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The Eighteen Enamels
( Originally Published 1913 )
About three hundred years ago a certain Jean Perricaud, the descendant of a race of hereditary craftsmen, performed a chef d'oeuvre at Limoges, that quaint old city so centrally situated in France. He took eighteen variously shaped pieces of flat copper, covered them with a coat of thin enamel, " fired " them, producing a smooth, glassy surface on them, painted on this surface miniature-like pictures in glassy colours, " fired " the paintings again and again, colour by colour-in great heat, heat sufficient to fuse the colours and blend them with the base, yet without destroying the outlines, tints, or shadings-and thus produced a masterpiece of the enameller's art. Decoration in vitreous enamel is perhaps the most difficult of all the artistic crafts.
The eighteen small plaques of decorated copper, the largest not twelve inches high and the rest only three or four inches in diameter, were then fitted together, balanced one against another, framed into a harmonious whole, and set up over an altar, when it became evident that what Jean Perricaud had produced was a series of little pictures of scenes in the life of Christ. For two centuries this glorious altarpiece adorned some church in central France. Then came the Great Revolution, and the altar-piece disappeared.
The Job Lot.-About eighty years ago an old gentleman of a collecting turn of mind found a job lot of eighteen queerly shaped bits of vividly coloured enamelled copper lying about in a London auctionroom. Renaissance enamels were then of little note, there was no market for them, and the old gentleman, blessed with a taste and an insight finer and longer than was current at his period, was able to secure the job lot at about the price of so much old copper. He took them away to a remote spot, in his native land of Wales ; there, after some years he died, and there a sale of his accumulated treasures took place.
The Knock-out.-Meanwhile, a knowledge of sixteenth-century Limoges work had begun to permeate the collecting world, and a few London dealers, finding " Limoges enamels " mentioned in the advance copies of the sale catalogue, went down to the remote spot in Wales. The country auctioneer did not the least know what Limoges enamels might be, so he put up in one lot the eighteen pieces of painted copper, wrapped in brown paper, just as they had been found in the old gentleman's collection ; his very description of them as " Limoges enamels," he had taken from the old gentleman's manuscript list of what his collection contained. The Welsh farmers present at the auction did not understand the situation, either. " Now, gentlemen-what shall I say ? A shilling apiece ? " There was no response from the farmers, and the London dealers kept silence. At length one of the " London gentlemen " went so far as to say that he " wouldn't mind giving ninepence apiece for the lot." The auctioneer effusively thanked him, and the hammer was about to descend, when some patriotic local person began to bid, and the associated dealers were compelled to go as high as £25 before one of them could secure the bargain.
Going off to the village inn, the dealers auctioned the eighteen pieces of copper among themselves, and the highest bidder got them for £450. The difference (arising in less than an hour) between £25 and £450 was divided among the trade conspirators, and the eighteen pieces, in their brown paper wrappings, came up by coach to London.
At the Museum.-Soon after that a private collector bought them for £600, and, a little later, the South Kensington Museum was given the opportunity of acquiring them for L800. There at South Kensington the eighteen enamels now rest, in peace and glory, for ever secure from vicissitudes such as they have experienced in the past. There at South Kensington they rest, honoured above all, amidst the masterpieces of other Limoges craftsmen, the triptych by Nardon Perricaud (another of the family), the portrait of Cardinal Guise by Leonard Limousin, the Valois casket, and the beautiful black and milky-white grisaille work by Pierre Raymond and others.
The Moral.-Such is the story, fished out and first told by Mr. Soden-Smith, one of the band of English collectors and connoisseurs who changed the whole aspect of English collecting half a century ago. You and I, reader, may never come across eighteen pieces, or even one piece, signed "Jean Perricaud," or even " J. P.," in a back-street London auction-room or broker's shop, unless they be fakes and frauds painted there to lie in wait for us. There is a " Perricaud " enamel in the Louvre, valued now at £4,000 ; a piece out of the Soltikoff collection was bought, many years ago, and brought to London, at the price of £1,200. But none of these quite equal the splendid harmony of colour and the durable brilliancy of the eighteen bits of enamel for which ninepence apiece was the first bid eighty years ago. The moral is that collectors should be alert to recognise beauty and rarity and potential money value in things not at present much thought of; the moral is that we should not collect in herds so much, sheeplike, following the bell-wethers of collecting ; the moral is that treasures-though not in Limoges enamel-lie Perdu still, for the seeing eye and the thinking brain to discover, now and again.