Robin Butler on Twitter

August 2011

As promised, here is my report on the season’s three London antiques fairs.  My report is brief as I have other things to tell you about this month.

Olympia, with wider aisles, up-graded stands and first-floor gallery abandoned, was a welcome improvement.  At last the organisers  have listened to the exhibitors and the new fresh look resulted in good  business  being  done, helped by lower stand costs.   Exhibitors looked happier, and that always improves a fair!  Art Antiques London was a smaller ceramics-based fair with more than a smattering of other disciplines.  It boasted an excellent atmosphere and deservedly, plenty of deals were made.

Masterpiece opened its doors two weeks later in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.  In just two years, it has established itself as the premier British antiques event by a huge margin.  The displays, both by the organisers and the exhibitors were dramatic to the point of being awesome.  The cream of British antiques dealers were joined by many from Europe, as well as by others whose trade was fine wine, classic cars, modern jewels, fine art, watches and much else besides.  The show is much more than a successor to the old Grosvenor House Fair, which after 70+ years was itself becoming something of an antique.  Masterpiece takes the art of the fair to a completely new level of excellence.  For anyone seriously interested in antiques or luxury goods, it should be regarded as utterly unmissable.

However, amongst all the superlative offerings, I did see something rather disturbing at Masterpiece .  It was a pair of silver wine coolers made in 1714 for Sir Paul Methuen by the eminent Huguenot goldsmith, Lewis (sic) Mettayer.   I had seen them illustrated on the Internet a couple of months previously, advertised by a firm of Paris auctioneers.  In Paris the wine coolers were silver gilt with Sir Paul’s finely engraved coats of arms in crisp condition.  Now they had been stripped of their gilding!   Quite apart from altering the appearance from gold to silver, they displayed another serious shortcoming.  When original gilding is removed, the silver is left pitted, and it is then necessary to buff (abrasively polish) the surface to remove the pitting.  In doing so, detail is inevitably lost.  The coats of arms I saw at Masterpiece, were no longer crisp, but rounded at the edges, as was other decorative detail.  I was told by the dealer that they were more saleable ungilded - something I found quite inexplicable.  It was nothing short of vandalism.  As they were arguably the most important wine coolers ever made, as far as wine history is concerned, I felt completely disheartened - and still do.

Sir Paul Methuen succeeded his father, Sir John, as British Ambassador to Portugal and it was he who negotiated the Methuen Treaty (in 1703) allowing Portuguese wines to be imported tax-free into Britain, in return for British woolen goods being sold tax-free to Portugal.  There were other historically important aspects to the treaty also.  The enormous effect on the wine trade was that for more than a century, until the treaty was repealed in 1836, the British mainly drank Portuguese wines, while fully-taxed French wines fell from favour except by those who chose to afford them*.  The effect of this is well reflected in wine labels which tell us clearly what was consumed in British households.  Apart from Port and Madeira, there were numerous wines almost unknown in Britain today, wines like Bucellas, Setubal and Calcavella.

And talking of Portuguese wines, I have a few wine and bin labels which illustrate the point, including three early delftware examples for port, a pottery bin label for Bucellas (these days spelt with one ’l’) and a mother-of-pearl wine label for ‘Lisbon’.   Indeed, all the wines I mentioned come from the area near Lisbon. Spanish wines were also popular, particularly sherry, labels for which I have some fine examples.  Mountain,  being a sweet fortified wine, was very fashionable during the 18th and early 19th centuries and was made in the hilly hinterland of Malaga.  A wine merchant in Cornwall used to stock Mountain, but he has retired from business - which is a pity as I have a fine decanter of about1760 so engraved.  Fortunately I still have a couple of bottles, so one will go with the decanter if anyone is so inclined!

Finally, may I draw your attention to a really fine selection of decanters I currently have.  Rather than eulogise at length, I have attached a picture showing some of the earliest, rarest, and most interesting.  You can read their details on my website under the decanters sections.

*Claret always remained popular as the voyage to and from Bordeaux is easy, and even during (the many) periods of war, trade, legal or otherwise, existed between London or Bristol and Bordeaux.  Landlocked Burgundy was a different matter, and Burgundy wine labels are seldom seen (although I do have one).

Return to newsletters list