Friday, 26 August 2005

People collect the strangest so-called antiques

Phrenology 2 thin
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by Christopher Proudlove©

Collecting is such a wonderful excuse. You can fill your home with all sorts of junk and never have to worry what friends and neighbours think. Why people collect is a complete mystery to me ... I just do it, to the exclusion of almost any other pastime.

The things people collect is also particularly amusing. Most bizarre I've ever come across was a collector of barbed wire! He was an American (of course) whose passion was the display in his 'den' of 18inch strands of the stuff fastened to highly polished mahogany plinths. Personally, I was amazed to learn there were so many different types.

A collection of antique milk bottles was another strange one, while other acquaintances of ours hoard respectively Victorian tiles; printed billheads; wrappers from paper packets of dressmaker's pins; cut-throat razors; clothes brushes with advertising slogans printed on them and ventriloquists; dummies.

I have a slightly different ambition. I want to collect, not a group of things all broadly similar, but rather an assemblage of objects whose design or intended purpose is so outrageous or unusual that they must be saved for posterity. And the curiouser the better!

I'm well on the way, already. The shelves chez nous already groan under the weight of such obtuse pieces as a hammer, a fire extinguisher, a wasp trap, a darning mushroom, a walking stick, a rolling pin and a model of a sailing ship.

What makes them unusual is that each is made from glass.

The hammer is just a jokey thing like red lamp oil and tartan paint, made by a glass blower with a sense of humour.

The fire extinguisher is more serious. On discovering a blaze, the idea was to throw the thing, which is filled with a fire retarding chemical, at the seat of the flames so that it smashes and spills out the contents to do its work.

They were effective and, therefore, quite rare nowadays. Take a trip to Erdigg Hall, the National Trust home near Wrexham.

One of the most complete late 18th century country homes in the country, the house has pairs of the so-called Harden Star Hand Grenade, hanging one each side of the doors to each room.

They cost 45 shillings (£2.25) per dozen when they were new in 1885. Today a single example - they come in either cobalt blue or green - would change hands for around £60-80.

The nice thing about the wasp trap is that no one has a clue what it's for until they're told. It's also ingeniously designed and a wonderful shape.

Interestingly, garden centres have hit on the idea and are now selling cheap and nasty copies. Pay around £3-5 for one of those or £40-60 for a wonderful hand-blown Victorian example.

The other three pieces are simply unlikely examples of glass manufacturing. They emanate probably from the Nailsea or perhaps Stourbridge glassworks of the mid19th century.

Each is part of a group of glassware collectively known as friggers. Tradition has it they were made from scrap glass at the end of the day's production that would otherwise have been wasted.

Instead, the glassblowers spent a little of their own time before going home to produce knickknacks to sell for some extra pocket money.

More likely, small glassworks were set up to produce the objects as decorative souvenirs in a cottage industry just like Staffordshire potters made flatback figures.

That's probably enough glass. Now's the time to branch out into other areas. I'm still looking for a left-handed moustache cup; a patent nose improver (a miniature leather harness contraption invented by a man called C. Lees Ray in 1908); a damp bed detector (an early 20th century pocket hygrometer, essential for the traveller in a strange hotel) and, just to double check whether or not I've finally lost my marbles, a phrenology head like the one illustrated here.

Dr Franz Josef Gall

"You want your bumps feeling," she said when I told the Business Manager of my plan to buy the other day.

Precisely, said I. And thanks to Dr Franz Josef Gall, a diagnosis shouldn't be a problem.

It was he who, in 1796, devised a system for assessing a person's capabilities by studying the shape of their skull. He called the study Phrenology.

It was based on two assumptions, one since scientifically confirmed: that particular human faculties are to some extent localised in particular areas of the brain; the other, subsequently debunked: that the size of these areas can be felt via the bumps on your head.

However, at the time the latter was a popular theory that was taken deadly seriously. Even up to the beginning of this century, it was believed there was a connection.

As a result, thousands of white glazed earthenware pottery heads - the scalp printed with a kind of road map to the 30odd zones where Dr Gall decided one's faculties were located - were a common sight in doctors' and psychiatrists' surgeries.

The most common stand just under a foot tall and date from the latter part of the 19th century when an American called L.N. Fowler - his name was printed on the front - took up the cause.

Presumably the psychiatrist would have had the thing on his desk to refer to as he ran his fingers over the patient's head.

Other more rare examples were manufactured in porcelain for the tops of sealing wax seals, while slightly larger versions doubled as inkwells.

Such heads were snapped up eagerly some years ago and prices for the larger desk top versions were around the £1,000 mark.

However, their saleroom success prompted a flood of fakes onto the market, some of which were (and still are) notoriously difficult to spot.

As a result, prices slipped and remain somewhat depressed by comparison with, say, five years ago. Expect to pay currently around the £350-450 mark for a right 'un.

If I did, I suspect there'd be an extra bump on my head ... where the glass hammer she was wielding had caught me a glancing blow!

American brothers Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811-1896) and Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887) travelled extensively lecturing for free and examining heads for a fee. Their sister, Charlotte, and Lorenzo Fowler's wife, Lydia, became notable phrenologists, and they subsequently opened an office in New York, establishing the Phrenological Cabinet, displaying casts, skulls, charts, and other curiosities of the movement.Branches of the Cabinet were opened in Boston and Philadelphia.
In 1843, Charlotte Fowler married a medical student, Samuel Roberts Wells, who then entered into partnership with his brothers-in-law, forming the publishing house of Fowler and Wells. The firm produced thousands of copies of phrenological texts and they sold, cranial casts, and the famous L.N. Fowler heads
Phrenology heads were made in America and some were no doubt imported to the UK. However, the majority of those found today were probably made by Charles Collinson & Son, a sanitaryware maker in the Potteries town of Burslem. They date from the third quarter of the 19th century.
However, for every right example that turns up in auction sale, antique shop or fair, there are literally hundreds of fakes doing the rounds. The easy way to spot such duffs is to put one side by side with an original - the differences are obvious. Look for unlikely glaze cracking patterns and be wary if the lines of cracking appear to be too black. Faked cracking is easy to spot. Check the weight - fakes are much lighter. Is the gold convincing? Again, modern 'gold' decoration is nowhere near as good as the original. Is the thing too perfect? Age means wear and damage, fakes are usually in good condition. Ask for a guarantee. No guarantee, no sale.

Pictures show: top, Ink heads: These phrenology heads are also inkwells. They date from the 1860s and were probably made in Staffordshire. Note the central dipping hole and the holes left and right to hold pens when not in use

Below: left to right, Scientific journals made many wild claims about the significance of phrenology and the study of the shapes of heads, as this contemporary print proves - no matter who might have been upset by the "findings"

A Charles Collinson L.N. Fowler phrenology head worth £350-450

The craze for phrenology spread to the advertising world, as these trade cards for hatter Pryor proves. The cards is worth a few pounds

Phrenology 3 low resPhrenology 1 low resPhrenology - 5 low res



Anonymous mr n anthony said...

I have an original phremology bust that used to belong to my grandmother. I was wondering how current the valuation on this site is and what it would be worth today?
Regards Nick

16 November 2010 at 05:18  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Current auction value: £300-400, but there are various types and makers.

16 November 2010 at 06:10  

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