Saturday, 26 February 2005

Top brass from bloody battles

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By Christopher Proudlove©

French prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars incarcerated in the hulks of English prison ships made pictures from the straw of their bedding.

Using the mutton bones and scavenged from the kitchens, they made sets of miniature dominoes or in rarer cases fine models of the ships on which they served. Rarer still, and in somewhat macabre taste, are the intricate and elaborate working models of Madam Guillotine made in the same fashion.

English sailors, meanwhile, embroidered pictures of ships on discarded pieces of sailcloth or, if you believe the folklore, they made elaborate valentines for their sweethearts from exotic seashells, which they collected on voyages in tropical waters.

Those serving on whaling ships, which meant months at sea with very little to do, carved naive pictures on to whales' teeth or other pieces of marine ivory, known collectively today as scrimshaw.

In most cases, but not necessarily all, such knickknacks and novelties were made to sell to raise money to supplement income or purchase food to eke out meagre rations.

The exceptions were probably intended as love tokens, such as the sailors' shell valentines or the lace bobbins and stay busks carved from wood and animal bone and decorated with pretty patterns and the names of the girls for whom they were intended.

And then there are the objects illustrated here. Love tokens they are most certainly not.

This week marks the anniversary of the start of the battle of Verdun, the longest and one of the bloodiest engagements of the First World War. Two million men were engaged in this single conflict which alone cost in excess of 650,000 lives. A British offensive on the Somme relieved the pressure on Verdun in July, 1916, and by December the French had recovered most of the ground lost.

Collecting objects relating to the so-called war to end all wars brings mixed emotions, but somehow the charming vases, ashtrays, money boxes, and paper knives fashioned with skill and ingenuity from the tools of war -- the shell cases and bullets that brought death and destruction -- are somewhat more palatable given their often amazing transformation.

The typical example of this so-called trench art is the single or pair of massive brass shell cases -- hammered, chased, cut and engraved and then polished to a gleaming shine to be turned into vases or umbrella holders.

The romantic idea that they were made by bored Tommies up to their knees in mud in the trenches is as amusing as it is unlikely. However, they have one thing in common: all were made by men with time on their hands.

How much of it was made in the trenches is open to debate, but the likelihood of the necessary tools and equipment being available to cut, hammer and solder the brass detritus of war whilst waiting to go over the top is unlikely.

More possible is the idea that most of it was made in workshops behind the front lines by trained engineers, using machinery capable of producing such remarkable results but probably at times when they would otherwise be idle.

Trench art falls into the following categories: souvenirs made by soldiers from what they found lying around and taken home for their own use; souvenirs made by soldiers or prisoners of war sold to other soldiers or exchanged for food, cigarettes or money; souvenirs made by convalescent soldiers possibly as manipulative therapy and souvenirs made by commercial businesses for sale either to soldiers going home or to tourists visiting battlefields.


The difficulty is distinguishing one from the others, but the interesting thing is that in most cases it is possible to be certain of authenticity. Shell cases are almost always stamped with dates and bear War Department official markings that to my knowledge have never been faked.

This is not surprising. Trench art has been somewhat overlooked by collectors and perhaps the current lack of interest in collecting brass -- presumably people don't want the hassle of polishing the stuff -- means prices remain affordable.

We visited the collectors’ fair at Port Sunlight last Sunday and picked up the two letter openers illustrated here. The one marked Arras, in memory of the offensive there which ran from April 9 to May 15 1917, cost us the princely sum of a fiver, while the simpler anonymous example was a quid.

Shell cases are more expensive and the more elaborate the decoration, the more costly they become. Expect to pay up to £25 for a single large First World War shell cases and perhaps three times that for a pair with punched battle name or inscription and/or cut and shaped design.

Soldiers' passion for smoking is underlined by the large quantity of trench art devoted to the habit. The most intriguing cigarette lighters were made from bullets, the hollow detachable end being removable to disclose the wick and flint wheel.

Ashtrays were made by simply hacking off the rimmed foot of the shell to which was soldered shaped bullet casings to hold the burning cigarette.

