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

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Letter Weights And Door-Porters

On the old Chain Pier at Brighton, I remember seeing, when quite a small boy, at the extreme end, a stall full of interesting things made of glass. The old woman who kept it came from Stourbridge, and, as a child, I used to delight in the letter-weights, composed of canes of various coloured glass, forming intricate decoration, resembling beautiful anemones, which she used to sell, and in the balls full of water, which contained, as a rule, a figure of a man with an umbrella. On shaking these balls a heavy snowstorm appeared, and one then realised the idea of the man with the umbrella. In a few moments the particles of white that were contained in the ball fell to its base again, and then one had to shake it up, to produce another snowstorm.

My grandfather had on his writing-table many of the letter-weights which he bought from this old woman, mostly circular, but some of them square. He gave me a couple, but they have gone the way of most children's toys. At the same stall the old woman had green glass door-porters of various shapes, some tall and pointed, in which, superimposed, one on the other, were a series of flowers, flecked with tiny air-bubbles, and rising out of a kind of flower-pot. Others were circular, and appeared to be full of water, but were really crowded with bubbles of air, and in some there were Beonvolvuli, growing out of what appeared to be a grassy plat.

These also were found in my grandfather's house, and were always a joy to me, when I wondered how in the name of fortune the flowers were deposited within the green lumps of glass.

On my grandmother's dressing-table, obtained from the same stall was a set of toilet objects, two or three scent-bottles, and a ring tray, and, I believe, an inkstand, all of which had this Millefiori work at the base of them, and I have been told that, so common were the glass paperweights made by the workmen in the kilns at Stourbridge in their spare time, and for their own amusement, that at one time, they were ornaments in their gardens, and even edgings to their garden paths.

Recently, in the house of an old friend, I came across, to my great delight, several examples of these charming Millefiori letter-weights, and I gathered that he had given some attention to them, and he had two or three that were dated 1848. He told me that all the dated ones that he had ever seen had,in conjunction with the dates, some figures of animals, which, it would appear, were a sort of mark of the workmen who had made them.

Lately, I have seen the largest collection, I suppose, in existence, of this kind of glass, and I find there are four dates known to exist: 1845, 1846, 1847, and 1848, and that some of the letterweights of 1847 have the initial "B," while there are others of 1848 that are also marked "H," and yet others of that date that are marked "5.L." Nobody at present, however, has been able to determine whose these initials are.

It surely should not be impossible, in the neighbourhood of Stourbridge, where the letterweights were certainly made, to find out who were the clever workmen whose names are represented by the H, the B, and the S.L., because men who lived in '47 and '48, arid who made this sort of work, as it was certainly made for the '51 Exhibition, must surely be remembered, and their children are probably still living. There was a great demand at the time of the 1851 Exhibition for this very charming Millefiori work, some examples of which in colour appeared in The Connoisseur in the December number for 1920, and it was probably about that time that the various bottles were made which have this floral decoration in their bases or their knobs.

There were also bell-pulls made of it, large ball ends for portiere rods, handles for wardrobes, door handles, ink-pots, eggs to be used in the heel of a stocking when it was being darned, and even the handles of knives, forks and spoons, because, in a celebrated collection I have just seen there was a complete set of dessert knives and forks and spoons, with handles covered with this anemonelike decoration in colour.

The door-porters perhaps belong to a rather earlier age, but even those must have been still in process of manufacture when I was a tiny boy, because those which I saw on the stall at Brighton Chain Pier varied from month to month, and when one was bought, another speedily took its place.

A few years ago, in buying some Bristol and Nailsea glass, I bought a rough lump of the glass that was used in the preparation of these doorporters, and which had evidently been put aside, perhaps as waste. The skill involved in producing them must have been very considerable, especially in those of the superimposed flowers, because they had to be very dexterously set in, one above the other, and then the whole thing sealed up with extreme accuracy, a certain amount of air being left in, which rests on the leaves of the flowers and produces a delightful effect.

The big, square lumps of the Millefiori work are not often to be met with now, but are amongst the most important to the collector; one cube that I have seen has the date 1845 in about a dozen different places, the figures most delicately produced in black and white, and standing out quite clearly. Another paper-weight of the same date is made like a large ball, with a curved top and a flattened base. Some of them are made of what is called " Latticinio " work, white canes of glass cleverly twisted together, something like the canes that one finds in the stems of the eighteenthcentury wine-glasses, and this is associated with floral mosaics of extreme beauty.

There are all sorts of things in glass that one can collect, but few things that are more delightful in colour, and possessed of greater charm, than these Millefiori letter-weights. Some of the glass ornaments made by Apsley Pellatt, with portrait medallions on them, in silver lustre, are extremely beautiful, and those are not often to be seen now, but the letter-weights must have been made in such large numbers that it surely ought not to be difficult to form a collection of them.

The scent bottles, in some instances, could have held very little scent, and the mosaics were so disposed on the bottom of the bottle that they looked as though they were loose in it, and it was suggested that, if one poured out the eau-deCologne, one could get at these pieces of loose mosaic. It was soon found, however, that the bottle was a kind of puzzle bottle, only holding perhaps a teaspoonful of clear spirit, and when one removed that, one found that the mosaic was by no means loose, but was actually part of the bottle, although, at first sight, it seemed to be floating at the base of the fluid.

As to the snowstorms, they varied in design: sometimes they contained a cottage, sometimes Little Red Ridinghood with her dog, sometimes two or three figures, none too warmly clad, and the snow was of varying density, one beautiful ball, I remember, containing so much snow that it appeared, to one's great enthusiasm, to almost cover up Little Red Ridinghood, and to smother up the colour of her cloak. My own children recollect having these, purchased by me years afterwards in Brighton, although not, I fancy, bought, as certainly my own were, on the Chain Pier, but they also have gone the way of children's toys, and I have not seen one of those snowstorms, until, in my friend's collection, I saw a wonderful example. I wish that I could obtain one now.

There seems to be little in print about the Stourbridge Glass Works, and not much more about the works at Bristol. About the Apsley-Pellatt Glass Works there are two books to be got, both of them rare and very seldom to be seen, one called " The Origin of Glass Manufacture," another, more interesting, called " The Curiosities of Glassmaking." The whole subject is, however, well worth investigation, and to collectors who desire pretty objects for their collection, I can strongly recommend letter-weights and door-porters.