English enamel

The esteemed tradition of enamelling in England was established as early as the Nineth Century when the famous King Alfred Jewel, crafted from crystal with a hand painted enamelled plaque set underneath was made. The art of enamelling faded in England after the Middle Ages but was revived with astonishing beauty and popularity in the Eighteenth Century, after the French began to use painted enamels to decorate small items. This fashion was quickly adopted and developed in England, where the stunning colours and sophisticated designs caught the eyes of the luxury-loving aristocratic upper classes whose appetite for small, elegant and luxurious personal items ‘objets de vertu’ accelerated.

Most of the earliest English eighteenth century enamels were created in England’s first enamel factory, York House, established in Battersea in 1753. Although the factory was only operational for three years, the prolific amount and quality of enamel production was and remains a remarkable feat. These ‘Battersea Enamels’ became a synonym for English Georgian enamels. Today Battersea or York House Enamels are some of the most rare and desirable enamels on the market.

After the closure of York House in 1756, many of its enamellers and decorators travelled to various Staffordshire & Midlands metalworks including Bilston, Wolverhampton and Birmingham and continued to develop techniques, skill and artistry throughout the Eighteenth Century as demand for a myriad of personal items soared and prospered.

These cottage-industry workshops continued to develop enamel methods to decorate more and more objects for the luxury elite, from patch & snuff boxescandlesticksdesk sealsetuismusical bird boxes and perfume bottles. Due to these intricate, pretty decorative enamels, often depicting scenes of animals or flowers, these expensive enamels were as popular with children as they were with adults. Consequently, many of them are incredibly difficult to source as they have suffered the playful and careless little hands of children.

English enamels continued to thrive as objects of aspiration throughout the Eighteenth Century until the 1830s with the production ceasing in the 1840s. Despite a small revival of the industry in the 1970s, none of the more contemporary items were able to capture the essence of the earlier eighteenth century models.

Due to the rarity and precious nature of the antique eighteenth century English enamels, they remain exclusive objects of beauty. The Antique Enamel Company has developed an expert reputation and an extensive collection of these highly sought-after enamels and remains a byword in the sourcing of beautiful and exclusive enamels.

Browse the catalogue for one of the world’s largest selection of antique Eighteenth Century English enamels.

Viennese enamel

With a long history of the decorative arts industry, the Austrian capital of Vienna became a key centre of decorative enamelling in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Major workshops by well-known silversmiths such as Bohm and Ratzersdorfer created elaborate confections in the ‘Ringstrasse’ taste, catering primarily to a burgeoning affluent clientèle and made largely for export.

Ornate display and novelty objects decorated with enamel proved ideal accents for the nineteenth century drawing room, particularly as table centrepieces or ‘Nefs’. Their subtle shadings with occasional eye-popping bursts of brilliant colour provided the perfect complement to similarly hued furnishings and wall hangings.

“Many works copied Renaissance designs, featuring rock crystal and lapis lazuli and illustrations and decorations drawing on classical mythology.” The rich painterly effects employed on Viennese enamels and drawn from the Rococco painters of the era, conformed to the contemporary Viennese taste for opulence. Whilst nefs were among the most dramatic of Viennese enamels, there was also demand for a myriad of other enamelled objects including lidded tankards, fanciful mantlepiece clocks, drinking horns, ewers and tazzas.

In the late Nineteenth Century and onwards, such was the popularity of Viennese enamels, the process of enamelling was taught in the Academy School of Art Craftsmanship which was connected to the Museum of Vienna under the patronage of Baron Felicien von Myrbach.

Perfume bottles

During the late Eighteenth Century and throughout the Nineteenth Century perfume or scent bottles became an established and fashionable accessory or even necessity of the well-dressed person of the day. Filled with sweet smelling salts or perfumes, these attractive bottles made in semi-precious stones, glass, porcelain and gold, were used as an aid to detract the nose from the odorous city streets and the ‘great unwashed’ of the times!

Some of the earlier artistic containers included Rococo designs usually including flowers, leaves, shells and scrolls and were synonymous with Marie Antionette. They were usually made of milk glass and painted with enamels.

As popularity surged in the Nineteenth Century, perfume bottles became more varied. They could be made from cut glass, silver overlay on glass, porcelain or crystal and opaline. Larger bottles were placed on dressing tables containing Eau de Toillette or Eau de Cologne, and smaller ‘throwaways’ (though hardly something anyone would actually want to throw away) that would be carried as a luxury accessory for use throughout the day.

