Thursday, 26 July 2007

Worth their salt

I'm not fond of salt, unless of course it's stuck to the rim of a glass of tequila. The news from health watchdogs that I might unwittingly be eating pounds of the stuff in my daily diet does my appetite no good at all.

But there was a time and we couldn't get enough. Before the advent of refrigeration, pasteurisation and pressure cooking, packing food in salt was the only way to stop it going bad. Apparently, salt destroys the bacteria in meat, fish and vegetables, making its importance as a preservative vital to the community.

However, since this is a column for lovers of fine art and antiques, I'll stop worrying about what’s for lunch and restrict my remarks to the impact the mineral has made on collecting over the centuries.

We've all heard the expression to be placed or be regarded as "below the salt", but not everyone knows that it originates from the days when where you were seated at a banquet signified your position in the social pecking order. The rich and important sat towards the head of the table, while the also-rans found themselves way down the end, out of reach of the salt -- once a scarce and valuable condiment intended for only the most important of guests.

In a further show of wealth, one's host would serve the salt in a grandly decorated object known a neff. This is the name given to the vessel, usually made of silver and actually shaped like a ship, used in the later Middle Ages to also carry his lordship's napkin, knife and spoon (no forks in those days).

By the 16th century, the neff had become a must-have ornament, particularly in Germany and Switzerland, by which time they had become accurate and highly detailed models of fully rigged sailing ships, decorated with enamels and silver gilt and populated by little silver figures of sailors climbing the rigging and sailing the ship across the table.

In Venice, mid-16th century craftsmen were making intricate examples in blown glass, while in Paris, the silversmith Henry Auguste made a magnificent silver gilt neff as part of a royal service to be used by Napoleon at a banquet held three days after his coronation in 1804. On the neff were placed the emperor's cutlery and bread, while locked jars held salt, pepper and spices.

Mention of silver gilt leads me to another point: apart from making silver look like gold, it was found to be essential to gild the metal in order to prevent corrosion by the salt.

Today's silver collectors will know exactly what I mean, while people like me who can only afford silver plate will rue the day that they ever put away their cruet sets before scrupulously cleaning up any salt left on the surface. The resulting black pockmarks of corrosion have a ruinous effect on value.

Pairs of pretty little shell-shaped silver salts, each with their own tiny spoon that usually come in fitted velvet-lined cases are almost always coated with gilding inside (or once were) for just this reason and care should be taken in their use and subsequent cleaning.

Corrosion is not a problem when it comes to glass salts. Charming pairs of old hand-cut Georgian and Victorian salts remain among the cheapest of all collectables, possibly because their use died out long ago. While it might cost £80 to 120 for something in silver, glass salts can often be purchased for under £25 and sometimes less than that.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Georgian Irish glass salts, which sell for a premium because of their relative scarcity. Ireland began to emerge as an important glass producer in about 1780 when Britain relaxed the heavy taxes on glass made there while at the same time increasing the taxes imposed on glass made in England.

However, it is not easy to identify Irish glass, which is one of the reasons why it always costs more. Some pieces exhibit an obvious Irish style, and Irish glass tends to be heavier than its English equivalent, but neither can be regarded as a rule of thumb. Better to leave it to the experts or buy from sources where reputation is your guarantee.

The turned-over rim is one particular feature that is common to a great deal of Irish glass and is often also seen on bowls and vases, while a salt with a uniquely Irish design has a large boat shape and stands on a heavy triangular foot.

A good pair of Irish cut glass salts could set you back as much as a reasonable pair of English silver ones.

If all this is too expensive for your pocket, you could have great fun collecting sets of salt and pepper shakers ranging from seaside souvenirs, crude but colourful examples made in Occupied Japan and speciality stuff made from plastic and Bakelite. Prices usually only reach double figures and almost never three.

My own favourite is a pair modelled as auctioneer’s gavels and they take pride of place in my collection of real gavels. They cost me £5!

Picture shows: This superb German silver nef was made by Berthold Muller, the noted Nuremberg silversmith, much of whose output was imported to the UK. Modelled in the style of a 15th century three-masted ocean-going ship with figures in the crow's nests and on the deck and a full complement of canon, the nef has the typical import marks required by law and the Chester hallmark for 1908. The wheeled base harks back to the days when the nef would be wheeled around the table carrying salt to each of the diners. Now more of a decorative item, this example is expected to sell for £1,000-1,500 in a Dreweatt Neate auction at Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berks on Wednesday July 7

Glazed to taste

There's another way of collecting things connected with salt and one which I personally think is infinitely more interesting.

When I first heard the expression salt-glaze stoneware, never in my wildest imagination did I ever think the term should be taken literally. But it must.

Sometime during the second millennium, probably in China where all sorts are amazing things were happening while we were still living in caves, people were making pottery at temperatures so high that the clay fused together and made the body so hard that it would hold water.

It came to be known as stoneware (because it was stone-hard) and by the 13th century, the secret of its manufacture had reached Germany, where it was used to make bottles for the country’s wine industry.

The bottles were mostly grey or dark red and pretty dull. Whether by luck or design I'm not sure, but someone discovered that throwing handfuls of salt into the kiln at the right moment produced a vitreous vapour coating anything inside that it came into contact with.

Repeating the process sufficient times caused the coating to build into a thick colourless glaze, while at the same time acting with the oxides in the clay to produce pots of different colours and fascinating orange peel textures.

In 1693, John Dwight obtained a patent to produce stoneware at Fulham, while similar wares were being produced at other factories in London as well as in Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire.

Doulton later used salt-glaze stoneware to make drainpipes and sanitaryware and subsequently domestic pieces such as kitchen crockery, blacking pots and ink and ginger beer bottles. Eventually the made so much money they were able to employ studio potters to make decorative wares for the home.

Among the most popular were the so-called 'Reform Bottles' of the 1830s portraying William IV, Lord Grey, Brougham, Russell, and many other contemporary celebrities, while a group of salt-glazed vases exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 launched a new fashion.

Artists such as the Barlow sisters, George Tinworth and, independently, the Martin brothers are now names etched on the brains of today’s collectors who pay handsomely for such unique finds and all of it worth its salt as you might say.

Picture shows: The Duke of Wellington captured in brown salt-glazed stoneware. The jug was made in Lambeth in about 1830

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