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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Battersea And Bilston Enamels

( Originally Published 1924 )



Some day or other, when Mr. Ward Usher's treasures are arranged in the Municipal Museum he has founded in Lincoln, there will be an opportunity of looking at some of the most beautiful bits of Battersea enamel that have ever been collected.

I was with him when he bought many of his pieces, and I advised him about several of them. We had a dispute once about a piece which he said was Battersea, and which I said was French. It was a long needle-case, and, after he had bought it, he dug away at the very bottom with a knitting-needle, and, to his supreme disgust, discovered a little French label, and forthwith sent the needle-case back again to the dealer, who had guaranteed it Battersea. Two of his finest pieces are the pink mustard-pots that he bought in 1900 from Mr. Dudley Macdonald. Very precious, and one of the most interesting, is a little thimble-case that belonged to Charlotte Bronte that he bought at a sale of Bronte relics, and which he always thought he would give to the museum at Haworth, but he could never quite persuade himself to part from his delightful little blue treasure decorated with its charming sprigs of roses.

My own grandmother used to carry in her pocket a little nutmeg box of Battersea enamel, with a tiny grater just inside the lid. I believe she only carried it because her mother did so, for in her time nutmegs had gone down in price and were not so precious as they were before. People used to dust their muffins with a tiny particle of nutmeg, and hence the tiny boxes and the tiny salt cellars that succeeded them were called muffineers.

The manufacture of these charming little enamels was started in about 1750, at York House, Battersea, and the owner of the works was Mr. Janssen, who was Lord Mayor of London in 1754, and afterwards Sir Stephen Janssen.

Horace Walpole gives us the date in his letter to his friend Richard Bentley, dated September 18th, 1755. He says, " I shall send you a trifling snuff-box, only as a sample of the new manufactm at Battersea, which is done with copper plates." The snuff-boxes are rare. There were probably not very many of them made, because they were costly to produce, and the decoration upon them, which was done from copperplate engravings by means of transfer to the surface of the enamel, required extreme skill. What are generally to be found are the tiny patch-boxes, usually with little steel mirrors inside the lids, often plain in colour, delightful rose-pink, blue and green, and very pale blue, with a spotted, so-called linen pattern decoration ; sometimes having inscriptions on them, more like those of the old valentines, or the statement that they are " a fairing present. On others there are portraits, and very often pretty little scenes, such as rural lovers, and symbolic figures with Cupids. Occasionally they carry French mottoes on them, but there was a French manufacture of the same sort of things at a much later date, and the productions of this factory are much smoother, more clean in the inside, rather too highly finished, and the enamel is laid on too thin. The probable reason for the French mottoes on the old ones was the employment of a Frenchman named Ravenet, who worked at Battersea for a long time.

The largest collection I ever saw belonged to Mr. Kennedy, and was dispersed after his death, and some of his finest patch-boxes had been picked up for a shilling apiece in the old days when it was possible to buy treasures at that price. Lady Charlotte Schreiber, who left the great collection in 1884 to the South Kensington Museum, was even more fortunate, because she tells us that on one occasion, when she was buying some rather choice things, she had her handbag filled with some odds and ends of Battersea enamel, which the man saw she admired, but which he regarded as quite trumpery, and unworthy of any notice at a11.

The prettiest things ever made in Battersea were the etuis, dainty little boxes with chased gilt metal mounts, and sometimes containing all the original implements for which they were made. Mr. Usher had a beauty, which had all its implements, and a needlecase which possessed its old needles. He also possessed the Nelson box dated 1805, with a trophy of arms. Probably a great many such boxes were made at the time, but very few have survived.

In 1900 there was a great run on Battersea enamel and immediately the faker set to work in Brussels and Paris. On one occasion I saw quite a large collection of so-called Battersea enamels, purchased by a Frenchman, in which I do not believe there were two specimens that had ever come from Battersea at all.

The rarest things to get are the candlesticks and the writing desks and inkstands. Some of the tops made for canes will open, so that strong scent can be put in, in case that the physician who carried the cane was visiting a patient with a dangerous illness. Some also of the patch-boxes have false lids, and on the inner one is occasionally to be found a picture. Sometimes these pictures are not very respectable, and are wisely hidden in the lid. Mr. Kennedy had two, which contained very suggestive paintings, done by Cosway, the miniaturist, when he first began to work as an artist. Occasionally the etuis were made to order. There are two or three at South Kensington, unique, intended to have been given to Mrs. Chambers and to Miss Day, the lady who sat to Sir Joshua Reynolds, and who is mentioned in Horace Walpole's letters. Just a very few have the artist's initials signed upon them, or names upon them, but these are of great rarity, unless they happen to be plaques, in which case there are a great many that are named, some taken from well-known engravings, and others from transfers specially prepared. It is said that some of these were painted at Liverpool, and one writer on enamels claims that these were actually made in Liverpool, but the only other place where our English enamel boxes were made was at Bilston, near Wolverhampton, and the Bilston boxes were smaller, rougher, not nearly so well finished, and occasionally have little lumps of the enamel which can be felt, instead of the smooth surface upon which Battersea prided itself.

The manufacture of Battersea enamel was of very short duration. In 1756, it was all over, but a certain French enamel painter, named Roquet, is said to have carried on a manufacture of some of the things till a rather later date. Buyers of Battersea enamel must always carry a magnifying glass. The original productions were exquisitely finished, the modern ones rough and coarse. The actual enamel surfaces, especially on the bigger pieces, such as scent bottles, cream jugs, mustard pots, and particularly on buttons, is smooth and delicate and dainty. On the forgeries made in France, it is not nearly so Smooth ; it is laid on to the copper exceedingly thinly, it is poor in texture, and it is often rough and sand-like in quality.