Robin Butler on Twitter

December 2011

The world of antiques is very well served by a weekly newspaper, The Antiques Trade Gazette, which caters for auctioneers, dealers, collectors and academics - indeed anyone who has an interest in what the world of old-fashioned things is doing.  Whether it is the current problems facing the art world in 'droite de suite' directives from Brussels, the news of a recent record price for a piece of Chinese porcelain, or the rise in popularity of collecting wine bottles, it is all reported in the ATG.

Quite regularly the paper has a themed section - the London Fairs season in June, Channel Island silver, for example, or as most recently - wine.

With several pages being taken by wine merchants and brokers on wine as an investment and current market trends in wine development and buying, I was delighted to redress the balance by writing a brief article on my subject - the history and scope of wine accessories.  This is what appeared in the paper:-

Henry VIII may not be the first name that springs to mind in connection with wine, but it was he who indirectly laid the foundations of the wine industry in Britain by founding the Royal Navy.  Following the expansion of the Navy under the Stuart kings and during the Commonwealth, Britain gained control of the oceans which in turn allowed an enormous development of trade around the world (in addition, of course, to paving the way for colonial expansion).  Thus Britain has been for over 300years, the epicentre of the world wine trade – despite not producing any wine herself until well into the 20th century.  She still is.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain’s aristocrats were not alone in enjoying the fruits of trade; the burgeoning professions and tradesmen, with sufficient funds at their disposal, also chose to patronise wine merchants in large numbers.  The taste for wine was further fuelled by the demands of gentlemen’s clubs and societies in which drinking to excess was commonplace.  It is against this background that Britain produced more accessories to aid the enjoyment of wine than any other country, and probably more than the rest of the world put together.

Wine bottles were produced of sufficient strength to withstand the pressure of secondary fermentation from the mid-17th century, although exploding bottles remained a serious hazard in cellars.  At first bungs were used to stopper bottles but corks, and corkscrews, having evolved from gunsmiths’ tools, appeared from c.1690.  Early wine bottles are avidly collected as are corkscrews.

Britain saw the development of clear lead glass take place in the 1670s allowing the manufacture of wine glasses and decanters which had previously been imported from Venice and the Low Countries.  It took full advantage of its pre-eminence for the following 100 years.  Earlybaluster-stemmed glasses are much sought, while the air- and opaque-twist glasses of the 1740s - 70s are an area of keen collection. The variety, quality and quantity of such glasses together with the skill of enamellers and gilders who sometimes decorated them is awesome.

It is apparent from surviving artefacts that by the 1730s, wine consumption was growing rapidly and the following decade saw the first earthenware bin labels and silver wine labels together with greatly increased decanter production. By the mid-century, coasters were introduced in which decanters rested and wine funnels and siphons, too, made their debut. In the late 18th century coasters were made of
silver (whether plain, gilded or plated), papier mâché, wood (treen) and even glass,
leather and horn.

Wine coolers, first in silver and marble and later in mahogany and exotic timbers were made, both as floor-standing furniture for many bottles and as table items for one or two bottles.  Furthermore, silver wine cisterns comprise some of the grandest pieces of silver ever made, being finely wrought and weighing up to 8,000 ounces (about 250 kg.).

Wine jugs, whether of silver or glass, or in combination, started to be made from about 1775, but the idea caught on during the early 19th century with claret jugs appearing from the mid-1830s.  By 1850 claret jugs had already developed into an art-form of their own and the 1880s saw the introduction of fantastic zoomorphic models.

With dumb waiters, cellarets, sideboards, drinking tables, bottle trays and cradles, dining-room furniture-makers supplied wine drinkers with many requisites not catered for by silversmiths and glasshouses. 

Late 19th century Britain saw a massive vogue for champagne, which had recently been developed into a dry sparkling wine, creating more opportunities for talented British craftsmen to create yet another set of paraphernalia.

It only remains for me to wish you all good health, happiness and prosperity the festive season and for 2012.

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