Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Silversmiths who kept greatness in the family

Lamerie plate
by Christopher Proudlove©

Fortunately for my bank manager, I don't collect silver. If I did, the chance of finding - let alone affording - something made by Paul de Lamerie (1688-1751) is remote. One of the most celebrated and arguably greatest of all English gold and silversmiths, De Lamerie was a leading exponent of rococo style and his most exuberant pieces are today seen only in museums. So then, what are the chances of finding a piece by the man who taught him? I thought they were pretty slim, but I was wrong, more of which later.

As our politicians wrestle with the perceived problems of an influx of European refugees, it is interesting to note that De Lamerie was himself a second-generation Huguenot refugee, a victim of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which drove his parents out of France to the safety of the Netherlands.

The edict was a decree of 1598 establishing that Catholics and Protestants could live and work side by side in France. It granted French Protestants - the Huguenots - their civil rights in a predominantly Catholic country and it succeeded in bringing peace and unity for many years.

However, Louis XIV renounced the edict and declared Protestantism illegal, so the Protestants fled. At a stroke, France lost many of its most skilled and hard-working individuals. An estimated 160,000 Huguenots travelled to such places as Switzerland, the US, Germany, Amsterdam and London which alone attracted some 50,000 immigrants. They were wig makers, hairdressers, boot and shoe makers, perfumers, jewellers, furriers and gunsmiths. The silversmiths among them brought sophisticated and advanced designs. They used a thicker silver and adorned it with higher and more elaborate relief and engraved decoration.

De Lamerie's father, also Paul, was himself a minor aristocrat and on reaching the Netherlands, became an army officer in the service of William of Orange. His son was probably born there, but in 1689 the family left for London and by 1691 were living in Soho, the district having been taken over by French Huguenot refugees.

Though he went on to greatness, very little is known about the young Paul's progress through what was an essentially closed profession. However, records at the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London show an entry for August 6, 1703, in which the he apprentices himself to a Peter Plattell (sic) "Citizen and Goldsmith of London, for the term of seven years from this day".
In addition to teaching the boy the technical skills of silversmithing, the Master also gave him the hand of one of his daughters
Platel, himself a Huguenot from an aristocratic family in Lorraine, had probably also been apprenticed in London and registered his mark at Goldsmiths' Hall in 1699. A gifted individual, he made a silver service for the Prince of Wales, who became George II. De Lamerie probably lived with Platel and in addition to teaching the boy the technical skills of silversmithing, the Master also gave him the hand of one of his daughters in marriage. The couple had two sons and four daughters.

Platel died in 1719 and De Lamerie no doubt took over his workshop and his clients. He became a Freeman in 1712 and registered his mark the same year. Less than four years later, the young man had established himself sufficiently to open a shop and workshop at the sign of the Golden Ball in Windmill Street.

In 1731, De Lamerie was honoured by being invited to join the governing body of the Goldsmiths' Company, by which time he was enjoying huge success. Commissions came from all the wealthiest European families and it is notable that all his most elaborate pieces date from this period.

He died in 1751 without an heir to pass on his business, both his sons, Paul and Daniel, dying in infancy.

By way of illustrating the kind of money pieces by De Lamerie fetch today, in April last year, a George II silver-gilt cream boat with London hallmarks for 1736 and weighing 230 grams, a smidgen over 7 ounces, and measuring just 4 1/2 inches sold at Sotheby's in New York for $57,000.

Platel sugar caster
This is somewhat out of my reach. However by chance, I came across this pretty little George I silver sugar caster (pictured right) which is hallmarked for London 1718 and estimated in a recent sale at £700 to £900. It sold for £7,500. Why? Because it was made by De Lamerie's Master, mentor and father-in-law, Pierre Platel.

Picture top shows: Luscious Lamerie - A silver gilt ewer and basin decorated with the royal coat of arms, now in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths

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Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Machines that make birdsong run like clockwork

<bird in cage
by Christopher Proudlove©

Few collectors of my generation will forget the debonair Arthur Negus and the BBC antiques television programme "Going for a Song". The opening and closing sequences of that hugely influential and educating programme featured a singing bird automaton music box, not unlike the one illustrated here. Now, the chirping bird turning its head from side to side and fluttering its tail in such a jaunty, cheerful manner is an image that has become almost synonymous with collecting.

