January 2015 newsletter
Looking back, 2014 was not as gloomy for the antiques trade as some may have thought at the time; there were significant periods when we bought and sold well - particularly towards the end of the year. Those occasions boosted the turnover and I felt happy about the year as a whole. As a result, I have been out searching for fresh pieces to offer you - and I have found some really special winey things.
As I write this, the postman has just delivered a small package which contains a silver wine label for ‘Burgundy’. It is not a grand silver-gilt or heavily cast label like some of my other label stock, but I was still pleased to find it. You might imagine that such a thing was not the least unusual, but while Burgundy labels are not rare, they are far from common. Of course I have seen many over the years, but they are outnumbered by ‘Claret’ by a factor of 20:1, or probably a great deal more. One has to ask, “Why?”
I strongly suspect the answer lies in the geography; Burgundy lies in the centre of a large land-mass with the principal river, the Rhône, running south to the Mediterranean. To transport Burgundy’s wine to England, it had either to be carried on horseback northwards for several days to the English Channel, carried to a north-flowing river (which is still quite a hike), or shipped down the Rhône and around the Iberian Peninsula. Bordeaux wines, by contrast, were close to the city which boasted an excellent Atlantic port with direct links to the world. This gave claret a huge cost advantage, which probably accounted for its popularity in past centuries. It is considerations like this which make my livelihood such an interesting one; there is always something fresh to contemplate.
Something else I have just acquired is a pewter wine taster - something which does not feature in any of the standard reference works on pewter, a branch of antiques which is much collected. I noticed it on an obscure American website, although it was made in Exeter, in the mid-18th century. When new, pewter resembles silver, but being an alloy of tin with small amounts of copper and/or lead it was a much more economical alternative. Antique pewter tarnishes to a grey tone and much was made in the Westcountry (where Exeter is, for those unfamiliar with UK geography), because the tin was mined in the adjacent county of Cornwall. Other pewter bowls with handles are well known, but a wine taster seems to be unique.
Yet another rarity I found on a website is a mid-19th century receptacle to hold two bottles on a table. It is made of mahogany, but it is not lead-lined, nor does it have any other method of holding ice or chilled water to cool the wine. It is beautifully made, as you can see, and why others like it were not made, I have no idea. But that again, is the constant joy of my business - finding things which are apparently unique - at least to me - and I have been in this particular niche of the antiques business longer than anyone else.
When you were a child, did you always try to keep the tastiest morsel on your plate until the last mouthful? I did. And I am keeping my most wonderful find of the new year until the last paragraphs in this newsletter. Let me explain.
The idea of double coasters to hold a pair of decanters first evolved about 1775 when dining tables became larger to seat more people, thus requiring more wine. Later they developed wheels and are called trolleys. We know when they were made because most were silver and the hallmarks tell us the dates and makers. By the early 19th century, decanter trolleys became more numerous and some were made larger still to hold three decanters or they were made in pairs. The grandest were silver gilt and some superlative examples can be seen in my book, ‘Great British Wine Accessories 1550 - 1900’. However, not everyone could afford the top London goldsmiths to craft a unique creation, although the fashion for larger tables persisted among the gentry and merchant classes as well as the aristocracy. This led to less extravagant versions of decanter trolleys being made.
My latest acquisition exemplifies this perfectly. It is a pair of papier mâché decanter trolleys with lacquered (not gilt) brass mounts and wheels. Although they are not marked or stamped, it is possible, even probable, that they were made either by Henry Clay or by Jennens and Betteridge (who bought Clay’s business in 1816). However, this model has not been recorded as such, as they are never marked. I have seen single examples on several occasions, but never a pair. But that was not all. The real joy for me was that the pair of trolleys came with a set of four decanters of very similar date (c.1815-20) and of superb quality and in fine original condition. The decanters fit the trolleys perfectly. It is not impossible that they were originally made as an ensemble.
This model of decanter with its parallel straight sides is known as a ‘nelson’ (several decanter shapes were given naval names in the early 19th century) and apart from being very well decorated, they have one particular feature which is rare and I believe to be a London-made feature. It is that the star-cutting of the bases ‘wraps’ around and up the sides to form the lower band of decoration which can be seen from a side view. I have only rarely seen this feature, but I bought one many years ago that I decided to keep for my own use. I still have and use it! It is a favourite.