Thursday, 22 February 2007

Antique snuff boxes, collection not to be sniffed at

by Christopher Proudlove©

Tzar Michael of Russia was not impressed with the fashion. In 1634, he issued a degree to the effect that anyone caught engaging in the habit of taking snuff would get a strict warning to desist. Anyone caught a second time would have his nose cut off!

The French King Louis XIV was less drastic. When the problem began to get out of hand, he ordered his physician to deliver a public address to members of the Royal Court detailing the evils of the habit. It might have had the desired effect had it not been for the fact that the absent-minded doctor punctuated his lecture ... by taking periodic pinches of snuff.

Fact is, so popular did the idea become among the beau monde of the mid 18th century that the practice developed its own ritualistic etiquette running to many stages. It began by removing the snuff box with suitable flourish. After tapping its lid (to ensure none of its contents was lost prior to the next stage) the box was opened and offered first to one's companions. Then, and only then, and with an elaborate series of gestures and finger movements, the owner of the box would take his pinch.

The last bit was less elegant. Having either stuck thumb and finger tip into each nostril before sniffing, or alternatively inhaling the snuff from the back of one's hand, etiquette specified éternuez, toussez, crachez - sneeze, cough, spit!

In 1823, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) observed sniffily that taking snuff was "perhaps the final cause of the human nose". In his day he was probably right.

The practice of inhaling powdered tobacco became common in Europe in the 17th century and universally among both sexes throughout the 18th. It continued in the 19th century and there are, no doubt, still many adherents. The result is a plethora of snuff boxes to suit pockets of all depths available for collectors like us to search out and hoard.

And for snuff takers who like to dispense the largesse following a good meal, there's the snuff mull, the name given to the large snuff boxes like the ones illustrated here which were intended to sit on a table or sideboard for use by the assembled dinner guests.

Estimates for snuff boxes range from £50-£1,000. At the other extreme, rare porcelain snuff boxes from such factories as Meissen can fetch £150,000-200,000. They come from an elegant age when the skills of some of the finest miniature painters, enamellers, jewellers and gold and silversmiths were bestowed on the objects.

Fashion conscious connoisseurs of the 18th century were more concerned with the harmonious colouring and graceful proportions of their snuff boxes than they were about their suitability for the job. The result was more and more elaborate containers, made often at the expense of serviceability.

Dozens of different blends of snuff were available in the 18th century, some of them variously scented for different times of the year and even the time of day. The rich would have a different container for each. The Prince Regent, for example (whose mother was called Snuffy Charlotte) had 12 different potions for each day.

His friend Lord Patersham boasted a different box for each day of the year and Count von Bruhl, the Prime Minister of Saxony and director of the Meissen factory, had 300 outfits, each with a matching cane and snuff box. Frederick the Great, meanwhile, is supposed to have owned a collection of 1,500.

There were special boxes for different seasons of the year - miniature paintings of snow scenes for winter, flowers for the summer - while a general, musician or huntsman could have his favourite pursuit depicted on his boxes. Others were made to accompany the latest brocade patterns, silk or velvet and others were fitted with watches and even tiny musical movements in the lid.

Despite Louis XIV's objection to the habit, some of the finest of all snuff boxes originate from France. Interestingly, though, not all were produced in precious metals. A society which places emphasis on craftsmanship is often less concerned with the value of materials used, with the result that some fine French boxes are found in wood, steel, papier-mache (final e acute), horn, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl and even stone.

Louis XV (1723-74) gold boxes have a flamboyant covering of rococo design with elaborate enamelled scrolls and arabesques, while Louis XVI (1774-93) had differing designs in panels independent from each other. Sober simplicity followed the French Revolution, although Napoleon was a snuff taker and examples of boxes exist decorated with his miniature portrait surrounded by diamonds.

Russian snuff boxes are similarly elaborate and fine, mainly because many French craftsmen were encouraged to settle in that country by Catherine the Great, a lavish patron of the arts. The great Russian goldsmith Peter Carl Faberge (final e acute) was descended from a Huguenot family from Picardy whose work remains unsurpassed. Come the Russian Revolution, though, and he fled to Switzerland, where he died in exile.

Huguenot families

The finest French and Russian snuff boxes are today found mainly in museums, not provincial auctions. English examples in silver and gold, at least until the end of the reign of George I (1727) were restrained by comparison and decorated only with a coat of arms or monogram. Huguenot families who settled in this country brought with them many ideas of their own and by the time George III was on the throne, snuff boxes were decorated with gold panels, raised carved floral borders, enamels and miniature portraits.

With the 19th century came industrialisation and a decline in quality and taste. Most silver and gold snuff boxes were decorated with engine-turned designs and coarse carving. Examples are not difficult to find today, with prices generally under £500. Particularly worth searching out are those Birmingham silversmith Nathaniel Mills who was surely one of the finest English makers.

My favourites, though, are the cheaper examples, probably homemade or by country craftsmen. They can be found fashioned from conch and cowrie shells, tortoiseshell, and even the shell of a terrapin. They are usually fitted with a silver cover, the hallmarks of which give the date of manufacture. Cheaper still are those made from papier maché, horn and turned wood.

The snuff mull is a particular favourite among collectors of Scottish folk art and some are without comparison. From a Scottish dialect word for mill, where the snuff would have been ground to a powder, mulls came in a variety of shapes, the most common being fashioned from a ram's horn, usually mounted in silver and often embellished with cairngorms - a semi-precious stone which takes its name from its source.

Others are found in plain silver or even wood, but the grandest snuff mulls - and the choice of a regimental mess - were those somewhat gruesome examples made from en entire ram's head, sometimes mounted on wheels so that it could be passed around a large dining table with ease.

Something else to seek out are early 18th century snuff graters, now rarities but always carried by early snuff takers in order to turn small sticks of the preparation into powder. The graters were strips of ivory, bone or brass, with a rough surface and sometimes carved with interesting and amusing inscriptions, dates and portraits, although they can be mistaken for nutmeg graters.

Pictures show, top:
A William IV fox mask snuff box by Joseph Wilmore, Birmingham 1835. It's estimated at £1,500-2,000

Below, left to right:
A George II Scottish upright snuff box, the base inscribed "John Ferguson Tobacconist Montrose". It dates from 1750-1760 and is estimated at £300-400

A small collection of snuff mulls including an imposing example made from a ram's horn. It's worth £300-400

A late 19th/early 20th century German snuff box the hinged cover modelled with a trumpeting elephant. It dates from about 1900 and is estimated at £150-200


© 2007 All Rights Reserved.

Labels: ,