As someone not permitted by senior management to have a canary in the house, I've always hankered after owning a mechanical one, which struck me as possibly the next best thing. And then I learned how much they cost. Needless to say, I'm still saving.

The value of the late 19th century clockwork singing birds has taken flight. You won't be left with much change out of about £2,000 for a reasonable example in good working order. For the money you get a tiny feathered mechanical bird or birds, hopefully not too moth-eaten, which open and close their beaks in a semblance of syncopation with the sound of bird song or the tinkling of a music box, the movement of which is located in the base of the cage.

Automata that mimic birds have been around for a long time. Archytas of Tarentum (420-411 B.C.) is said to have built a mechanical bird that was propelled by a jet of steam and in Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale, the Chinese emperor had a mechanical nightingale made of gold and diamonds that could both fly and sing.

True mechanical and musical automatons, in which movement and sound are produced by clockwork, first appeared in the 15th century. Not surprisingly, German clockmakers were the finest exponents of the art, many of whom utilised the tiny moving figures to strike bells or chimes in clock movements.

The idea of transferring the figures from clock face to mantelpiece or sideboard was a natural progression. What helped was the arrival of the barrel organ in the early 16th century, followed by the Carillon (which used bells) and the invention, in 1796, of the musical box.

Each mechanical music machine was adopted in some ingenious way to give movement to automaton figures, favourite among which were monkey magicians. These evil looking creatures performed convincing little conjuring tricks with cups and disappearing dice on stages formed by the top of the box containing the clockwork movement.

However, it was the development of the music box in particular that produced some of the most technically brilliant automatons. Probably the most remarkable were those made at the end of the 18th century by a Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790) and his son, Henri-Louis (1752-1791).

Father's masterpiece was The Writer. When activated, this seated figure of a young boy dips his quill pen in ink, shakes it twice, and writes a phrase of 40 characters by means of a preset mechanism. Even the figure's eyes move, watching the pen as it moves down the page.

The contribution made by Droz jnr., was The Draughtsman, similar in all respects as before, except that by means of a series of different cams, the figure draws four different diagrammatical: draw four different images: a portait of Louis XV, a royal couple (believed to be Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI), a dog with "Mon toutou" ("My doggy") written beside it, and Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly. The crowned heads of Europe and the emperors of China, India and Japan were among their customers.

The Jaquet-Droz mechanical singing bird, which appeared in about 1780, was subsequently miniaturised and incorporated into the movements of the company's most expensive clocks. Another clockmaker, Jean-Frederic Leschot (1746-1824) joined the Jaquet-Droz company and he perfected the miniaturisation process, later including it in jewel-encrusted gold boxes, notably those for snuff.

Unlike mechanical musical boxes, in which sounds were produced from the teeth of a steel comb being plucked by pins in a revolving brass cylinder, the singing birds are given their song by an equally intricate method. It relies on tiny bellows.

Lots 257 258

When a button is pushed, the clockwork mechanism causes a series of rods to move the bird's head to move from side to side, while at the same time opening and closing its beak and opening, closing and flapping its wings.

Independently to this, the rods also cause a pair of bellows to be squeezed open and closed, forcing air to pass through minute pipes similar to the ones found in a church organ which provides the birdsong. The result - particularly on the better examples - is truly delightful, almost like having a real-life bird in the room.

Singing birds in gilded cages come in varying sizes and population. Small examples are found under four inches in height, but the majority are between 11 and 22 inches, the larger versions with two or occasionally three birds sitting on perches of varying heights. The rarest of all examples are particularly large and ornate and can contain up to 20 birds, giving full rein to the taxidermist's skill.

Equally charming and similarly rare are singing bird displays in which the creatures sit in naturalistic surroundings such as the branches of a tree but trapped beneath a tall and fragile glass dome. These remain somewhat less popular than their caged compatriots, probably because they looked rather too realistic for today's politically correct market.

