A Superb William IV Silver-Gilt Vinaigrette called "The Game Birds"

Nathaniel Mills, Birmingham
1 7/8 x 1 1/4 x 0 5/8 in, (4.7 x 3.1 x 1.6 cm)

Of Oblong shape, the unusual slightly cushioned base with vacant rectangular cartouche surrounded by engine-turning and with a narrow raised border of flowers and scrolls, the sides similarly engine-turned and the lid with a finely struck view of a male and female grouse together with 6 chicks, all in front of a landscape of hills and trees. The grille engraved with a flower surrounded by pierced leafy scrolls.

3750 GBP

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Although a very early form of vinaigrette appeared at the end of the 17th century (see Sir Charles Jackson, An Illustrated History of English Plate, Vol. II, figs 1224-5) which was really a development of the pomander, the first boxes with hinged lids, pierced hinged grilles containing sponges and with gilt interiors appeared towards the end of the 18th century. There is a certain amount of debate as to the precise reasons for their rise in popularity. Most are agreed that they were for reviving ladies and three suggestions seem to have some sort of credence. Firstly, the fashion for having very tight bodices became so extreme that certain ladies felt faint under the pressure of whalebone panels squeezing the life out of them. Secondly, the fashion for ludicrously large wigs and many layers of clothing made personal hygiene rather a monumental challenge so the use of a pleasant smelling aromatic box might have obvious benefits. Lastly, the streets of the big cities were not always places full of fresh air. The open sewers and prevalent smell of horse manure must have been an experience for both female and male noses so a quick sniff of one’s vinaigrette might have served as a welcome relief. Apart from a relatively small percentage that were made in London, the vast majority of Vinaigrettes were made in Birmingham. “The Big Five”, as Eric Delieb called the top firms making small silverware (sometimes referred to as Toymen), produced a wonderful array of shapes and designs in Vinaigrettes but there was one company that stood out not only for the quality of their workmanship but also for a their flair in design. Nathaniel Mills and his family have been expertly researched by Eric Delieb both in “Silver Boxes” and “Investing in Silver” and whilst other makers produced very good boxes Mills seems to have always had the edge over his competitors. This is why he is collected above all other Birmingham makers of small collectible silver.

The term “castletop” derives from those Vinaigrettes that appeared in the mid-1820’s that had a repousse or stamped view of a well known castle set into the lid. The most popular was Windsor followed by Warwick and Kenilworth but it is somewhat of a misnomer as there are probably more views of Cathedrals, Abbeys, Churches and famous Country Houses than castles. Nevertheless “castletops” and rare shapes are the two most sought after categories amongst collectors and the rarer the view the more desirable they become. It should also be noted that the Mills workshop produced wonderful examples with engraved scenes some of which are works of art in themselves and occasionally fetch prices in excess of the stamped “castletops”.

There are a small group of Vinaigrettes that have repousse scenes but are not architectural and this superb example is known as “The Game Birds”. Made in 1830 it is relatively early and is very similar to one that was sold by us to the late Diana Keggie. Her collection was auctioned by Christies South Kensington on 30th November, 2005 and the vinaigrette appeared on the front cover. It was catalogued as lot 44 and made just over £4500 including premium etc. Another unusual feature of our box is that the base is slightly cushioned whereas the norm is for it to be flat. The condition is wonderful and it is marked on the lid, base and grille.