More elaborate examples double as lidded cigarette cases, the lid being fashioned from another shell base which having been removed, served as an ashtray.

Looking like a giant sugar coaster, one of the most interesting uses of a shell case was to serve as a wine bottle holder, possibly intended for the officers' mess. An example is pictured here, decorated with tunic badges and standing on .303 bullets as feet.

The most sought after and arguably expensive examples of trench art relate to the Flying Corps. Biplanes made from scrap brass, usually with propellers that spin and standing on a brass base as if the plane is in mid-flight are the most valuable, particularly if the model is named and dated.

Not all trench art was made from brass, though. Rifle butts, broken ends of wooden propellers and even the crates used to pack ammunition were turned into cribbage boards, inkstands, wall plaques and other decorative mementoes and by amateur carvers with time on their hands.

Caring for your brassware

Trench art shells and objects made from them - like many other types of decorative brass household objects including horse brasses and candlesticks - have had a lifetime of assiduous polishing which over the years has almost completely obliterated the original designs. This not only reduces the artistic merit of a piece, but also drastically reduces values.

Old brass objects build up a beautiful patina over the years through the natural oxidation of the copper content and this needs to be preserved by careful handling and polishing.

Modern polishes can contain harmful chemicals, so be sure to read and follow the manufacturer's instructions. Apply the polish with a soft cloth or soft brush and keep a separate cloth for polishing.

Use a gentle circular movement and do not exert pressure on thin or heavily pierced and decorated areas. Light burnishing is all that should be required.

Reputable brands of long-term brass polish are generally best old pieces -- and they cut down on the number of times an object need to be polished, which is good both for the object and its owner!
TankInkwellthinTrench art  - vases made from artillery shellsbottleholderthin

Pictures show, left to right:

This inkwell is a model of a First World War tank inscribed “Souvenir 1917 1916 Lens Gambrai 1918”. Made from battlefield scrap brass, it’s worth £150-200.

A trio of First World War trench art vases showing the elaborate and intricate designs capable of being made from shell cases. The vase in the centre is inscribed in relief "Arras".

For the officers’ mess, perhaps, this wine bottle holder is decorated with regimental badges and stands on .303 bullets as feet.

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Saturday, 19 February 2005

Louise Rayner’s postcards from home

Louise Rayner, ChesterWatergate Row North
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by Christopher Proudlove

Loathe as I am to admit it, surfing the auction website eBay can be a fascinating way of spending the odd idle hour on a home computer.

One of my favourites is to key in, say, the name of the village where I was born, or, perhaps, the town where I went to school. Hit the search button and see what turns up.

You’d be surprised. I was the other day when an ancient picture postcard of my village came into view on the screen.

Instead of the bleaching and dyeing textile mill with its smoky chimney, there were rolling green fields, while the towering oak tree I used to climb as a lad was a mere sapling. Talk about feeling my age!

Similar thoughts occur when viewing the watercolours of 19th century Chester painted by Louise Rayner (1832-1929). Oh,how the old city has changed!

Horses pulling carts through the cobbled streets, market traders sitting outside the town hall selling their wares from wicker baskets under their arms, 'T. Rimmer's Boot Top Manufactory' in Watergate Street and Nooces dressmaking rooms above the Old Vaults public house in Bridge Street.

Louise Rayner’s painted records of the city that was later her home are a valuable legacy to later generations.

She was born in Markeaton Street, Derby, in 1832, the second daughter in a family of five girls and one boy.

However, after leaving Derby, the family lived in London, where Louise was largely bought up.

From there, she moved to Brighton and subsequently to 2 Ash Grove, off the Wrexham Road, in Chester. She boarded there with Robert Shearing (who owned a chemist's shop in Watergate Street) and his wife Mary Anne.

Both Louise’s parents were painters and they encouraged and tutored all six children, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Father, Samuel, was a watercolourist of some note, specialising in architectural and historical genre pictures.

He first exhibited in London in 1821 and was elected an Associate of the Old Watercolour Society in 1845.