If money is no object, the singing birds to seek out are the rich man's toys of the late 18th century which decorate gold snuff and other boxes which were nothing more than a display of wealth. Usually a rectangular metal box, made from gold, tortoiseshell, silver gilt or semi-pressures gemstones, the boxes were used to contain snuff, cashous or jewellery and go by the name of tabatière, a French word meaning snuff box.

Decorating the lid, or in rarer examples beneath the lid, is a small, pierced cover which flips open at the push of a button to reveal the bird who snaps to attention to perform his solo as the cover is released. These truly are miracles of miniaturisation and can be exceedingly expensive, as they were once the preserve of only royalty and the very rich.

Most were produced by the French and the Swiss, but several German companies also manufactured singing bird tabatières, with the result the late 19th century and 20th century examples are far more affordable, starting at around £2,000 at auction. However, a fully restored an example from a dealer can be several times the price.

The movements of good singing bird tabatière s are often signed and names to watch out for, in addition to Jaquet-Droz, include Frisard, Bruguier, Rochat, Griesbaum and Bontems. Two makers continue to make singing bird automaton today: the German companies Reuge, who purchased both Bontems in the 1900s and Eschle in 1977, and Griesbaum.

Advice to a would-be buyer: by the best you can afford and preferably one in full working order. A singing bird automaton needing restoration is a job for a trained professional - in fact several trained professionals, since so many disciplines are involved in their manufacture. Repairs are time-consuming and therefore costly.

Pictures show, top: Bird in a gilded cage: actually three birds sing for their supper in this 20th century automaton music box. It’s worth £175-250 at auction

Above, left: A good late 19th century Swiss gilt brass and enamel rectangular singing bird music box, the lid decorated with young lovers, shepherdess and romantic landscape, the sides decorated with oval and circular vignettes depicting Tyrolean landscapes. It sold in a recent auction for £2,000

Right: A good early 20th century German silver gilt cased rectangular singing bird box, sold for £1,700

Below, left: A very fine silver and polychrome enamel singing bird box of outstanding quality by Griesbaum of Germany. The lustrous decoration includes pastoral scenes with courting couples and enamel stringing and panels on all four sides. It’s currently for sale with an asking price of £11,750 at Douglas Fine Antiques, 75 Portobello Road, London, (Tel:07860 680521, www.antique-clocks.co.uk)

A continental singing bird box in a Bruguier-style cushion shaped case with fine gilt bronze decoration to the sides and top decorated in hand-painted enamel flowers on a pink ground. The lid is beautifully painted with a landscape in enamel. It’s currently for sale with an asking price of £6,750 at Douglas Fine Antiques, 75 Portobello Road, London, (Tel:07860 680521, www.antique-clocks.co.uk)

singing bird 1singing bird 2

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Monday, 15 January 2007

Magnificent Meissen: all that’s best in European porcelain

by Christopher Proudlove©

This feature is devoted to the breathtakingly beautiful, always valuable ... and sometimes quite saucy products of Royal Saxon Porcelain Factory. There, that's fooled you already. For those who have never heard of the Royal Saxon Porcelain Manufactory, read the German Meissen factory - one of the few firms to remain in continuous production from its beginnings in 1710 until the present day.

Every serious porcelain collector knows the early history of the company. For nigh on 1,000 years, the only people who knew the secret of how to produce hard paste porcelain were the Chinese.

Augustus the Great, the Elector of Saxony, was a great fan of the Chinese pots and he spent a fortune on purchasing a collection of more than 20,000 pieces which filled his palaces and storerooms. Indeed, Augustus spent so much money on his passion for fine porcelain that China became known as "the bleeding bowl of Saxony".

He is even said to have swapped a regiment of dragoons for 48 Chinese porcelain vases, today still preserved among the 8,000 pieces that remain at Dresden, and known as the "Dragoon Vases"

In his quest for the means to pay for his obsession, Augustus engaged the services of a young apprentice apothecary named Johann Friedrich Boettger, who was said to have discovered a means of turning base metals into gold.

