Robin Butler on Twitter

May 2012

Some antiques are hard to find, either because few were originally made, or that they have been avidly snapped up by the collecting fraternity. Some fall into both categories. An example is what is commonly called a 'ship's decanter. While ordinary decanters are collected by very few, ship's decanters - those with  very wide bases - are much more keenly sought.

First, there is a question to be asked. It may sound obvious, but were they really intended for on-board use? Bearing in mind that sea voyages pre-1850 were all sail-powered, with the attendant lack of deck horizontality, the answer has to be "no". Or has it? There is a well-known and vivid George Cruikshank cartoon of debauchery and revelry in the captain's cabin of an East Indiaman in which a decanter (although not a ship's decanter) on a tray with glasses is slung from a ceiling hook while the deck is at a precarious elevation.   Was this artistic licence or was it common practice? There are known examples of what we call ship's decanters with naval provenance, but there are many others without.

Ship's decanters were first made in the last quarter of the 18th century and following Admiral Rodney's victories, particularly at the Battle of the Saintes (April 1782) were often referred to at the time as 'rodneys'. This probably settles the argument of their maritime moniker. The term 'rodney' is still occasionally used. As an aside, there was much controversy over whether or not Rodney acted with competence following the victory, as he should have chased the enemy out of the Caribbean and captured it. He was, nevertheless, ennobled. The French and Spanish fleets originally set out to take Jamaica, but at least he thwarted their plan.

Ship's decanters, or rodneys if you prefer, were more difficult to make than standard models, because of their shape, and they were often blown more heavily and with superior glass. They were usually fitted with flat stoppers as other shapes (globular and mushroom) would roll from a table.  They have been very popular for over 100 years and most seen today are late 19th or early 20th century. Indeed the number of reproductions can make it very confusing for someone looking for an antique version and they probably outnumber genuine ones by a factor of100:1. Copies tend to be larger and have mushroom stoppers, while some have neck rings which can be felt when a finger is inserted in the neck. There are other differences which are too complex to explain in a short piece like this.

How broad based does a decanter have to be to qualify as a rodney/ship's decanter? It is a question to which there is no definitive answer, nor is it dependent on a particular ratio of width to height. It is more a question of this is a ship's decanter and that is not - and the dividing line is quite blurred.  There are some quite experienced experts who categorise those near that divide as 'semi-ship's' decanters!

Today, when glass manufacturers can produce almost any shape, it is notable that many make decanters with very wide bases for the simple reason that they allow the wine to 'breathe' better. Of course antique ones do pretty much the same!

Having written the above, you will not be surprised to hear that I have a few rodneys - and more are on the way if you keep looking at my website. I have seen so few to buy in recent times, but suddenly that situation has reversed. Perhaps it is the recession which has brought them out from the shade and into my domain. I have, incidentally a reproduction (which itself is nearly 100 years old); it is a demonstration piece but also a more affordable alternative than genuine examples if anyone is looking for a more moderate price-tag.

                                                            *     *     *     *     *
Now for something quite different... . For some years, when I lived in Bristol, I was a member (commandeur) of the Commanderie de Bordeaux á Bristol, a club devoted entirely to Bordeaux wines. It organised regular and rather grand dinners in which we samples numerous clarets (although we usually started the evenings with Champagne) with excellent food and in the delightful ambience of Merchant Venturers' Hall. It still does. Every other year, we visited Bordeaux en charabanc where we inspected châteaux and, of course, tasted their wines (in abundance). I am delighted to report that the current Maître ordered two copies of my book to present to the owners of Ch. Smith Haut Lafite and Ch. Haut Brion during their current visit and where they will be dinner guests. I recall one such visit many years ago being asked to present, on behalf of the Commanderie, a copy of my 'Book of Wine Antiques' to Prince Guy de Polignac at Ch. Liversan of which he and his family were then owners. There is very little which is relevant, affordable and British that we could give to the owners of top Châteaux, and I was thrilled that my books were, and still are, considered just right for such an occasion.

Return to newsletters list