However, his career ended in disgrace in 1851 when he was convicted by the Queen's Bench for his involvement in a serious case of fraud.

Straight away he was shunned by his previously wide circle of artist friends and the final embarrassment came when the Board of the Watercolour Society expelled him.

He continued to exhibit elsewhere up to two years before his death in 1874, but without real commercial success.

Louise, on the other hand, was soon earning a good income from the sale of numerous paintings.

She had taken up drawing at the age of 15 during a long stay at Herne Bay, and consequently studied painting seriously, receiving tuition first from her father.

Later she studied under George Cattermole (1800-1868), Edmund John Nieman (1813-1876); David Roberts (1796-1864) and Frank Stone (1800-1859) and began exhibiting oil paintings in 1852, her style resembling closely that of her father.

However, she quickly changed to watercolours almost exclusively as a medium and her early paintings are considered to be her best.

Like her sisters, notably Margaret and Nancy, Louise was also greatly influenced by Roberts, who specialised in magnificent architectural paintings and all three girls produced a great many pictures of the interiors of old and historic buildings.

Most accomplished

Most accomplished in these was Margaret Rayner, whose subjects were generally church interiors, including a number of Chester Cathedral.

She was said to paint them “with truth and force beyond those of David Roberts, hence she is more pathetic”.

Louise, on the other hand, is best known for her delightful, almost photographic, pictures of street scenes, tucked away alleys and the façades of attractive old buildings.

She would often accompany her architect brother, Richard, himself a exhibitor of landscapes in London and Derby from 1861 to 1869, on business trips and sketch while he was meeting his clients.

As a result, Louise was widely travelled, both in this country and in northern France.

She chose to visit old cathedral cities and market towns in particular, and in addition to her quaint Chester street scenes, she is also known for her views of London, Hastings, Salisbury, Tewksbury, Warwick and Edinburgh.

Her paintings of Wrexham Parish Church, in North Wales and Shrewsbury are among her best.

For nearly 50 years she was a regular exhibitor at most of the major London exhibitions, including the Royal Academy, the Old and the New Watercolour Societies, the Society of British Artists, Suffolk Street Gallery, the British Institution, the Society of Female Artists and the Dudley Gallery.

Outside London she was represented in exhibitions of the Birmingham Society of Artists and in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

Today, Chester's Grosvenor Museum houses the largest public collection of Louise Rayner's watercolours – 23 in all - and is well worth visiting.

The Ludlow Museum in Shropshire and the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead also have her work on show.

However, not all Rayners hang in museums and it is still possible to acquire signed originals for your own walls - if your pocket is deep enough.

No systematic survey of the artist's work has ever been undertaken and the number of her pictures in private ownership is impossible to assess.

But they do still turn up in dealers' shop windows and in auctioneers' catalogues.

Sadly, I can only afford the postcard reproductions!

Pictures show: Louise Rayner’s Chester watercolours of (left) Bridge Street, and Watergate Row, looking north


Friday, 18 February 2005

Now jigsaws are collectable

jigsaw2THINThe Lover's LetterTHIN
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by Christopher Proudlove

I was never really that interested in jigsaw puzzles as a lad. They were the kind of thing you were reduced to tackling when chicken pox or some other childhood ailment meant you were confined to quarters and couldn’t cope with anything more strenuous.

Now I’m a father myself, I find I’m fascinated by the things, but not as a pastime, more as intriguing collectors’ items, many of which have real wall-power when framed and hung together.

My interest was fuelled by the discovery of the amusing jigsaw illustrated here. It cost all of £5 and came complete with a box.

However, there was no illustration to help with its assembly, so imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a 1930s advertisement for bird seed and pet food! Since then, no fleamarket stone has been left unturned in the search for more.

John Spilsbury, the owner of a print shop in Russell Court, London, is generally regarded as the inventor of the modern-day jigsaw, in about 1760.

Spilsbury glued engraved hand-coloured maps on to thin mahogany boards, which were cut with a saw along the boundaries of countries and counties.

