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On Certain Brass Figure Ornaments
( Original Published 1913 )
Brass figure ornaments for the mantelpiece are a hobby of mine, and I have collected about seventy, each different. Better in colour than gold, as well as quainter and cheaper, warmer-looking than silver, and brighter than bronze, under the magical chiaroscuro of firelight they gleam and gloom and glow delightfully. And they are eminently companionable to live with, whether they dwell on the mantel in one's study, shine between the porcelain in the drawing-room, or still rest on the high shelves of the farmhouse and cottage chimney-breasts which were, I think, their first homes.
The illustrations show the kind of brass figures I mean ; they are not statuettes, but reliefs ; I will refer to some of them individually presently. But first let me trace them to their origin, for, next to the find and the acquisition, nothing is so interesting to a collector as research. How did these particular small " ornaments for mantelpieces " evolve ? And about what date did they come into being ? After a good deal of inquiry, in which the Rev. A. H. Gilruth of Douglas Water has greatly helped me, I have come to the conclusion that brass figure ornaments derive from the brass firedogs of medieval times, and in the shape and size here shown came into existence towards the end of the eighteenth century. There is, perhaps, a second line of descent for them, however-through the tall brass door-stops that kept doors ajar in Georgian days. Some of the most artistic figures seem like copies in brass of eighteenth-century French ormolu, and I own one that is copied from a Wedgwood cameo.
At what date did hearths, fenders, and fireirons made of brass come into use ? Let us go to New England for evidence as to that. In 1720, when Judith, daughter of judge Sewell of New York, was to be married, her father sent to England for furniture. Among the items in the order was the following: " A brass Hearth for a Chamber, with Dogs, Shovel, Tongs, and Fender of the newest Fashion (the Fire is to ly upon Iron)." I imagine these " Dogs " would not be firedogs for supporting logs, but firedogs transformed into rests for fireirons, and necessarily reduced in size for the purpose. But firedogs and fireiron-stands alike have common features, the bar on which the logs or the fireirons rested and the upright piece at the front end of the bar. This upright piece stood on the hearth by legs, or a bow sometimes, and you can note the slight survival of the bow in the supports of the figures of the Musicians ; sometimes the upright piece stood on a plinth, which is perceptible in the other examples. The upright pieces were ornamented, as a rule. In the King's Robing Room at the House of Lords there are a couple of elaborate brass frontispieces to firedogs, copied from originals at Knole. Now if one took a small angle-bar, and soldered the free end of it to the back and middle of any of the brass figures pictured here, one would get a miniature fireiron-stand or firedog. Mr. Gilruth tells me that fireiron-rests with brass figures for the upright pieces are actually in use on hearths in Scotland still, and I saw a pair of brass-fronted fireiron-stands of Queen Anne date the other day.
But now let us consider how the uprights or frontispieces came to be detached from the angle-bar, or made without reference to angle-bars at all; and how, again reduced in size, they became elevated to the rank and position of mantel ornaments. It is here where the well-attested theory of the " 'prenticepiece " fits in. Your Georgian apprentice brassworker, when near the end of his indentures, had to produce a special bit of handicraft-a " masterpiece "-in brass, to prove himself worthy to become a journeyman or " little master," as they say in Hallamshire to this day. Collectors of old brasswork recognise some of these " 'prentice-pieces " when they see them in the form of brass toys, flowers in flower-pots, tiny hearths, fenders, and fireirons, miniature sets of weights and measures, and so forth; sometimes you find them still in the very glass case which enshrined them as they stood on the mantel or chest of drawers in the apprentice's home, a proud possession and proof of his skill. What more natural than for a 'prentice to turn out a miniature copy of a fireiron-stand or firedog ? Then the prettiness of the thing would strike the eye, and further copies would be taken from the mould, And the figures thus produced would come to rank as ornaments worthy to neighbour with the Staffordshire earthenware figures on cottage mantels. Next, the ornaments would become a branch of the brass trade. Et voila, the derivation, the evolution, is complete.
