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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Fine Art in Buttons


( Article orginally published May 1952 )

In the delightful pursuit of button collecting-and no matter if you collect buttons for display in a cabinet, or if you collect them for use as personal jewelry, the pursuit is delightful-one cannot go far without coming to the realization that all the manual and graphic arts and practically all of the sciences were drawn upon to produce buttons. We may collect "calicoes" or even "goofies" as the saying goes and still, with even the homeliest and humblest of buttons, stand upon the threshold of fine art. As someone has said, button collecting is a graduate school, not an amateur's phase of antiquarian interest. I confess to a passion for ear ornaments, clips, necklaces and bracelets. From what I have been able to observe, this is not an unique passion nor is it.an age limited passion, with women. Therefore buttons must, for me at least, be available in pairs, either alike, or similar in type. When I found one button like those here pictured I was fool enough NOT to buy it. I changed my mind within three hours, went back to the button shop, and (you guessed it) found it gone, snapped up with avidity by some woman far wiser than this Connecticut Yankee out of California and now doing penance by hunting buttons like it all over South America.

But the experience was helpful in that I was determined to research that button. It never occurred to me that I should at once go to the fountainhead of button research. It took me a year to find my way to The Cooper Union Museum for Arts and Decoration, in New York City. But there I found not one, but a set of ten of the buttons, and now I have the whole story.

A century before M. Silhouette, the economist, had the cheap cut-out profile portraits named for him, a Dutch Lady, Madam Joanna Koerton Bloek of Amsterdam, began cutting tiny scenes and portraits from paper, sometimes in several colors, and mounting them on a dark background. But the examples here pictured, and the one I missed, are not by Madam Bloek. They are French, of late 18th century, and are mounted on blue silk. They are one and three-eighths inches in diameter and are of a quality to arouse the jealousy of Wedgwood or his modeler, Flaxman.

These, of course are masterpieces of the cut paper button. There are many less fancy relations. But the original technique is more an art than a craft. If you do not believe that, just try cutting one scene with the finest tools you can find. In this series of notes on Fine Art Buttons we shall visit the shops and studios of goldsmiths, sculptors, miniature painters, chasers, gem cutters and carvers. How far into the magic land of buttons will such excursions take us? Well, inside the door, perhaps. But it will be more proof that button collecting isn't a fringe pursuit; it is the ultimate in collecting.

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