marriage.

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

For more information or if you have similar items you’re thinking about offering items in auction or you simply would like a valuation, please get in touch with us, full details can be found on our company website

Secretaires

When our habits change the furniture and furnishings we surround ourselves with also change. A sad truth of modern life is that many eat their meals in the comfort of an arm chair beside the television and so demand for the dining table diminishes. A similar fate effects the secretaire and the bureau. In the age of emails and the internet few need the writing surface or book storage they provide any more.

I fully appreciate that in the modern home a large piece of ‘brown’ furniture that serves no useful purpose will not be on many lists of intended purchases, but it just seems such a shame for the poor old secretaire. What a wonderful piece of furniture it is.

During the 18th century the most fashionable item of writing furniture was the bureau, but the chest with a straight fronted writing drawer continued to be an alternative. Two buttons at each side of the drawer dropped the front to reveal a writing interior every bit as exciting as that of the bureau. The secretaire drawer gradually increased in depth and the chest was often surmounted by a bookcase.

The usefulness of the secretaire bookcase or secretaire cabinet ensured that it continued to be made throughout the 19th century, with infinite variations of detail in the style of pediments, glazing patterns and surface decoration.

The French developed the secretaire à battant in the late 18th century and it is generally considered more sophisticated than the British version. It was a full, flat, fall front cabinet, resting on a chest of drawers or cupboard, often constructed as one piece rather than two separate. As with everything though, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

For more information or if you have similar items you’re thinking about offering items in auction or you simply would like a valuation, please get in touch with us, full details can be found on our company website

Pembroke Tables

The Dowse Chest. This is a chest of drawers named after a twentieth century auctioneer from Sheffield who commissioned a chest of drawers with special handles and a new design of drawer closing. Through the following centuries the chest was always referred to as the Dowse Chest, with auction house catalogues using its proper name. I wonder just how special that would be. My grandfather has a street named after him, but this would be a piece of furniture.

All fantasy (except Dowse Avenue) but it makes you wonder how excited Lady Pembroke must have been, or perhaps she took it all in her stride. The history books never tell us that do they.

The use of a proper name in the description of a piece of furniture usually derives from an original commission and in this case the Countess of Pembroke required a “type of breakfast table with small drop leaves” and that is what she ordered. Eating breakfast from her table must have done her a power of good, because born in 1737, she continued to eat breakfast until her death, in her nineties, in 1831.

The Pembroke table is exactly as the Countess described. The drop leaves are usually about half the size of the top and four legs support the top, which usually boasts a drawer and a dummy drawer. Later, in George III reign, some Pembroke tables had a centre pedestal instead of four legs.

The Pembroke table is a very useful and an often underrated item. It can be used as a decorative side table, displaying ornaments and photographs, or as a small dining table seating four in comfort. This table was made from the mid 18th century and continued through the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

For more information or if you have similar items you’re thinking about offering items in auction or you simply would like a valuation, please get in touch with us, full details can be found on our company website

Tinplate Toys

When I watch our older grandchildren playing with their toys they just don’t seem to cherish them in the same way that I remember cherishing my childhood toys. Now maybe I was just a sad old toy cherisher or maybe attitudes have changed slightly. If attitudes are changing and us oldies cared more for our toys, just imagine then how much those late Victorian and Edwardian children must have cherished their exciting new tin plate toys.

The best tinplate toys combine fine detailing, period styling and renowned makers and it was in the early 19th century that they began to exceed the popularity and manufacture of their wooden counterparts. They are amongst the earliest mass produced toys available.

The toys were made from sheets of tinplated steel which was cut out, shaped and then decorated, making them cheaper and easier to produce than the wooden toys of the period. The late 19th and early 20th centuries are considered the ‘Golden Age’ of the tinplate toy.

Many of the important makers were German, with the most sought after including Marklin and Bing although the American makers Marx and Strauss are also keenly collected.