Boettger was virtually imprisoned in his laboratory, but, of course, never came up with the goods. Unwittingly, however, he did hit on a recipe that produced something very similar to Chinese hard paste porcelain.

Augustus was appeased - porcelain was worth almost as much as gold and production started in a factory in Meissen, near Dresden in 1710. Its success was legendary. Thanks to the massive demand for its products throughout Europe, particularly in England, Meissen became the ware every rich aristocrat wanted in his home. Designs copied those from China and Japan and, later, much of the best from English makers. The business thrived and enjoyed its golden years.

Today, pieces made from 1710 to the end of the 19th century are highly sought after by collectors. Small fortunes can change hands at auction sales, often for a single cup if two collectors battle it out for ownership. I watched a recent sale in which a tiny sugar bowl and cover, made in 1730 and decorated with armorials sell for a staggering £34,500.

Even more expensive, but many times more impressive was a pair of ormolu-mounted figures of a lion and a lioness modelled by the great Meissen artist Johann Joachim Kaendler in about 1748. Each an imposing six by eight inches, they were expected to fetch £25,000-35,000. They sold for £47,700.
Kaendler was sculptor at Augustus’s court and in 1731, Augustus installed him at Meissen to reorganise the modelling department. For the next 44 years Kaendler’s artistic genius, versatility and imagination brought the factory world renown.

He was assisted by three of the most distinguished pottery sculptors of the Rococo period: J.F. Eberlein, F.E. Meyer, and P. Reinicke and scarcely a palace in Europe did not contain Meissen figurines, dinner sets, vases, or other works of the Kaendler period.

Among his best-known works are his Commedia dell'Arte figurines, largely done between 1738 and 1740; his birds for the Japanese Palace in Dresden, executed between 1731 and 1735; and the 2,200-piece Swan Service made for Heinrich, Count von Brühl, from 1737 to 1741.

Finding – and affording – original Kaendler pieces is the stuff of dreams. But there is hope for collectors of lesser means.

Being one of Europe’s most successful porcelain manufactories, the company had been able to thrive by churning out copy after copy of an existing line of products to such an eager market that it never felt it necessary to produce anything new.

And then the Great War intervened. However, in 1918 a new managing director named Max Peiffer was appointed to revive the factory’s fortunes and he introduced new lines and new designers, notably Max Esser and Paul Scheurich, and output was concentrated on reviving Meissen's artistic strength.

The Second World War, or rather the crippling lead up to it with Germany in the grip of the National Socialist League, had a further devastating affect on the factory’s fortunes. Under that regime, any artistic creativity was stymied.

Peiffer was sacked and innovation and artistic creativity went with him. The situation grew even worse after the war. Being based in Dresden, Meissen came under the rule of the East Germans and the Communist regime and was left to stagnate, pouring out the old lines that sold to the home market.

However, all this means that today’s collectors can enjoy searching out examples of the huge range of Meissen products dating from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Figure groups like the examples illustrated here are a particularly rich area of collecting, many of which can be positively identified as being “after” works by the great modellers such as Kaendler and his colleagues.

For “after”. read copies, but that does not mean they are reproductions in any derogatory sense. Not a bit of it. They are beautifully and expertly crafted, hand-painted works of art that put the series ware produced by (whisper the names) Royal Doulton, Beswick and Coalport to shame.

Pictures show, top:
One of the best known works by Kaendler depicts the grandchildren of Augustus III. These examples date from circa 1870 and are worth £500-700

This trio of figure groups are the work of J.J. Kaendler, left to right “The Goose Seller”, young lovers in 18th century dress, and “Harlequin & Columbine”. The first dates from circa 1870, the other two from 1950, but I defy you to tell the difference. Each is worth £500-700

Bottom, left to right:
A pair of Meissen figures of young lovers in 18th Century dress dating from about 1870. They’re worth £700-900

“The Horse Tamer”, after a model by J.J. Kaendler, the figure of a rearing white stallion supported by a blackamoor. This example was made in about 1920 and is worth £1,500-2,000

