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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Seals And Sealing-Wax



At a friend's house a while ago I saw an interesting collection of old seals. Not the impressions in wax, but the actual seals such as men used to wear in the eighteenth century in bunches on a fob chain, and very pretty many of them were. The bulk, however, were in what the jewellers call "red" gold and not yellow gold, showing that they belong to a period of late Georgian art rather than to an early time, such as that of Queen Anne, when the gold used was much yellower in tone than it was in later days.

The majority of the stones used in them were of carnelian a mineral that people so often miscall cornelian, forgetting that it derives its name from its resemblance to flesh and hence it should be spelled with an "a" rather than an "o" but some were engraved on topaz, others on a white carnelian, and some on white quartz.

Old seals are of various sizes, some quite small, others very large and massive. Generally they have but one sealing side, but sometimes the stone swings over and is engraved on both sides. Occasionally one finds beautiful armorial bearings engraved upon them, but, as a rule, the emblems are classical or French, and sometimes amusing and clever in their wit.

In a collection I recently looked at, there were two or three fitted with whistles above the seal such as I had never seen before. Another collection had three or four of those very rare seals made of Chelsea porcelain-charming little figures, very delicate and dainty, surely made in order to show how prettily these toys could be produced rather than for actual use.

Then, again, another collector had been making a speciality of a different kind of seal-the longhandled ones, where the handle is three inches or so in length, and the seal was intended to lie on the writing table for use when necessary. One or two of these were in fine lumps of bloodstone ; a very handsome one was in smoked quartz; one or two of the handles were jade, others clear, transparent rock-crystal ; and many, very beautifully worked, were in ivory. Sometimes pieces of Oriental carved ivory were used, but at other times the ivory was evidently worked in this country,from the plainness and simplicity of its detail.

In the same collection I found Wedgwood handles for seals ; lilac or blue jasper, with slightly relieved decoration in white ; a strange one that was made, I imagine, at Bristol or Nailsea, of green glass, with tiny bubbles in it ; a cleverly wrought one in iron, representing a squirrel and a nut enclosed in a piece of foliage ; some jet ones, which I imagine came from Whitby; and several bearing the marks of the Dresden porcelain, with one special rarity that was quite clearly made at Sevres. All of these were, of course,the table seals and not intended to be worn, but amongst them was a very fine one indeed of Egyptian onyx. In some of them the engraving was actually of the same material as the handle, the whole being one solid piece ; in others the engraving was a separate piece of stone enclosed in a frame of gold work, attached to the handle.

Then there are occasionally to be met with those odd seals that open at the top and have a series of little steel stamps, which can be used as desired, fitted into the framework at the other end. These are generally very fanciful in their devices and sometimes amusing. I imagine that there was no serious importance in them they were toys rather than tools. It did strike me, however, as a rather curious thing, that the collector of these long handled seals, of which he had quite an important series, did not himself know how to make a proper impression with them, but adopted the usual habit of lighting a match and burning a piece of sealing-wax, very much to waste, with a series of black spots on the hot wax and various drops of wax scattered in different directions, and then hurriedly put the seal on it, with the result of a very poor impression.

Years ago the art of sealing used to be taught as one of the accomplishments that it was desirable that a person, especially a lady, should understand and appreciate; and one notes amongst the Sheffield plated things various cases for these long, twisted tapers which were used for the purpose and in their bright green colour, inside the silver basket shaped mount, looked very pretty;and also small lamps, which were used for the same sort of purpose. As a matter of fact there is nothing so good for making a seal as a small spirit lamp ; but to push the piece of wax into the flame of the candle, taper or lamp, and as soon as a bit of it is melted dab it on to the paper, and then to melt another and similar piece, to try to gather the shapeless mass together and then, with great haste, dab on the seal, is pretty sure to produce an impression that is no credit to the sealer, instead of one that might be quite worth looking at and satisfactory.

A careful sealer, on the contrary, never thrusts his wax into the flame but holds it just above the point, and moves it round and round in his fingers until he has a sufficient amount of the wax soft and melted. He can increase the velocity of the evolutions until there is plenty of it ready to put on to the envelope, taking care that the drops or as they are vulgarly called, "kisses" do not fall about in all directions. Then, when the wax is brought to its proper haven and turned round with its lower edge away from the sealer, it is gradually brought upright in the hand, the molten part rubbed round slightly so as to level it on all sides, the circle being gradually decreased until one ends in the middle of it, and then, if it is not quite free from bubbles or lumps, it may be held quite lightly half an inch above the flame of the taper or lamp until the bubbles disappear.

There is no tremendous hurry in putting on the seal: if you put it on when the wax is very liquid you get a deep frame and a very poor picture. You should hold the seal just for a moment over the point of the taper, try it on the back of your hand to see if it is really warm, place it again over the flame,and then put it down very lightly, press it steadily, and then as steadily remove, and the result should be much more satisfactory than the usual seal. Some persons prefer just slightly to breathe on the surface of the seal, others touch it on their hair or face: both results having exactly the same effect,producing the thinnest possible atmosphere or dampness between the wax and the seal, so that the wax does not become attached to the body of the seal.

The most beautiful seals, of course, are those where the centre part of the seal is coloured with Chinese vermilion of the very finest possible quality. As a rule the seal engraver produced his perfect impressions on a piece of stout cardboard, which he can actually hold over the flame of the lamp and then he has an excellent opportunity for a good result ; but one cannot do that with an envelope, and therefore a different course has to be adopted a polishing brush is needed and a camel's hair one as well, and the tiniest possible morsel of fine pomatum, about the size of a pin's head, is just rubbed over the surface of the polishing brush. The seal is warmed, the polishing brush passed across it two or three times, the camel's hair brush dipped in the vermilion, which is very lightly and very equally applied to the face of the seal so as to leave the thinnest possible mask of powder over every part of it.The loose vermilion is then blown off with the breath so that it does not lodge in the hollows, the wax is melted, and the seal very carefully applied as in the ordinary way; but the impression that should result is infinitely finer, because the border retains the natural brilliancy of the wax and the centre part, where the seal has touched, is of a deep, red vermilion.

There appear to be so many collectors of seals nowadays that it seems a pity that the art of sealing a letter should have dropped out, and perchance these few explanations may be deemed of some service. Some persons always seal their correspondence. One friend of mine invariably does so, determined that no chance should be given to any inquisitive person for the opening of his letters. There are several persons who invariably wear seals as fobs, especially with evening dress ; and on most library tables, especially in good houses,there can be found handled seals with initials, or the name of the house, or the armorial achievements.That being so, it is surely a pity that proper care should not be taken in using these beautiful seals, because the joy of seeing a well executed seal on an envelope is a considerable one, and there is no reason, unless one is very busily engaged, for the seal to be a carelessly executed impression. Naturally, when people seal up parcels, it does not much matter how the seal is produced, provided the impression is fairly clear ; but, when the envelope is going to a person of some importance and the seal is a good one, why should not the impression be equally good There are still a few persons; very few, I suppose who make use of quarto notepaper, fold it, wafer it, and seal it in the way that I myself was taught to send a letter from very earliest days,envelopes being regarded as rather unnecessary and commercial.Persons who do fold their paper in this fashion-amongst whom, it may be mentioned, was the late Lord Salisbury-keep up the art of sealing, and the result is a very pleasant one.

Seals are interesting things to collect ; there are many of them to be got in jewellers' shops and,sometimes, in pawnbrokers'. They are quite pretty to have and to use, and if properly used can be a source of much satisfaction.