Robin Butler on Twitter

August 2012

I am constantly surprising myself by finding things I have never seen before within my very specialised niche market of antique wine accessories.  Currently on my ‘Pick of the Month’, I have a pair of coasters which are of sufficient diameter to take magnum decanters, which in itself is unusual, if not amazingly rare.  Their unique feature is the timber from which they are made. I used to give lectures on timber identification but the wood used in their manufacture has baffled me as well as defying identification from several other experts.  Their design and construction are also unique in my experience; they are also unusually tactile.  However, in a few days there will be a fresh ‘Pick of the Month’, so do keep looking.

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Very large glass bottles, usually of an exaggerated pear shape with tall spire stoppers used to be a well known sight in the windows of what we used to call chemists’ shops, but which today we call pharmacies.  Traditionally they were filled with blue and red liquids and held 10 or more litres; They were an iconic symbol of the pharmacists’ trade and were usually prominently displayed in the shop front.  


I went to an antiques fair last week (as I write this), and on the stand of a dealer in furniture, I saw a pair of decanters, or were they chemist’s display vessels?  Perhaps they were from a shop display, perhaps not - I didn’t know when I bought them, and still don’t!  In any event, they could easily pass for decanters, so I felt I had to have them.  Bringing them home I found that they held three bottles each - just the job for a large dinner party! Had they been conventional decanters of similar capacity and age (late 19th century), they would have been considerably more expensive.  

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I have been a member of the Furniture History Society since 1965 (it was founded in the previous year).  It is an international organisation which has studied almost every conceivable aspect of its broad remit and has done so in fine detail. From “Turkish Furniture Design in the 1930s, to construction techniques practiced in Thomas Chippendale’s workshop, and from Biedermeier to brass keyhole escutcheons, few stones have been left unturned. The Society’s Journal, an annual which runs to 150+ pages, is a major work of academic research and the current volume is No. 47, or as the Society would have it, XLVII.


Despite covering such a broad spectrum of furniture studies, small dining-room pieces, like bottle carriers, coasters, bottle cradles and slopes, and other wine-related kit, of which so much was made in the 18th and 19th centuries, seem to have been ignored.  I think I may be that museum curatorial staff and senior university lecturers have not given these little things much consideration; I must do something about that!


With enormous labour costs that we endure (or earn!) today, it is difficult to grasp that in earlier centuries tradesmen earned very little indeed.  In the Georgian period, timber, especially imported timber like mahogany, was considerably more expensive than labour costs when it came to pricing a table or a chest of drawers.  It seems very likely that small pieces of wood left over from making larger furniture were saved to be made into little things, like coasters and bottle slopes. Some was used to make miniature furniture - often mistakenly called ‘apprentice pieces’, but although we have no specific evidence, it seems very likely that some left-overs were made into the subject of my interest.   


There is another aspect to the pricing of furniture of previous centuries.  When new, furniture in the 18th century was priced in detailed fashion in ‘Cabinet Makers’ Books of Prices’.  A ‘standard’ mahogany chest of drawers was 36” wide, had four drawers and plain bracket feet.  Each inch wider or narrower was priced differently, while more elaborate feet, handles or mouldings all could be ordered and priced accordingly.  Books of prices were published for the benefit of cabinet makers and buyers alike.   The only small dining room pieces that feature in theses books of prices are bottle trays, and I reproduce a page from the 1793 edition which shows that the basic cost of a two-bottle tray is 3s/3d (that’s about 16p or 25 US cents) and, for example, lining each bottle space with baize would cost an additional 2d.  Some bottle trays have brass handles, but this embellishment seems not to have been priced in the 1793 edition; perhaps it was in a later edition that I have not seen.  I think I should also mention that I have not seen a bottle tray of the pattern I currently have - without bottle divisions and with canted sides - another item unique in my experience.

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