18th Century English Enamels
from Circa 1750 -1840

Perhaps there is nothing in all of English Decorative Arts that has continued to charm and fascinate the collector as much as English enamels on copper. These Georgian enamels were made in England less than a hundred years, from about 1750 to about 1840.

These small enamels, usually little boxes for the taking of snuff or tiny ones for the applying of beauty-spots (known as "patches" two hundred years ago), were often given as tokens of affection or esteem, little love-gifts or "Trifles". Other popular presentation pieces were Bonbonnières (to hold sweetmeats or hard candies to sweeten the breath), Scent Bottles (for perfumes), Bodkin Cases (a bodkin is a flat two-sided needle with a slot in the larger end of it, used to fish a ribbon through a camisole) and Étuis (the French called them Nécessaires) which are containers often holding a variety of useful things that a Lady found "necessary" - a paper knife or letter opener, scissors, tweezers, toothpick, bodkin, cork-screw, compass, pencil, ivory memorandum tablet and much more). Other household objects made in decorative enamel were rarer: table-snuff boxes, candlesticks, baskets, bowls, plates and beakers, inkstands, tea caddies, sugar canisters, mustard pots, salt cellars, cloak or screw pegs, wine labels and funnels, writing caskets, chatelaines and other useful things.

While the taste for decorative painted enamels came to England from the French influence on fashion, these industrious Georgian artists and craftsmen took this Continental idea and greatly embellished the art to an even finer degree and immediately began a cottage industry that fed itself and flourished in many parts of England, including Birmingham, Bilston, South Staffordshire and other areas of the Midlands. Many French enamelers and artists had fled to England to escape the religious persecution in France (many were Huguenots that later came to America) and they worked in areas around Wolverhampton and Birmingham because these were the centers of the metal industry, where the precision mount-makers and silversmiths thrived and where other metal-workers could supply their needs.

The earliest enamels in England were painted by hand. However, the most important improvement that the English contributed to the art of enamelling on copper was the process of transfer-printing on enamel. This was really an English development which probably started in Birmingham and was introduced to London society by the production at the York House factory in the Battersea section of London in the early 1750's, although the actual origins of transfer-printing are subject to considerable dispute among scholars. This London based manufactory was undoubtedly well-connected politically, since one of the founding partners at York House was Stephen Theodore Janssen, a well known public figure and the Lord Mayor of London at the time. The York House factory and most English enamel has become known to the world today as Battersea, but this should be recognized as a "generic" term meant only to differentiate English enamel from Continental enamel.

The York House factory in London was only in business from 1753 to 1756 and then went into bankruptcy. There is probably nothing in all of the English Decorative Arts that has had such a short corporate life-span and yet continues to have a lasting imprint on the arts as the work that was done at Battersea in London. In 1755, Horace Walpole, the celebrated English author (1717-1797), wrote an acquaintance, "I shall send you a trifling snuff-box, only for a sample of the new manufacture at Battersea, which is done with copper plates."

Almost no antique English enamel was marked by the maker and signed examples are extremely rare. The quality of the enamels produced in 19th century England declined and the demand for these objects virtually stopped by the mid 1830's. The last known 19th century enamelers in England stopped working in the early 1840's.

Collectors should be aware that fakes and forgeries of 18th century English enamel began to be made on the Continent as early as the second half of the 1800's. One of the main sources of these copies was the Paris firm of Samson, but there were many others that followed shortly as Samson seemed to have his imitators as well. Crude and clumsy modern copies, made to deceive, are still found in street markets in England, but collectors who are used to the fine quality of 18th century enamel are not so easily deceived today.

The revival of the enamels industry in England came about in 1970. Most of these reproductions are clearly marked in the enamel by these contemporary makers, so they can never be sold as original or authentic antique examples. As clever as the modern enamels are, they do not have the delightful charm nor value of the antique enamels, but the modern replicas have created an even wider interest in the subject today.

Taylor B. Williams

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