On the 13th December 2021, Dr John Grayson gave a remarkable presentation over Zoom about the enamel boxes that were very much in fashion and a part of society’s fashion in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.
Dr Grayson was able to describe and discuss the processes involved very thoroughly because of his experience in making these items, as he is an internationally recognised and exhibited craft maker. Amongst many other appointments at Birmingham City University and the University of Birmingham, he has carried out research into the fields of the history of material culture and the fields of contemporary craft. Dr Grayson’s interest in these linen-patterned enamel boxes was consolidated in 2004, when he was asked to curate an extensive collection of such boxes at Bilston Craft Gallery. Dr Grayson has produced modern-day similar boxes using the old techniques, his boxes now being exhibited at the same Bilston Craft Gallery.
The enamelled boxes were normally of a proportionally small size in which were placed various items that were needed about a person in those times. This may have been snuff as was customary in those times or some perfume, the latter of which might overcome the then ambient smells. Some other enamelled boxes were also used as ‘bonbonierres’, in which were carried various sweetmeats, nuts soaked in peppermint to counteract poor mouth odour, while another type of such enamelled containers were used as mustard pots at table.
A picture of some of these enamelled boxes (below) has been kindly supplied by Peter Mayer from his own collection, indicating the delicacy of these small creations. They were manufactured from a paper-thin copper sheet, which was initially delicately hammered or bent into the desired shape, coated with a powdered decorative enamel and baked in an oven, this process being repeated many times to achieve the strength and finish required. The enamel ‘glaze’ was so formulated that it would bond chemically with the underlying copper, so that the resulting container would derive strength from the fusion of the copper and the enamel. (A process not dissimilar to this is used in china or pottery glazing, though the glazing process in china/pottery is purely for decorative purposes). In his presentation, Dr Grayson mentioned that the process of applying the decoration to the parent copper boxes, appears to have used textiles as a stencil, through which enamel powder was pounced (sprinkled) onto a different coloured enamel background, this resulting in a beautiful delicate pattern. This was further embellished using other enamel techniques. These enamel boxes were then finished with gilt-metal edging or hinged mounts.
From his extensive research, Dr Grayson pieced together a history of the trade producing these enamelled boxes, though there had been minimal literature as source material. As in relation to Matthew Boulton’s manufactory in Soho, the word ‘toys’ related to small metal items that were mostly of a functional and/or decorative use. The enamelled boxes (‘toys’) were initially considered by earlier authors to have been originated or made in a manufactory in Battersea (then in Surrey, now in London). This manufactory had however been very short-lived between 1753 and 1756. Contemporary evidence has now shown that the same type of enamelled boxes had been previously and thereafter produced in Bilston, Staffordshire. It had been wrongly considered that the enamelled boxes of higher quality came from the Battersea manufactory, whereas the product from Bilston was of inferior quality. This was found not to be so. Also of interest was the opinion, as expressed by Dr Grayson, that there is no strong evidence that Matthew Boulton had made heavy use of the enamelling processes demonstrated here. (Author’s note:- There is a belief that Matthew Boulton would send his ‘toys’ to an associate in France, who would then arrange to have them enamelled and re-imported back into England, in order that they would then command a higher price because of their French enamel! – commercial skulduggery was alive in those days as it is now).
While the above may not be an exhaustive account of Dr Grayson’s presentation it gives an impression of the far-ranging subject that he had set out to describe and discuss. In his own words he could have ‘spoken endlessly’ about the subject. Nonetheless, the event carried on with a significant number of questions from the participants, discussing all various angles around the presentation. Some of the participants showed some similar boxes that they wanted an opinion on and wondered if they might have been examples of the linen patterned boxes as formerly described.
Below is a helpful contribution to this article, and photo, by Peter Mayer, for which I thank him.
I was so fascinated by the presentation by Dr John Grayson on this piece of local history about enamelled boxes (eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Birmingham and South Staffordshire) that I could not resist purchasing a small, damaged collection on E-Bay to study them in more detail!! I now need to learn if they came from Battersea or Bilston and whether genuine and of the period. Oh, the joy of finding a new area to collect! (Peter Mayer)
A link to view one of Dr John Grayson’s enamelled boxes is https://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/directory/john-grayson/craftsense-a-trifle-from-bilston
This presentation showed amply what a significant contribution to life can be made by addressing the heritage of Birmingham and the West Midlands – Heritage for the Future!