Before the 1890s tinplate toys were hand painted which ensured a high level of detail. This detail included boats with portholes that opened and very realistic rigging and motor cars with lamps, doors that opened and rubber tyres. These examples, although inexpensive in their day, are amongst the most highly prized by collectors in the saleroom.

From the 1900s the painting was largely replaced by the printing technique of colour lithography which used a transfer. It was faster and more economical but it made the toys lighter and less complex. However the prices for such examples are still relatively high, depending of course on type size and condition.

As with most collectables the key to value is rarity, quality and condition and this coupled with the desire of ownership ensures that the tinplate market is always very buoyant.

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

For more information or if you have similar items you’re thinking about offering items in auction or you simply would like a valuation, please get in touch with us, full details can be found on our company website

Dessert Glass

Before lockdown my only claim to fame was that I could produce an edible scrambled egg. Since lockdown I am a new man. I can make very palatable crumble, with a mixture of fruits and jams, including marmalade. I do a chocolate banana on a biscuit base and a sponge pudding with a particularly saggy bottom. All these come with lashings of Birds own, extra thick. I love desserts and my dessert cooking journey is in its infancy. Now I am on the lookout for some dessert glass.

In preceding centuries dessert was considered an important occasion in its own right. These were times when the wealthiest members of society would celebrate with parties incorporating large and varied amounts of food.

Desserts would often be served away from the table in buffet form. This could be directly after dinner or later in the evening. The atmosphere would be something that we might expect at a cheese and wine party today.

The kind of treats on offer included candied fruit, marshmallows, crystallised citrus peels and almonds. They would be served in glasses on tall stems known as suckets, that resemble drinking glasses. They would also be served on footed and stemmed plates and saucers known as tazzas and comports.

Jelly and ice creams were served in glasses that were shorter and thicker with practically no stem. The custard cup is a variant on the jelly glass, but this time with handles. Custard cups were used for dishes like egg custard and baked egg trifles.

Sometimes all of these dishes would be placed on large, stemmed salvers placed to form a pyramid. Is it possible, I ask myself, to conjure up a picture of anything more delicious? What are we left with today? A wonderful wealth of marvellous glass to collect.

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

For more information or if you have similar items you’re thinking about offering items in auction or you simply would like a valuation, please get in touch with us, full details can be found on our company website

Jennens and Bettridge

Last weekend saw my wife and I entertaining one of our grandchildren and me suddenly remembering papier-mâché at school. Out came the flour and water and in no time we had a couple of bowls covered with sticky strips of paper and a mess everywhere. I started to explain to our little charge about papier-mâché furniture, but interest in the subject soon waned.

Papier-mâché furniture became popular in the Victorian period of the 19th century. The decoration is japanned or varnished onto a mostly black background.

Papier-mâché furniture was produced by a number of makers but they largely remained anonymous. However, Jennens and Bettridge is one company whose name is synonymous with papier-mâché. In 1816 they took over the firm of Clays in Birmingham and from then on began the great age of japanned papier-mâché for which they are now famous.

Their earlier pieces tended to be smaller items such as bottle coasters, writing slopes, trays, glove boxes and fans. Once the market had accepted these smaller items they began to experiment with larger pieces which included furniture like dressing tables and cabinets.

Pieces by Jennens and Bettridge do carry the company mark, usually impressed on the reverse beneath a crown. No other papier-mâché companies are known to have signed their wares.

Decoration is usually hand painted and elaborate, showing flowers, birds or on occasion even full landscapes. Giltwork was commonly incorporated into the design and used on borders and rims of furniture. Mother of pearl inlay was another typical feature and this was introduced by George Souter at Jennens and Bettridge in 1825.

The condition of japanned papier-mâché items is a crucial factor in estimating their value. Papier- mâché needs to breath and is liable to crack and warp if not given sympathetic conditions. The effects of central heating can be truly devastating on a piece. Beware, because restoration is very difficult and often unsuccessful.

Senior Valuer Michael Dowse

For more information or if you have similar items you’re thinking about offering items in auction or you simply would like a valuation, please get in touch with us, full details can be found on our company website