Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Portraits In Enamel

I was surprised some time ago when inspecting the collection of miniatures belonging to a friend, to find that he did not realise the importance and artistic merit of miniatures painted in enamel, nor was he able to distinguish between ordinary miniatures and enamel portraits. He was guarding from the sun's rays some enamel portraits which no power on earth could have faded, and he had put aside some other enamels on the ground that they were purely mechanical things, unworthy of being in his collection.

An enamel portrait is just as much a piece of careful painting as is an ordinary miniature, and in some respects it requires more skill to paint it than it does to paint on ivory or paper. The colours used are composed of finely powdered enamel and they change in the furnace, so that what is put on with the brush as brown may, perhaps, when vitrified by the heat of the furnace, turn to red, and what appears to be grey may come out an exceedingly brilliant blue. The painter, therefore, in painting an enamel on a piece of copper or gold, as the case may be, has to bear in mind what are the actual colours he is using, although, when he does use them, they do not resemble those colours; and he must also be prepared for the fact that when, under the influence of heat, his colours become fluid, a degree or two too much of heat may entirely ruin all his work, or one colour may run over the others and so the whole portrait be spoilt. He has not only to paint with the greatest care, but he has to watch the object while in its little furnace and withdraw it at exactly the right moment. The result, if well carried out, is an absolutely permanent portrait, and it may be an object of the greatest possible beauty.

There were many artists who worked in enamel. Only a few weeks ago I saw a very large collection of enamel portraits which had taken nearly a lifetime to prepare and which will, I suppose, eventually come into the market. It embraced portraits by all the notable enamellers.

Of these enamellers perhaps the greatest were the Genevan artist, Petitot, and his son (who had the same name), and their partner, Jacques Bordier. Miniatures by Petitot are very highly prized and are works of extraordinary beauty. Some of the very finest Petitot ever executed were sold a few weeks ago at the Burdett-Coutts sale, and fetched high prices. One of them, representing Charles II, realised 420 guineas; one of Charles I, 290 guineas; and one of the Duchess of Orleans, 340 guineas, with others in very similar ratio. The marvel of Petitot's work is its extreme minuteness. Both the Petitots must have possessed almost miraculous skill in craftsmanship, because every line of the full wigs worn in their time and every detail of the features is wrought with extreme delicacy and charm, and the miniature was vitrified with marvelous skill so that every colour has burned to exactly the right shade, and there is not the smallest sign of any overrunning or spoiling. Petitot's works have always been very highly esteemed. The portrait of the Duchess of Orleans just mentioned, belonged to a Swedish enameller called Zincke, who kept it as his model and who tried his hardest to equal it. He sold it to Horace Walpole, and at Walpole's sale Lady BurdettCoutts bought it. Zincke's work is very well known. He came over to England in 17o6 and painted an enormous number of small portraits, and it is said that his portraits had to be fused four or five times before perfection was obtained; but some of Petitot's went into the furnace as much as ten times to obtain perfect results.

Boit was another Swede who worked in England in Queen Anne's time, and who produced some big enamels. Zincke's work one knows by the brilliance of the blue he used in the draperies, or by the red that he often used on men's coats. Some of his finest miniatures are very precious things. One of the very best I have seen for a long time, signed and dated, was bought in a jeweller's shop in Cornwall for a very few shillings, and had ornamented the back of a fine watch. It now adorns a notable collection, and I believe the owner gave some two hundred or two hundred and fifty pounds for what the dealer picked up for a few shillings.

There were a few portraits made in Battersea enamel, but these are not very satisfactory, nor are they attractive. In the latter part of the eighteenth century there was a clever Norfolk enameller, called Spicer, and then there were two or three other eighteenth century enamellers who ought to be mentioned, as, for instance, Hone, Spencer and Meyer. Spencer, by the way, began life as a footman, but developed an extraordinary talent for painting, and his master sent him to a school of design and helped him to set up as an artist. His portraits are small-about the size of a halfpenny.

One of the joys of collecting enamels consists in the fact that the portrait is permanent, that no light will injure it, and that, given proper care, it will last for ever. Even if it falls to the ground it does not, as a rule, chip or get damaged; it must not, of course, be trampled upon because the enamel is curved, and a heavy footfall may cause the enamel to flake off the copper or gold foundation. But, beyond a damage of that kind, an enamel is practically indestructible. I saw one a little while ago that, by accident, had even fallen into the fire. Luckily the fire was not hot enough to hurt it and, with the exception of a very slight damage at the edge, it had been retrieved in good condition.

The last man, or, one ought to say, the last two men to execute fine enamels in England in the old style were father and son, Henry and Henry P. Bone. Some of their miniatures are very large-cabinet size, one might call them. Many were copies of well-known pictures, others studies from life, especially those by the younger Bone; and then they were succeeded by Essex, who was enamel painter to Queen Victoria-a clever enarneller and an accomplished chemist. He wrote a book on enamel painting, and died in 1869. There is no special demand for the work of Essex, although some of his portraits are really quite beautiful; but for the smaller works of Bone, especially those of the younger Bone, there is a constant demand.

Collectors will do well to take an enamel out of its case, or to get a jeweller to do so, because generally they will find the enameller's signature on the back; and that again is a delight in collecting enamels, because one can generally be certain whose work the portrait is, and, burnt in at the back there is often even more than the signature. Sometimes the account of when the enamel was made, sometimes the address of the artist, and occasionally, information respecting the person, all of which makes the enamel a great deal more interesting and worthy of a place in a good collection. Those who are in search of a new hobby and who are not disposed to pay the big prices now demanded for miniatures, whether early ones on paper, or late ones on ivory, would do well to collect these bright, gleaming enamel portraits and interest themselves in the stories of the artists who produced them.

There are some enamellers at the present day who are doing good work, but there has never arisen anybody who could equal the superb work of the Petitots, or the wonderful productions of their relative, Prieur. Sometimes the very frames that surround the enamels are masterpieces of enameller's work. There was one Frenchman who produced beautiful floral frames in enamel, and whose work is very rare indeed and fetches a high price. A little case full of enamel portraits is a great source of joy.

The Jones collection in the South Kensington Museum contains some beautiful works by Petitot, which anyone can go and see. There are also some fine enamels in other parts of the same museum, and in the Salting collections. There are several other museums where enamels can be studied, notably the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and the Holburne Museum at Bath.