He called them “dissected puzzles” and they were used to teach children geography in an entertaining manner.

In 1787, another Englishman, William Darton, produced a puzzle showing portraits of the kings of England from William the Conqueror to George III.

History lessons were never so much fun, so long as you your kings in the correct order.

Images on the dissected puzzles were generally taken from contemporary engravings that were coloured by hand to make them more appealing.

Puzzles dating from the 1800s onwards were made from lithographic prints, which allowed much improved, four-colour designs.

Just as printing became mechanised, so too did the cutting on the puzzles. Earlier jigsaws had to be hand-cut with a coping saw, which forced makers to use simple repeating patterns.

Later examples were cut using a treadle-powered saw, but the process was still laborious and time-consuming.

Around 1840, makers began cutting their puzzles with the interlocking snap-in patterns familiar today.

They also cut their costs, replacing expensive hardwood veneers with backing of pine, softwood, plywood, and pasteboard. At last low-priced puzzles were affordable to everyone from rich to poor.

From around 1900, machine cutting was adopted, allowing more complex patterns and manufacturers also started making complex puzzles that would appeal to adults, rather than children.

The Golden Age of jigsaw puzzles came in the 1920s and 1930s with companies like Chad Valley and Victory producing a wide range of puzzles reflecting both the desire for sentimental scenes and the enthusiasm for the new technologies in rail and shipping.

Puzzle designs also became more intricate and difficult and they were sold as much to adults for challenging pleasure, as to children.

Companies like Cunard and The Great Western Railway also used them for advertising purposes.

In the 1930s, the need to cut costs in both materials and labour led to the development of the mass-produced cardboard puzzles that could be stamped out on giant industrial presses, and the decline of the jigsaw puzzle began.

By the end of the Second World War, the wooden jigsaw puzzle had all but disappeared.

Today’s collectors generally prefer wooden examples, but cardboard puzzles with interesting illustrations such as ocean liners or steam trains are also popular. Prizes range from £5 to £50, but be sure to buy only those that are absolutely complete. A single missing piece can render even the best jigsaw almost worthless.

Pictures show: left, my £5 fleamarket find and an image from the Superior Jigsaws range of replica Victorian puzzles: The Lover’s Letter

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Saturday, 5 February 2005

The beautiful bronze age of collectables


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by Christopher Proudlove©

It all started during the Bronze Age, 1,000 years BC. Since then, among other things, we've been spending it, fighting with it, cooking in it and decorating our homes with it. Coins, canon and cooking pots are just three of a myriad of uses that bronze has been put to over the centuries.

The collector, though, will be most interested in the wonderful sculpture made from it and a better medium with which to decorate our homes, both inside and outside, would be hard to find.

An alloy of copper and tin, its properties make it ideally suited to casting: as it solidifies, it expands to fill every last intricate detail of a mould. Then, on cooling, it contracts slightly, making removal of the mould a simple process.

As you might expect, many famous sculptors have been attracted to such a perfect medium over the years ... Matisse, Degas, Picasso, Braque, to name but four whose work most of us can only dream about owning.

But for every one piece by a name that's revered, there's a hundred, nay a thousand, that collectors of modest means can acquire and enjoy.

What to collect is down to personal choice. I offer my own preference merely for your consideration: take a closer look at the work of animal sculptors of the 19th century – the French Animaliers, as they are affectionately known.

The golden years of the Animalier School were between 1830 and 1890. Its exponents were predominantly French and the creatures chosen to be immortalised ranged from the humble to the mighty.

The hunter might chose to have modelled his favourite gun dog with its quarry, while the racehorse owner might celebrate a victory by commissioning a study of the victor.

When not working to specific commissions, sculptors produced export items from the entire animal kingdom, much of it finding its way to Britain.

Interestingly, commission or not, the quality of most of what was produced was excellent. Take the time to examine closely pieces that are still quite common today and you'll discover a source of much pleasure. Fortunately they remain relatively inexpensive examples of the art.