Originally modelled by F. E. Meyer in the 18th century, these figure groups date from about 1870. On the left is a hurdy-gurdy player worth £800-1,200, while that on the right depicts the saucy mythological story of “Europa and the Bull”. It shows the Phoenician beauty Europa seated on the back of the white bull with two attendants dressing the animal with floral garlands. According to Greek mythology, Zeus became smitten with Europa and in order to woo her, he turned himself into a bull to get close to her. It’s worth £700-1,000.

lovershorseHurdy gurdy

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Monday, 8 January 2007

Beatrix Potter: read the book, see the film, buy the Beswick figure

by Christopher Proudlove©

Lovers and collectors of antiques, I urge you to see Miss Potter, the movie starring Renee Zellwegger detailing the life of Beatrix Potter. Go ... now ... I’ll pay! It’s a beautiful film, not least for the stunning Lake District countryside in which much of it is set and, of course the touching story of the woman who brought us Peter Rabbit and his chums.

But it’s the fabulous room settings and her wonderful drawings that come to life on the screen which make the film so compelling for collectors. See it and be inspired, just don’t get any ideas about buying Beatrix Potter watercolours – unless your pockets are deep. These two illustrated sold for a staggering £40,630.

If nothing else, the sale proved there is no upper limit to the prices collectors are prepared to pay for objects related to the great children's book illustrator. Fortunately, however, you don't have to spend a fortune to collect objects related to Beatrix and her menagerie of creations.

The market in Beatrix Potter characters (one carefully managed by publishers Frederick Warne and Company) is a worldwide business with an established and extensive range of licensed merchandise, worth it is said, more than $500m (dollars) a year.

More than 100 companies in the UK alone are licencees of the products and they include major manufacturers such as Wedgwood; Royal Doulton; Beswick and Royal Albert.

While today their products might be termed as collectables, one day they will be antiques in their own right and, given the rarity that inevitably comes with the passage of time, worth considerably more than they cost.

Readers starting the search for Easter presents for youngsters could do worse than give Beatrix Potter-inspired ceramic figures made by the John Beswick Studios. The company was established in 1894 at Longton, in Stoke-on-Trent, initially producing tableware and ornaments.

Only later, in the 1930s, did it turn to animal modelling, notably the series of shire and famous racehorses and champion dogs. The studio subsequently became renowned as the finest for animal figures and also produced a range of whimsical figures of animals with human expressions and in human poses.

Beswick began producing Beatrix Potter story book characters in 1948. The first piece, created by chief modeller Arthur Gredington, was Jemima Puddle-Duck, which was released along with nine other characters. They were an immediate success and are extremely sought after today. The Royal Doulton Group acquired Beswick in 1969.

To know more about Helen Beatrix Potter (1864-1943) helps to understand this wave of nostalgia for likenesses of the characters she "invented". She was born in Kensington, South London, where she endured a lonely and repressed childhood, her pets, among them a mouse, a rabbit and a hedgehog, being her only friends.

These and the exhibits she saw on visits to the National History Museum in South Kensington, were carefully sketched in page after page of notebooks, which she took everywhere with her.

Holidays in Scotland and the Lake District instilled in her a love of the countryside and gave her a visual memory from which she drew readily when, years later, she began to paint for a living.

She once said: "I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make for myself a fairyland amongst the wild flowers, the animals, the fungi, mosses, woods and streams, all the thousand objects of the countryside."

Lucy Beswick was a great fan of Beatrix Potter's nursery stories and took the characters, particularly Jemima Puddle-Duck, to her heart. By coincidence, her husband, Ewart, just happened to be the chairman and managing director of pottery manufacturers John Beswick Ltd., in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent.

They were holidaying in the Lake District and while they were there, they visited the farmhouse near Hawkshead where Beatrix Potter spent the last 30 years of her life and wrote the books that have enchanted children for four generations.On their return to the Potteries, Lucy Beswick had an idea. Why not bring Jemima to life ... in clay?

