18th-century enamelling no minor detail
Stefanie Moy-Shuster/Special to the Packet & Times Examples of 18th century enamelling.
Industrial espionage - that staple of modern thrillers, new product development and getting a jump on the competition - is nothing new. In the 18th century, so many new developments in industry and the arts happened at such a rapid pace, and trendsetting luxury goods were in such high demand that industrial spies were almost a dime a dozen. So, it was in April 1754 that a Swedish industrial spy, Reinhold Angerstein, found himself in the English town of Bilston.
Bilston was one of several towns in the Staffordshire area, including Birmingham and Wolverhampton, with a flourishing metalworking industry. This was the area in 18th-century England where most of the huge numbers of metal wares - kitchen equipment, accessories like shoe buckles and buttons, bits and bridles for horses, and industrial and architectural fittings for the domestic market - were made in both small-scale family businesses and larger commercial works. Angerstein was mostly concerned with industrial production but also noted in his report he visited a farmhouse where "there was a factory for making snuff boxes and other enamelled work, where a large number of women were employed in preparing the enamel, dipping the copper sheets and painting." Perhaps of particular interest for his employer, he also noted "a discount of 15% is allowed if one takes a dozen or more."
With so much competition in the area, specialization was the way metal workers could stay ahead in the business. In Bilston, many of them turned to producing small items like wine labels, scent bottles, ladies' accessories and, as seen in the photo, patch boxes and small bowls, all decorated in enamels.
The tradition of enamelling in England was an old one, going back as far as the ninth century, when the famous King Alfred Jewel, made of crystal with an enamelled plaque set under it, was made. The art of enamelling died out after the Middle Ages but was revived again in the 18th century, when the French began using painted enamels to decorate small items. The fashion spread to England, where the pretty colours and sophisticated designs caught the eye of the luxury-loving upper classes, who were developing an appetite for all manner of small, elegant, luxurious personal items. In a recent article, I wrote about these "objets de vertu" and included the enamel patch box shown here in the group I discussed, but because 18th-century decorated enamel wares are such a particular field, they deserve some special attention.
Eighteenth-century English enamels are often referred to by the generic term "Battersea," after the Battersea area in London, where the first enamel factory in England, York House, was established in 1753. It closed in 1756 and, for a company that lasted only three years, it is remarkable - such was the quality of its wares - its name is still a synonym for all English Georgian enamels. Many of the enamellers and decorators who worked there were Huguenots who had fled religious persecution in France. When York House shut down, they went north to the Staffordshire metalworks and it was their skill and artistry that helped raise the standard of English enamels to such a high level of quality.
Eighteenth-century painted enamels were made on a thin copper base that was shaped to the required form by a metal worker. Some enamel works made the copper items themselves; others bought them. Once formed, the copper base was covered with a thick liquid glass mixture composed of silica, soda, potassium silicate and lead. The object was dipped in the mixture and fired at a high temperature, turning the coating into what is basically a skin of white glass. (Later in the century, this skin was sometimes coloured by adding various metal oxides to the mixture, like manganese for mauve or iron for red and pink.) Both the interior and exterior of objects were enamelled to prevent the thin copper forms from buckling in the kiln.
At first, hand painting was the only type of decoration. This was tricky because each colour of enamel paint had to be fired at a different temperature to fuse it to the surface of the piece, so work had to be done in a specific sequence of colours (from those needing the lowest to those needing the highest temperatures for firing) and not always in the logical order an artist might choose.
A great innovation was the invention of a special transfer-printing process, probably introduced by John Brooks and first used at York House in Battersea. He developed a method of transferring an engraved design in either coloured or black ink to a special gummed paper, which was then applied to the enamelled object and fired at a low temperature to fix the design and burn away the paper. The transfer was then sometimes hand coloured.
The photograph shows the little patch box I have already mentioned with just this type of decoration. The portrait of Louis XVI is a black transfer print, left uncoloured. Only the delicate little garland of green leaves and red berries has been hand painted. The portrait, like many transfer-print decorations of the period, was taken from a contemporary engraving - in this case, a portrait by an English engraver by the name of Jenkins. It shows the king in the last year of his life, wearing the Order of the Holy Spirit, the senior royal order of chivalry in France.
The lovely, little pierced bowls in the photograph were used when playing quadrille, a fiendishly complex card game first developed early in the 18th century in France. It was played by four people using cards and counters or chips, and so many counters were required for a game that each player needed a dish or basket like these to hold them.
The bowls are beautifully hand painted with sprays of flowers on the rim in pink, blue and orange and three trompe-l'oeil playing cards in the base. The quality of these pieces is also evident in the crisp, clean enamelling on the edges of each pierced hole. Quadrille was largely out of fashion by the 1760s, being overtaken by whist, so the bowls likely date to about 1750-60. Their delicate, delightfully feminine look speaks directly to quadrille being considered more a woman's game than a man's.
Eighteenth-century English enamels are seldom marked, so it is difficult to determine exactly where they were made. The best indicator they are from the 18th century is the quality of the enamel itself - which is very smooth - of the metal mounts like hinges and clasps that are usually finely made and, above all, of the decoration. Transfer prints will be crisp and clear and painted decoration lively, done with a light touch and beautifully coloured.
By the 1830s, the demand for these lovely enamel objects had utterly declined; the last-known enamel works in England ceased production at the end of the decade, victim of changing tastes, and it wasn't until the 1970s that a revival of the industry began, led by the now well-known company, Halcyon Days. While modern enamels can be attractive, there is something about the delicate sophistication and exquisite decoration of their 18th-century precursors modern examples have never been able to match.
Gay Guthrie has an extensive background in antiques and the decorative arts. She teaches an antiques course for the Orillia department of parks, recreation and culture and can be reached at email@example.com.