Decorative Accessories

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Take a spin through the database and you’ll soon realized there are so many little daily comforts that you take for granted. I don’t just mean things like heat and running water, but also things like adhesive envelopes. Sounds small, doesn’t it, in this age of online bill paying, but consider for a moment that Thomas Jefferson is estimated to have written more than 20,000 letters! That’s a lot of inconvenient sealing!

Movies make sealing letters look romantic and mysterious, but it was rather a hassle. You had to have heat to do it, which pretty much meant an open flame, and open flames weren’t necessarily that readily available. Candles were expensive, friction matches weren’t around yet, and thus an open flame meant finding a lit hearth somewhere nearby from which to light a heat source or fussing with a tinderbox. (And candle flames weren’t exactly ideal anyway – they burned too hot and most candles were tallow, so they smoked, so a candle flame could easily singe the wax and lead to a big blackened bubble that looked like the remnants of a scorched marshmallow – and then the wax might not form the desired seal.)

Enter the wax jack. They were developed around the mid-1600s, at least that seems to be when they began to gain wider use, and they were a simple design – a roller (a jack) on a frame or stand. Around them was wrapped the wax in the form of a long taper, normally a fiber wick coated to about the thickness of a modern ink pen with wax. (Beeswax was what used, as it did not smoke and was not as soft as tallow, which was soft enough to easily become a sticky, fused lump.) Held in place by a clip or scissors that also served the purpose of preventing the taper from burning dangerously low, the taper would burn with a tiny, bright flame perfectly suited for melting sealing wax.

They would go on to become so popular in the 1700s that they would become integral parts of desk sets and would as a result begin to vary more widely in form, style, and materials. They might be made of silver or brass, made with or without handles or snuffers, made with an array of designs used to feed out more of the taper.

Enclosed wax jacks, the same central concept of a spindle that fed out a taper only with the spindle enclosed in a container of some sort, usually egg- or tankard-shaped, and with the taper feeding out of a hole in the top, were called bougie boxes. Perhaps because the boxes allowed for a display of wealth and were more travel-friendly, they tended to be more widely used by the upper classes. In either case, based on age, materials, and form (versions with scissors are more valuable), wax jacks or bougie boxes can be quite collectible today, bringing anywhere from $50 to $1000 at auction.

Brown painted carved wooden spoon rack, possibly Bergen County, New Jersey, 1767, with chip carved heart on the arched crest above nine floral medallions and two slotted tiers for eight spoons flanking an indistinctly inscribed label, incised "1767" on the reverseOne of the side effects of my work is that I often manage to create work for other people, which is the case with this particular discussion – Frisian carving. We will be unraveling our usage of these terms over the coming months, but for now… The Frisians are an ethnic group with Germanic roots, who live today along the coastal regions of the Netherlands and Germany. The spelling confusion between Friesian and Frisian is not helped by the fact that they live around Friesland in the Netherlands and Frisia in Germany (which technically was Frisia in Denmark until the 1860s, but there’s already enough going on here and the various Frisian communities are still rather divided after centuries of being shuffled around among various European confederacies and countries). We will opt for Frisian, as the people this is most associated with in American decorative arts were typically Pennsylvania Germans.

Frisian carving in decorative arts refers to lightly carved decoration on furniture and small decorative objects. The designs are often rife with traditional Germanic symbolism – stags and hunt scenes, lilies, unicorns – as well geometric elements, with a draftsman-like precision to their layout – circles, triangles, and particularly pinwheels or fylfots. The carving is very easily distinguished from the dark wood, heavy-handed opulence of Black Forest carving; it is very clearly delineated but also done with a light hand and is also commonly known as chip carving.

It can be difficult to make firm attributions to Frisian/chip-carved objects, as it was done in both Europe and America. Within America there are several subgroups of the work (for instance, a group of spoon racks that are connected to New Jersey – one is pictured above), but the motifs and the wood choices are the best clues for making attributions. (It is worth noting however that because of extensive trade, as is often the case, mahogany is more difficult to attribute specifically.)

Frisian carving is also difficult to pin down in terms of value. There are many factors at work – from the usual suspects like the condition to the form (it was done on such a wide array of objects, from mirrors to beds to stands to spoon racks) to the age (older is almost always better but Frisian carving continued into the 20th-century when it becomes, technically, less Frisian and more chip-carving and when it is even connected with the objects identified as “tramp art”) to, quite simply, the quality. Small, newer pieces might only fetch a few hundred dollars, but larger and/or older works can easily bring thousands, even ten thousand, at auction.

EnameCloisonne enamel phoenix candlesticks on standsl (sometimes known as porcelain enamel, most properly termed vitreous enamel) is a very old technique, one which was used among the ancient Persians, Greeks, Celts, and Chinese, and refers to the process of fusing powdered glass to a base (normally metal, but also quite frequently a ceramic base, sometimes even a glass one, is used) by firing it to temperatures between 1,380-1,560 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the glass powder melts and vitrifies. (Vitreous has multiple meanings, at least two of which apply in this sense – glass-like and a shiny nonporous surface.) The powdered glass is either grounded colored glass or ground glass with pigments, normally metallic oxides, added.

For most of its history, enamel has been used for decorative purposes – decorative objects like vases, urns, boxes, etc., and for jewelry. In the 19th century, manufacturers began producing industrial and household items that have also come to be referred to as enameled: bathtubs, sinks, washing machines, cookware.