Suitably inspired by the suggestion, Beswick's chief modeller Arthur Gredington set to and produced the first in what subsequently proved to be a run of Beatrix Potter figures that continues today. So delighted were the Beswick directors with Jemima Puddle-Duck in her blue poke bonnet and purple shawl that permission was obtained from the publishers of the tales to reproduce her and the other favourite characters for the general public.

By 1947, Jemima had been joined by Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten, Timmy Tiptoes, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs Tittlemouse, Little Pig Robinson, Benjamin Bunny, Samuel Whiskers, and Mrs Tiggy Winkle. All were modelled by Arthur Gredington.

Beswick were already producing a small range of pottery figures including humorous animal studies and characters from literature, but in 1947, they formed only a minor part of the firm's production.

Jemima and her friends changed all that and the rest is collecting history!

She was in her mid 30s when she published her first book, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit", the inspiration for which was a letter illustrated with sketches which she wrote to a boy named Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, in 1893.

Amazingly (or so it seems now) at least six publishers rejected the idea, including Frederick Warne and Co., who was eventually to change its mind and Beatrix decided to have the book printed privately.

The first 250 copies containing 41 black and white illustrations were ready on December 16, 1901, to be given as Christmas presents to her friends and relations, the remainder to be sold at a halfpenny a copy.

In February of the following year a second impression of 200 copies were issued with slight textual changes and inserted in a more robust binding with a round back.

Warne and Co., had by this time realised the commercial potential of the idea and in October issued the storybook with the illustrations in full colour throughout.

Its success was universal. The combination of small books with pages of simple text opposite meticulously painted and sharply observed vignettes of real animals but with human attributes established Peter Rabbit and his friends in nursery folklore.

Beatrix also became secretly engaged to the publisher, Norman Warne, who died tragically before the wedding. In 1905, using the proceeds from her first books, she was able to leave her parents and move to her beloved Lake District, where she bought Hill Top Farm at Sawrey, above Lake Windermere.

More than 20 other books followed, introducing such characters as Tom Kitten; Jemima Puddle-Duck; Little Pig Robinson; the Tailor of Gloucester and his mice; Miss Moppet; the Flopsy Bunnies; Mrs Tittlemouse; Timmy Tiptoes; Squirrel Nutkin; Benjamin Bunny; Mrs Tiggy-Winkle; Jeremy Fisher and many more ... ah yes, I remember them well!

A strong-willed character, Beatrix was determined that the printed reproductions of her watercolours in her books was as accurate as possible and this quality control ensured their further success, as much with parents as with their children.

Strong, vibrant colours and precise detail was combined with an immense knowledge of the animal world and botany made her books compelling enough.

Add to this her hugely fertile imagination with creatures wearing frock coats and frilly bonnets engaged in all manner of amusing incidents and it is easy to see why they have been so enduring to each successive generation.

In 1913, Beatrix married William Heelis, a local solicitor who shared her farming interests and, despite the huge popularity of her books, devoted herself to sheep farming.

This she tackled with the same strong-willed determination, eventually becoming president of the Herdwick Sheepbreeders' Association.

She used her wealth to buy no fewer than 15 farms as they became vacant and 4,000 acres subsequently bequeathed to the National Trust, which preserves many of her original drawings at Hill Top Farm. The legacy helped secure the Lake District from the developers and continue the tradition of hill-farming.

The Tate Gallery has a collection of 22 of the original watercolour drawings for The Tailor of Gloucester, published in 1902, which some people consider are the most outstanding examples of her artistry.

Of course, modern day collectors need not restrict themselves to Beatrix Potter characters. Bunnykins collectors' pieces have already achieved great success and earlier pieces are sought after, while Disney characters are another potential for tomorrow's collectors.

However, the one to look out for is the now rare Duchess, the little black dog from Beatrix Potter’s 1905 book Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. The little Beswick figure was produced in two versions, the earlier of which today is worth £800-1,200. It was produced from 1955-67 and is identifiable from a later version because it has a gold backstamp on the base and the figure holds a bunch of flowers rather than a pie. The second version, produced between 1979 and 1982 is worth £100-150.

Beswick pigPeter Rabbit

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