These small brass figures are wonderfully attractive, homely, quaint, and not without artistic merit; and of course they are anything but modern. Something about the dates of them can be learnt from costume. " Dr. Johnson," as the sleepy old toper spilling his liquor is slanderously called by curiosity dealers, wears the wig and habit of the last decade of the eighteenth century. The hats of the Fisheyman and Shooter are perhaps a little later than that, though the Shooter's gunstock is earlier. The Boy with the Dog and the Girl with the Pet Rabbit are quite Bewickian in style; I fancy, indeed, that a good many of these ornaments were copied from old woodcuts. Of the Musicians one is " Chippendale Chinese " and the other is " German Romantic " ; which dates them at about 1770. The Napoleon is slim and young, and wears the tricolour cockade, so I date him about 1797, I have never seen a brass figure ornament which bore any numerical indication of date or any maker's name or mark, so that all is necessarily conjectural.
But something as to relative age can be learnt from the material. Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, can contain varying proportions of those metals; the usual ratio is 6 oz. copper to 4 oz. of zinc, and the greater the proportion of copper the earlier and also the softer the brass. Something like the tests for "soft" or " hard " porcelain can be applied to these figures. The more the proportion of zinc the more brittle the brass and the less its capacity for smoothness and high polish. The more brittle the brass the less perfect the casting, also. It follows, therefore, that the allegorical Europe (sitting on such a very small horse) and America (the spear touching a tobacco-plant) are pretty late, for they are rough, hard, brittle, and imperfectly cast. Then, again, weight is some test of age ; the earliest of the figures I possess is probably a Chanticleer ; that is small, but weighs 6 1/2 oz.
Next there is the evidence of the plinth or pedestal. In the case of the Chanticleer, the bird, the base, and the stand or plinth were all cast in one piece, but that would be an early method, soon departed from; in every other case but one that I know, the plinth was cast separately, and fastened to the base of the figure by brazing, or screws, or copper rivets. The plinths of the Musicians, like those of Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday, are chased and cut ; the Peacock has a showy plinth and Napoleon's is almost a pedestal.
Of course I can only mention and picture a few of the figures. There are Cupids very graceful and Frenchy, there are Dancers who might have been native at Pompeii, there are Horses, Lions, a Boy with a Lamb, and there is a Pheasant, which is much counterfeited, by the by. I possess a large Vigil o f a Young Knight, probably dating back to the days of the " Lay of the Last Minstrel." In Scotland there is a Bobbie Burns at the Plough, Mr. Gilruth tells me, and a Boy and Girl Fishing, and a Boy and Girl Birdnesting, a Jigging Irishman, a Man and Wife Fighting, and a Death of the Goose. I own a George IV in his Coronation garb. New portrait figures have appeared from time to time, devised in Birmingham; a Sir Garnet Wolseley and a Lord Roberts seem to be the latest.
The figures I collect are all rather small, only two of them more than 51 in. high, the plinth and base included; but there are other such figures of larger size which were used as door-stops, or are ornaments derived from door-stops. Brass figure ornaments usually go in pairs or sets, but I have not collected pairs unless each member of the "pair" is different. For the figures of Europe and America I gave 6s. ; for an Asia 4s. 6d. ; for the Africa (which seems to be exceedingly rare) I was once asked 17s. 6d., but I have bought one lately for 6s. For Dr. Johnson I paid 6s. ; for Napoleon, 4s.; for the Peacock, 3s.; for the Fisherman and the Shooter 2s. 6d. each; and for Crusoe and Friday, as for the Boy and Girl, 6s. the " pair." I have a little armorial figure of a Stag (the only armorial brass figure I have ever seen) which cost me 5s. It is still quite possible to acquire a fairly exhaustive collection of fifty or so for about ten guineas ; but it is necessary to utter Caveat emptoy, for counterfeiting has begun. Nothing is more easy than to take a mould from a genuine old figure and cast copies by the score. But the copies are usually made of cheap " white-metal," dipped in brass or lacquered, and a scratch in the base will reveal the white-metal showing through; besides, the counterfeits are unduly thin, fragile, and devoid of patina.
I can remember seeing brass figure ornaments stand on the high mantels of farmhouses in Worcestershire forty years ago, and I have seen them in situ in Sussex within the last ten years. Five years ago I saw one in a miner's cottage in Nottinghamshire. From emptied farmsteads and cottages they have gone into dealers' shops in towns; to carry them back and let them rest in country houses, week-end cottages, and suburban villas is almost a charity, for to the last they will be rural and simple old English things, witnesses to a wholesome and native art, as far removed from the Rococo or the Oriental as from the horrible art nouveau. Among greenery and healthy rusticity they should dwell.