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June 2015

2015 seems to be a year of many celebrations for the British people.  Recently there was the 70th anniversary of VE day, and this week, the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo - all coming together at almost the same time.  These are on top the the usual annual celebrations and the British people seem to have risen to the challenge of doing justice to each of these historic events.

I cannot remember the date, but it was in the mid 1970s that I bought what I thought were a set of ten watercolours.  I bought them for the sole reason that I liked them - their gentle colours, their simplicity and the fact that they were old and apparently in their original frames.  I hung them on my wall in the family home and there they stayed for several years. 

Then in 1981, I moved to Bristol, where among the numerous people I met, was a watercolour restorer.  My pictures were a little foxed (brown marks caused by acidity leaching through from the backing) so I asked Heather to restore them and was more than a little disappointed when she informed me that they were not watercolours, but hand-coloured prints.  However, they did look a  great deal better - bright but still gentle colouring. 

I thought no more of them, apart from admiring them as I walked past them on my staircase, for another year or two.  Then one day the latest Journal of the Furniture History Society dropped through my letterbox.  When I opened it and began perusing the pages, I noticed one double page spread which had my mind racing.  On one page was a photograph of a chair made from the elm tree under which the Duke of Wellington commanded the Battle of Waterloo.  The chair had a toprail (the upper part of the chair back) carved with an amalgamation of two scenes.  On the opposite page was an image of the two prints from which the carving was copied.  

I recognised immediately that the prints were depicting the same places as those in the set of pictures I owned; they were scenes from the Battle of Waterloo.  One was the Church in Waterloo village and the other was the road to La Haye Sainte, one of the strategic farmhouses during the battle.   It was highly likely that the other eight were also of nearby strategic buildings. Incidentally, there were no battle scenes as such, only tranquil rural scenes in exquisite detail of where the gruesome carnage had occurred. 

Because this was all before the age of the computer, I bought an illustrated book about the battle which enabled me to identify all ten images.  Today, of course I can Google any number of images of scenes of Waterloo and have seen many  - but interestingly, none which are the same as the ones I had.  

After another year or two, on a visit by the Furniture History Society I was sitting in a coach next to the archivist at Stratfield Saye, the country seat of the Duke of Wellington.  We were both members and I told her about my discovery.  Following her suggestion, I took some high-resolution photographs which I sent to her office.  The result was that ‘my’ pictures now belong to the present Duke.  Only yesterday, I handed the images over to a research team from Leeds University where they will form part of an archive about the history of the trade in antiques in the 20th century.

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As a child, like so many of my contemporaries, I collected postage stamps.  It was just one of those things that youngsters did in those days.  I guess that a few still do.  Like the majority, the enthusiasm soon wore thin and in my adult life, I have never been a collector of anything.  That is not to say that I don’t like surrounding myself with lovely antiques; I do, but I could never get my head around the idea of making the definitive collection of thimbles, spokeshaves or even corkscrews.  I suppose I simply like the notion of not being confined to one subject, but seeking the best, the most interesting,the quirky and the fun, wherever the fancy takes me and grasping the opportunity, the serendipity, of chancing across something special when it crosses my path. 

Various aspects of my dealing are the subject of serious collector interest - wine glasses, wine labels, and corkscrews come to mind immediately and even these can be, and are, sub-divided so that some people collect early Sheffield plated wine labels, while others collect the variations of Sir Edward Thomason’s patent corkscrews or heavy baluster wine glasses or those engraved by David Wolff.  The possibilities are endless. 

It is difficult to imagine that there was a time when spirits were considered ‘ungentlemanly’.  It would not have been acceptable to hang a label around a decanter telling the world that the contents were gin or whisky until well into the 19th century.  In fact, Gin was euphemistically called ‘Hollands’ before about 1820 and silver whisky labels, for example do not appear before about 1820 also, possibly a little later.  So how were spirits displayed in decanters?  The answer is that labels were made with initial letters - ‘W’ for whisky, ‘G’ for gin ‘R’ for rum and so on. 

Some years ago, I began collecting a few initial labels for ‘R’ (for Robin..? ), but we are about to ‘downsize’ and as I was looking through a drawer, I noticed the four ‘R’ labels and as I had not seen them for some time, I thought I should sell them.  The long octagonal label is the earliest (1803) and made by Peter, Ann and William Bateman, the one with floral engraving was made in Birmingham in 1848 by Yapp & Woodward, the ‘postage stamp’ label was made by John Reily and the ‘cut-out label with scroll decoration is unmarked.  However, it was almost certainly made by Peter Aitken in Glasgow in about 1825. The ‘R’ labels are not on my website, but before I put them there, I thought they may appeal to a Richard, Rosemary, Roger, or one of the several recipients whose surname begins with an ‘R’.  Individually they would be priced at between £100 and £160, but together I offer them at £450 for the four. 

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