Frequent decorative themes included love, music, dance, comedy, flowers, birds and animals.

The most beautiful scent bottles were decorated in enamel with intricate coloured designs in and around the oval shapes. The decoration also often included the application of tiny beads or half beads. The bottles generally were decorated in full on the tops and bottoms as they lay flat, with a simpler decoration on the two sides.

Rarer examples were spiral twist bottles which would have been even more expensive to produce, and the decoration was of equally high quality.

The Storp family of Germany owns one of the world’s most extensive and important perfume bottle collection, entailing more than 3,000 pieces spanning six thousand years of history.

Snuff boxes

The consumption of snuff or powdered tobacco rapidly increased in the Seventeenth Century and by the beginning of the Eighteenth Century it was acceptable for even ladies to inhale and became the approved tobacco product favoured by nobility.

By the late Seventeenth Century, ornate boxes were being produced to keep the snuff dry. As the trend for snuff flourished throughout Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Europe, so too did the elaborate enamel decorations of the snuff box.

Snuff boxes became major (often bespoke) essential, personal possessions made in a variety of materials, from gold and silver to tortoiseshell or horn. Small boxes were made for the pocket and larger, communal boxes were made for table use. Shapes were not only limited to simple rectangles. Porcelain containers resembling trunks were common, as were ovals. Some were even designed in the shape of shells.

Intricate enamel decorations adorned the most precious and desirable snuff boxes, depicting everything from miniature landscapes and bucolic scenes, to tiny portraits or grisaille cameos of their owners. Some of the most distinguished snuff boxes were the French tabatières, which were made from gold and set with diamond, amethysts and sapphires.

The Antique Enamel Company stocks a huge variety of snuff boxes that were manufactured all over Europe and Russia and range from the elaborate bejewelled pieces from the noblest echelons of society to the more affordable, but nonetheless beautiful and important boxes created for the more modest snuff taker.

Russian enamel

A number of regions such as the northern Stroganovsky and Usolsky established their own enamel traditions in the Seventeenth Century. Meanwhile it was the cloisonné and filigree enamel techniques that set Moscow and later St Petersburg apart. Enamel portraits of Peter the Great and his family were painted on miniatures and given as awards.

Although the name ‘cloisonné’ is French, most antique pieces found in this style were created in Russia and today often referred to as ‘Russian Enamel’ as many of aspect of the ornamentation reflect the architecture and stylistic characteristics of Russian art and design, for example, the vibrant colours of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.

The most famous maker of nineteenth century cloisonné enamel pieces was Karl Faberge, whose infamous Faberge eggs are some of the best quality and most widely recognisable pieces of cloisonné enamel in the world. His infamy, alongside the value and craftsmanship in his pieces, ensured that Russia adopted cloisonné enamel decoration as its own, and secured a style that has continued be revered as the zenith of Russian artistry all over the world.

Another enamel technique mastered by Russian craftsmen in the Eighteenth Century was Nielo enamelling. Nielo was usually used to decorate cigarette cases with scenes of buildings or the ubiquitous troika (three horse drawn carriage).

Porcelain

In the late Seventeenth Century ‘porcelain fever’ broke out across Europe. Princes and wealthy merchants were consumed by the passion to collect and use Asian porcelain. Imports from China and Japan were expensive and ownership was a tangible sign of prestige and taste. After many experiments and years later in the Eighteenth Century, Europe developed its own techniques and porcelain manufacture spread and dominated the production centres of taste throughout continental Europe.

Austrian Porcelain began in 1718 at Claudius Innocentius Du Papier’s factory together with key personnel from Meissen before it was taken over by Empress Maria Theresa in 1744. English porcelain became commercially successful in 1745 with the establishment of the Chelsea factory and later at Bow, in the Midlands, East Anglia and the West of England. Charming ornamental birds and animals for the middle class market became particularly popular.

The French goût chinois (Chinese taste) also gave way to a French national production of porcelain in the Eighteenth Century as demand amongst the nobility and wealthy bourgeoisie for porcelain decoration, dining wear, refined porcelain tea drinking and chocolate plates soared. Small factories such as Chantilly and Villeroy-Mennecy enjoyed noble patronage but it was Vincennes-Sèvres that achieved royal patronage and ownership and became the arbiter of style throughout Europe until the French Revolution, whereafter Limoges and the production of hard-paste porcelain took off.