Their hallmark is the realistic way in which they were executed. Cat, dog, tiger or elephant, whatever the subject, it was portrayed just as it would be seen in the flesh, which was not always the case where animals and the over-sentimental Victorians were concerned.

Arguably the first and perhaps highest regarded member of the Animalier school was Antoine Louis Barye (1796-1875).

He was born in Paris and worked almost exclusively on studies of wild animals, his masterpieces including Tiger devouring a Gavial (crocodilian) of the Ganges, now in the Louvre, and Lion and Serpent, for the Gardens of the Tuileries royal residence.

Many royal commissions followed but because of an obsession with perfection, Barye was not financially successful.

He was declared bankrupt in 1848 and his moulds and models sold to pay his debts. Undaunted, Barye continued to work and was appointed Professor of Drawings at the Museum of Natural History at the Jardin de Plantes in 1854, a post he held until his death.

Ironically, as a young man it was at the menagerie there that he had studied the animals in his sculptures.

By 1857, Barye was rid of his debts and he began casting works again to great acclaim. He was awarded the Grand Medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867 and was named the first president of the Central Union of Beaux Arts.

Today, most of Barye's plasters and models are the property of the Louvre, while his bronzes are preserve of the wealthiest collectors.


A more accessible member of the Animalier School is Pierre Jules Mêne (1810-1877) a contemporary of Barye whose bronze groups are still regularly found in fine art auctions. They can be picked up at prices starting at £600-1,000.

Mêne was born in Paris, the son of a metal worker who was no doubt responsible for much of his son’s technical grounding in the art of bronze casting. But as a sculptor, Mêne was largely self-taught.

His career was studded with honours and accolades. By 1838, he had opened his own foundry, and in the same year he exhibited for the first time at the Paris Salon.

He went on to win a number of medals there, culminating in him being awarded the Legion d'Honeur in 1861.

Mêne's work was greeted in this country with as much enthusiasm as his native France and he exhibited at the Great Exhibitions of 1851 and 1862.

Among a number of bronzes made specifically for the British market was his Derby Winner which he exhibited at the Salon in 1863.

Such was Mêne's success in Britain that the Coalbrookdale Company made copies of his work, signing them 'Coalbrookdale Bronze', while Staffordshire potters such as Copeland's cast copies in unglazed, white porcelain intended to resemble marble and known as Parian.

Sadly, in about 1900, less reputable companies also produced pirate recasts which have deceived the unwary.

However, the fakes were made from the models themselves and not the original plaster moulds. They are, therefore, of slightly smaller dimensions than the real thing.

Which is perhaps one clue as to why some animalier style bronzes remain undervalued. Few can be reliably attributed to one particular sculptor but are merely modelled 'in the style of' so and so.

Also, models from which casts were taken could remain current for a number of years, with the result that the collector can only guess at the rarity or otherwise of any bronze he or she might be offered.

Think on this, though: prices will begin to spiral once demand starts to exceed supply.


Caring for bronze

If you care at all for bronze, don’t ever polish it!

Bronze is highly susceptible to corrosion – it turns dark brown or greenish brown when exposed to the atmosphere- but this is considered one of the metal’s wonderful attributes.

The surface colour – or patina as it is called – should be protected at all costs. To do otherwise can have a seriously adverse affect on the value of a bronze object and will spoil its appeal for years to come.

So, under no circumstances should any metal polish be used and it’s also best kept away from water.

Instead, a light dusting is all that is required and perhaps careful rubbing with a clean cloth. Avoid rubbing hard, particularly on raised parts where the patina could be worn away.

Dust in crevices can be removed with a cotton bud moistened with saliva.

Dull patination can be revived with the sparing application of a microcrystalline wax.

Pictures show:

A model of a Retriever by Pierre Jules Mêne worth £1,200-1,500

An Italian greyhound and a King Charles spaniel modelled by Pierre Jules Mêne. The model is worth £700-900

A superb brown patinated bronze figure of a racehorse with jockey up. It dates from circa 1900 and is worth £1,500-2,000