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The Collector’s Cabinet: Tales, Facts and Fictions from the World of Antiques, Marc Allum (Icon Books 2013, paperback 2015)

“A regular on [the] BBC’s Antiques Roadshow”, Marc Allum knows a lot about antiques and history and can write compellingly about what he knows, from mudlarks in Victorian London to the names of drinking-vessels in ancient Greece by way of the formula for the value of diamonds (Wt2 x C). Antiques are inanimate, but part of the point to them is that they’re tokens of life. People don’t last for centuries, but their playthings and practicalities do. Some antiques were valuable from the moment they were made, because of the skill or the precious materials that went into them. Others acquire value by their associations. Ordinary things like toothbrushes and hats can take special power from being associated with extraordinary people:

Napoleon’s toothbrush. On display at the Wellcome Collection, Euston, London, Napoleon’s silver-gilt and horsehair toothbrush is engraved with an ‘N’ under a crown. Apparently, he used opium-based toothpaste.

The Spear of Destiny, also known as the Holy Lance, is the lance that pierced the side of Jesus while [he was] hanging on the cross. There have been several contenders over the centuries, but the main one is the example displayed in the Imperial Treasury of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, which has a long and fascinating history. It also contains an object that has been tested scientifically and is thought to be consistent with a 1st-century Roman nail. (pg. 117)

The entry before that is about Star Wars and Darth Vader dolls: it’s impossible to guess what will turn up next as you turn the pages of this book, which makes it like a cellulose version of Antiques Roadshow. But books make you think much more than TV does. Antiques raise all sorts of fascinating philosophical, aesthetic and sociological questions. Are they like secular relics, for example? In lots of ways they are. One way is that that many of them aren’t what they claim to be. Allum writes a lot about fakes and forgeries. As value rises, so does the need for verification.

Or the need to obfuscate on verification. Dealers can collude with forgers or not care whether they are. The world of antiques is the world full stop, because every aspect of human behaviour, endeavour and interest is represented there. If human beings use something, it can become an antique, from toys to microscopes, from stamps to swords. This is a good short introduction to a very big subject.

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Miller's Field Guide Glass by Judith MillerMiller’s Field Guide: Glass, Judith Miller (Octopus 2015)

Glass is a magical substance. How can something solid be transparent or translucent? How can it become soft and malleable when heated, so that it can be moulded into infinitely many shapes? Well, glass can and glass has been for thousands of years. This attractive little guide begins with the “Ancient Glass” of the Egyptians and Romans, then moves forward to begin a detailed survey of British glass. There’s a big gap between “ancient” and “British”: “virtually no glass was produced in Britain before the late 16thC and all supplies of glass were imported” (pg. 14).

In talking about glass, it’s also talking about history, because changes in technology and fashion were inevitably reflected in glassware. But glass has its own evolutionary path too: “Lead crystal was developed in 1676 by the British glassmaker George Ravenscroft. It used a high proportion of lead oxide to create a relatively soft, brilliant glass that was suitable for cut and engraved decoration” (pg. 8). New techniques were invented and old techniques re-discovered as glassmakers learnt how to make their glass more delicate and more colourful.

After British glass, the book looks at France, then glass from Holland, Central Europe, Scandinavia and Italy. Finally there are “American Glass” and a brief section on “Chinese glass”. It’s a small book devoted to a big subject full of beautiful objects: glasses, decanters, claret jugs, bowls, candlesticks, candelabra, scent bottles, stained glass, and sculpture. I could have named only two glassmakers when I opened it: Lalique and Tiffany. They’re both here:

Technically challenging and rare, cire perdue (lost wax) casts are the most eagerly sought of the Lalique glass output. A model for the design was made in wax and this was encased in clay or plaster to create a mould. This was heated to allow the wax to flow out of the mould. Molten glass was then poured into the mould. (pg. 126)

Son of the American jeweller Charles Tiffany, Louis Comfort visited Europe and the Middle East, where he was inspired by decorative styles and forms from many countries. On his return he founded the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. in 1892, and in 1902 he became art director of his father’s company, Tiffany & Co. (pg. 189)

But with Lalique and Tiffany are many other designers and manufacturers who have enchanted the world with the magic of glass: Gabriel Argy-Rousseau, James Couper & Sons, Daum Frères, Josef Hoffman, George Davison & Co., Wilhelm Kralik Sohne, Stevens & Williams.

The colours and shapes of their work are beautiful, and so is the fragility. If glass were indestructible, it would be less magical. It’s like a butterfly or flower: beautiful but fragile. Unlike a butterfly or flower, however, it will retain its beauty if it’s handled carefully. Living with glass is like living with fragments of rainbow, brought to earth and sculpted by magicians’ hands. The natural world certainly inspired many of the objects here: Lalique is famous for his dragonflies and fish, of course. He’s famous for his girls too: glass is a feminine substance, smooth, seductive and sinuous.

This book is an excellent introduction to its charms, explaining terms and prices and guiding the novice’s eye with questions:

Does the piece bear a mark of a crowned lion rampant over battlements?

Is there a polished pontil?

Is the glaze similar to Chinese peach-bloom glaze, in shades of cream to light or deeper rose pink?

Has the lampshade been reverse-painted with a landscape?

Is the piece a single colour of glass with carved or incised decoration?

And it notes that glass “is one of the few areas of antiques collecting where items are still relatively undervalued, unlike silver or porcelain” (pg. 6). If you want to live with rainbows, Judith Miller tells you how.

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