There are a number of distinct techniques for applying enamel, but some of the most common decorative methods are painted, cloisonné, plique-à-jour, champlevé, and basse-taille. Painted enamel is exactly what it sounds like – painted onto a flat metal surface. Cloisonné enamel is enameled with the same material, but in cloisonné, a surface design is prepared with a design in a metal framework – not unlike a stained glass window – that is soldered to the surface and enamel is filled into those spaces. Cloisonné was originally a technique of inlaying precious and semi-precious stones into the surface of an object and enamel eventually replaced the stones but the concept of metal framing remained. Plique-à-jour is when a stained-glass-like frame is used, but not applied to a solid metal surface, leaving the back exposed and allowing light to shine through. Champlevé is a more cost-effective method and more suitable for larger works, where instead of applying enamel freehand to a surface or creating the framework cloisonné requires, the design is stamped, pressed, or etched into the surface of the metal and then the resulting compartments are filled with color. (Limoges enamel, in the earliest days, during the 12th century, were champlevé, with a later transition to the more straightforward technique of painted enamel.)  Basse-taille, the one that is perhaps superior in artistry, is where the relief design is accomplished by the kind of craftsmanship that forms fine silver – engraving and chasing work to create relief designs and voids that are then filled with enamel.

Enamel is wonderfully durable and can be applied to virtually any metal. The finished product is scratch-resistant and, unlike paint, it’s won’t fade from exposure to light. Enamel works owe most of their vulnerability to the metal on which they are applied, because if the metal bends, the enamel surface will, of course, crack.

Enameling has been done for so long on so many surfaces and with such varying levels of skill that it’s difficult to make generalizations about the value of enamel-decorated pieces. Age is a significant factor, with older pieces typically having greater value, particularly if they are from high points in the art’s history – ancient China, early Limoges, etc. The subject or style of the decoration and the degree of detail and design in the work (cloisonné pieces often command large prices for these reasons as well) can also play a significant role in value.

Society’s traditions come and go, oftentimes for the better as our understanding of the world evolves, but I find it sad that one tradition in particular has faded away: that of the Grand Tour. While today we associate the idea of the Grand Tour with the late 19th century, in reality the custom began as early as the 17th century, rooted in the idea of religious pilgrim to Rome. In fact, it was during this time that travel began to be seen not just as a means to end, but as a worthwhile process in and of itself, as something done for pleasure, enrichment and intellectual curiosity.

At the same time, everything about travel was expensive and inconvenient. The process was lengthy and costly and one had to have not only the means to pay for the venture and accommodations, but also the ability to be gone for an extended period of time. Thus, as is so often the case when something is difficult and expensive, it will often gain cachet with the upper classes as a visible means of displaying wealth and privilege, and travel was no different as the Grand Tour experience flourished among the aristocracy of England and northern Europe.

While the Grand Tour was a very individualized experience, throughout the 18th century a generally accepted route was formalized, with English travelers crossing the English Channel from Dover, traveling to Paris, then to Switzerland, over the Alps into northern Italy, and then journeying south through Turin and Florence, tacking back and forth as much as possible to visit places like Bologna or Venice, before arriving in Rome. Some tourists would venture as far south as Naples and Pompeii, or as travel later improved, visitors sometimes went to Sicily or made tentative explorations around the Mediterranean, but usually from Rome or Naples, they turned north again, bearing west for the return trip across the Alps in order to visit the Germanic part of Europe: Vienna, Berlin, Munich – before looping back through Holland and crossing the Channel home.

The idea was that this experience would polish the skills a young man (later young women took the Grand Tour as well and the opportunity expanded beyond the aristocracy as rail travel presented a more affordable option) would need as an aristocrat and as one who would likely serve in some official capacity. Many traveled in the company of a tutor as well as entered into lessons along the way, with the expectation that they would return home with courtly manners, strong language skills, and an increased appreciation of world affairs, the history of western civilization, and cultural awareness.

Of course, as has ever been the case, tourists beget tourism, and travelers returned home with all manner of souvenirs: scale models of buildings, paintings and sculptures, ancient artifacts, trinkets decorated with European landscapes, objects designed to keep memories of their trip alive. A collection of such objects is being offered for sale at Skinner Auctions. Nearly 100 lots of terrific artifacts of dozens of Grand Tour trips including column models, paperweights, miniature landscapes, micromosaic scenes, and much more will be starting a new journey this weekend as they cross the auction block, so be sure to “take a tour” of the sale!

Furniture: Wine Stand; Chippendale, Mahogany, Shell Carved, Shaped Handle, Cabriole Legs, Trifid Feet, 25 inch. Canterbury is one of those terms that, when the piece to which it originally applied fell out of fashion, was simply picked up and applied a second time to another form that was at least in some ways similar to the original. A canterbury in the 18th century was a low wooden stand, typically on casters, with a divided top, the purpose of which was to be set near the dining table and hold plates and cutlery. The form’s name is said to be a nod to the Archbishop of Canterbury who was an early adopter.

At some point, someone took the idea of the divided tray, deepened the wells, and, in some cases, added more compartments to create another portable piece of furniture, this one with slatted spaces for most typically sheet music or magazines and newspapers. These pieces are the forebearers of the modern magazine rack and in typical Victorian fashion, the form gets more elaborate as the 19th century wears on. By the latter part of the century, canterburies have end panels with music-inspired shapes (treble clefs or lyres/harps) and an upper shelf or tray top has been added.

Canterburies still have solid value with collectors, as they remain very useful for holding the exact things they were originally designed to hold and because they were used for the better part of two centuries at the very least, they’re available in a variety of styles and conditions.

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