German porcelain was first produced commercially at Meissen in 1710 but by the end of the Eighteenth Century, it became fashionable amongst German royalty to own a porcelain factory and they cropped up throughout the German states. Frederick the Great sometimes referred to himself as the ‘best customer’ of his Royal Porcelain Factory in Berlin, many of which were decorated with Rococo designs or Harlequin performances.

The Commedia dell’Arte formed one of the most distinctive subjects of porcelain collectables. This was a popular form of theatre throughout eighteenth century Europe, displaying colourful costumes and comic poses and gestures of the actors. Porcelain figurines were usually ornaments for tables.

Musical & bird boxes

The singing bird box or ‘boîte á oiseau chanteur’ originated in Geneva in the late Eighteenth Century, with its first design attributed to Pierre Jaquet-Droz. They were usually rectangular shaped boxes containing a miniature automaton singing bird concealed beneath an oval lid and activated by a lever. The French also used the more general term of ‘tabatière’.

The outer casing is a rectangular box that could be made of base metal, precious metal or tortoiseshell with an oval hole edged by a decorative metal bezel. The front of the box usually has a small slider that when pushed to the right, reveals the pop up of a small mechanical feathered bird that begins to turn from side to side, flap its wings and sometimes produces birdsong.

Another famed bird box maker Jean Frédéric Leschot joined forces with Jaquet-Droz to develop technology further, allowing variable pitch in bird song and furthering demand and popularity throughout Europe. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, bird boxes or musical tabatières were also being manufactured in France, Germany and England, all building on both the mechanical advances and the decorative intricacies of their origins.

The Swiss Brugiuer family gained great fame in miniature songbird mechanisms that were contained in richly decorated snuff cases by Genevan enamelists shch as Richter, Dufey and Procchietto. Charles Abraham Brugiuer resided in London in the early Nineteenth Century where demand grew further before the family returned to Geneva to develop and refine their technology even more.

France too became a booming centre of automata production in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, where the Mason Botnems flourished and developed their own mechanical advances.

These musical or singing bird boxes highlight a wondrous marriage between the skill and ingenuity of the watchmaker and the talents of the goldsmith and enameller.

Étuis & sewing boxes

An étui is a small case that contains miniature implements used to perform household tasks. Designed primarily for women, they can be quite ornamental. Often étui have a tapered or oval shape rendered in chased gold or silver gilt with painted enamel and rose cut diamond sprays. An étui would contain necessary items that could include scissors, a thimble, a bodkin and needles, a pencil and/or a small knife. Men also sometimes carried slightly larger versions of étuis that would hold a watch, keys or a seal. Women often suspended their étui from châtelaine, usually on the opposite side from the watch to provide balance.

Many étui functioned as bodkin cases for sewing. Bodkins were commonly lacing or threading needles with a very large eye and blunt end, used for lacing corsets, threading ribbon through lace beading, cord through casings or any other time when one might need to ‘carry’ a yarn without the chance of poking holes or sewing through something. Other bodkins in the era had even wider ends shaped like scoops that could be used to clean ears of earwax which could apparently then be used to wax sewing thread!

Micro-mosaic boxes

In eighteenth century Europe, boxes played a significant role in the conduct of social affairs produced for the affluent nobility all over France, Switzerland, Germany, Russia, Austria and Italy and even as far as Sweden and Denmark.

Small rectangular gold boxes became the century’s most sought after accessories taking form for all sorts of uses.

Micro-mosaic boxes were usually purchased in Rome by travellers on the Grand Tour. These boxes feature an Italian micro-mosaic design set into the cover of a French or English snuff box.

Candlesticks

The Eighteenth Century was a great age of candlelight, and the salons of the nobility were lit by many hundreds of candles from chandeliers, candelabra and wall sconces as the gentry wanted to prioritise the aesthetics of the light source rather than just ensuring its functionality.

Table candlesticks began to take on a great variety of design and material. The great houses contained many dozens of pairs of silver candlesticks, and consequently there are many surviving examples from English eighteenth century decorative arts.

