Vintage View: Opening up a deeply feminine treasure chests

Kya deLongchamps lifts the lid on some special and deeply feminine treasure chests

A HIGHLY personal antique or vintage item carries a perceptible emotional energy. Boxes, created to contain, conceal and organise a range of smaller objects from love letters to toiletries and jewels, have been used as intimate gifts and ceremonial presents for thousands of years.

Their shape, material and ornament often reflect wider design, architectural and decorative patterns and artistic movements favoured in the age. They are the sort of thing that through death, inheritance, incident and accident are winnowed down to boot sales and auctions at random, giving collectors a wide choice and constant surprises out in the field.

Most boxes are loyal old secretive companions from another life – we will never know what they were used for, what high drama or banal repetitive moments may have surrounded them. However, there are some dedicated set types of personal ladies’ box to keep in mind, which, even robbed of their original contents make beautiful and fascinating decorator pieces.

In the 1500s, the lace box became popular amongst young Tudor women of quality. It held bits and bobs, not merely lace making accessories, but it was an intimate possession with meaning, an ideal trifle for a young buck to impress a girl that caught his eye.

Such boxes would be kept for life. Decorated in beautiful veneers and sometimes enhanced with needlework, many Tudor, Restoration and Regency lace boxes survive and with an original patina. Boxes with a great provenance, or in particularly fine condition, can fetch well into four figures. Look out for exotic timbers used as rounds of marquetry (generally laburnum for its stunning purples cut at an angle), and parquetry, a sort of jigsaw of fabulously coloured woods. Museums around the world feature collections of these early boxes, outside the reach of the standard collector.

Georgian and Victorian dressing boxes developed from early and weighty French ‘nécessaire de voyage’ (necessities for travelling). Intended for use both at home and at weekend parties and even on the Grand Tour, they have internal divisions and could be used by gentlemen as well as ladies for studs, watch chains, hair curlers, pomades, sewing etui, medication, lotions and potions. Smelling salts were an important inclusion for ladies straining at the whalebone in hot rooms and a small spirit bottle and matching cup were vital.

The social round included extensive visits to family and friends, so the dressing box was a piece of home away from home. Bigger boxes could manage a spirit burner, kettle and stand with tea and coffee beakers for use in a carriage, at an inn or even at sea. Often the original metal topped glass bottles in a box were removed over time, and where even the timber compartments are missing you may find signs of their original position.

Star pieces created for rich, noble and aristocratic ladies, feature ingenious storage solutions, together with decoration inside and out. Opening the lid, surviving, fresh marquetry scenes using the various tones of fine woods, are often well preserved.

Cut glass bottles and jars, solid silver or gilt lids with chasing and engraving, handles, tools and vessels and ivory or tortoiseshell backed brushes for clothes and hair, are gripped tightly in velvet lined divisions to prevent breakage and make best use of room in a conveniently sized box.

Velvet, watered silk, even pure gold threads and precious plating and semi-precious stones, were includedin these fabulous caskets in striped colomander (extinct ebony), walnut, kingwood and violet rosewood— a reflection of the position in society and means of the owner. They were small but extremely expensive little cabinets, and often miniature versions of furniture finishes of the period.

Makers in London and Paris vied for commissions, including lush detailing and ingenious additions from small kettles to writing slides and tantalising secret compartments. Take a look around top antique dealers in any large French city for beautiful pricey examples of necessaries from the 17th century forward .

In England, Walter Thornhill and the house of Asprey & Sons made some of the most collectable Victorian cases surviving today. Dressing boxes are the forebears of what we now know as the feminine vanity case.

Expect to pay in the high hundreds for a well detailed ladies dressing box with silver topped bottles, all original. Gentleman’s boxes intended for the civilian or campaigning man tend to be plainer and more affordable including just a few essentials for journeys or military field.

Smaller antique jewellery boxes are still useful today, and timber examples survive in huge numbers. Some are simple jewel caskets, others retain compartments seen in dressing boxes to hold letters, cologne, gloves and stretchers, for example. The top of the tree for Victorian boxes feature the Betjemann Patent Mechanism which allowed slender compartments to be fanned out from the box, something seen in make-up trays today. The mechanism was used in boxes made by Betjemann and other high status English makers. Plainer boxes, right up through to the 1940s, often have feminine touches- Pretty applied motifs, mother of pearl escutcheons (around the key hole), music players, inlays and lovely hardwood exotic timbers with velvet, silk or satin linings.

Expect to pay in the area of €200-€500 for a good Louis VI style French casket or late 19th century inlaid English Victorian jewelry box.

Look out for examples of small Continental painted porcelain and enamel jewel boxes, pressed glass caskets on tiny paw feet, Art Nouveau metal boxes, and even well made, mass produced early plastic jewellery boxes on offer, well worth inclusion for a chronological collection of girlie goodies if in good condition.


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