However, it was the rapid change of fashion in the Eighteenth Century from the plain Queen Anne style to the elaborate Late Baroque of early Georgian and later Rococo, Neoclassical and Regency styles that ensured an even larger variety in production. A similar evolution of style took place throughout Europe. Partly due to increasing wealth of the Eighteenth Century and partly due to incredible advances in design and production techniques, the brass candlestick was replaced by much more elegant designs that became presentations pieces in their own right.

It is these much rarer and more sought after decorative enamel candlesticks that are another specialism of the Antique Enamel Company, many of which have graced our catalogues over the years.

Bonbonnièrre

Bonbonnièrres are small decorative boxes containing ‘bonbons’ or sweets. Hence the derivation of the term ‘bonbonnièrre’ from the French word ‘bonbon’. Everyone had bad breath in the Eighteenth Century so these beautiful little boxes were not only celebrated gifts but like most enamel boxes of the era, they also contained very useful necessities of everyday life – sugar coated seeds and nuts that were sucked to disguise the unfortunate smell of halitosis!

Amongst wealthy aristocratic circles these small boxes of sweets – each holding only a few confections were given to celebrate birthdays, christenings and marriages. The earliest sweets would have been dry and rather had confections known as ‘confits’ (sugared nuts, cloves and seeds) and diamond from sugar ‘lozenges’. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, sugar was quite costly – only available via shipment from the Caribbean Islands’ sugar plantations. So too were their containers – sometimes made of gold, precious stones, crystals or porcelain. Even owning a bonbonnièrre indicated a person as someone of wealth and status. Gifting a bonbonnièrre not only provided a thoughtful memento of a special occasion, but it also significantly served as a reminder of the giver’s own social status.

First popularised in France, bonbonnièrres were later introduced to Scotland and England in the Eighteenth Century as the local expertise and flair for enamelling took off. It Italy, they were traditionally given as wedding gifts, each enclosing five sugared almonds, representing fertility, health, wealth, happiness and longevity, as well as the bittersweet life of a married couple.

Generally made in enamel on metal, in porcelain with metal mounts and some exquisite and very expensive examples in gold. A few were also made in glass but these are even rarer to come by due to their fragility.

Decorative concepts tend to be quite whimsical and intricate. Some are set with small portraits or landscapes and precious stones – particularly the gold examples. The English were particularly good at fashioning whimsical animal forms in enamel on copper.

Vinaigrettes

Vinaigrettes, popular from the late Eighteenth Century through to the end of the Nineteenth Century, were small containers used for holding various aromatic substances, usually dissolved in vinegar. By the Nineteenth Century, a variety of these perfume containers were on the market. The vinaigrette, a gilded metal box with a pierced, decorated interior grille, was used to hold sponges soaked in scented vinaigres de toilette (aromatic vinegar). The interiors were gilded to prevent the silver from staining. From 1800-1850 the boxes were manufactured in vast quantities and in various shapes and forms, many of the monogrammed, sometimes with the initials of the giver and recipient in a presentation inscription. The lids were sometimes decorated to commemorate important events, e.g. the death of Lord Nelson in 1805. Later they might depict specific houses or churches. Often the shapes were delicate and tasteful, reflecting the sophistication of the owner.

As with many personal antique items, the more novel the design and the more unusual the shape, the more desirable the vinaigrette. This development in design away from the standard rectangular and oval box to experimental shapes including books, wallets & satchels, nuts, eggs, watches, crowns and hearts to name a few, showcased the manufacturers’ skills and the owner’s or giver’s taste and status. These more unusual designs such as muscle shells and acorns have become very valuable to the collectors of today.

As designs became more experimental, so too did decorative features. During the Regency Period the grilles became more and more elaborate with intricate scrollwork, flowers and foliage. Other materials began to be used in addition to silver including gold, and many of the most desirable vinaigrettes had lids decorated with jewels or made out of polished agate, carnelian, onyx or other stones of interest.

Vinaigrettes were mostly worn around the neck by women for convenience – being able to quickly douse one’s self with scent or raise the preferred scents to the nose whilst travelling! They also proved useful in combatting ladies’ frequent fainting episodes caused by the wearing of tightly laced corsets.

However, they were as much a fashionable statement as they were a practical necessity.

Some of the finest examples from the era are demonstrated in the work of Nathanial Mills.