SO-CALLED castle-top boxes represent a fascinating moment in British social history. Fashioned by the silver ‘toy’ makers of Birmingham, these vinaigrettes and card cases engraved or die-stamped with British landmarks were seemingly marketed as tourist souvenirs.
They sold to the honeymooners and day-trippers who travelled the
country for the first time in the mid 19th
It was a relatively brief flowering. While the important social
custom of leaving visiting cards spanned the 19th century - and the
need to mask outside aromas with something more pleasant much
longer - the fashion for topographical souvenirs in silver was
primarily confined to the period c.1830-1860. But when these
mementos fell from grace, they at least left behind a perfect
collecting field for future
Castle-tops remain among the strongest areas of the lively small
silver market. A relatively large number of collectors ensure a
solid demand and if good examples are not easy to come by, then the
supply side of the equation was given a boost by three substantial
offerings in the country in the space of six weeks.
There were more than 50 examples offered as part of the £236,000
George Petzall collection at Salisbury's Woolley &
Wallis (19.5% buyer's premium) on October 28; a West
Sussex collection of 31 boxes was sold by Duke's (19.5%
buyer's premium) of Dorchester on November 27 and a
smaller but worthwhile offering appeared at Lyon &
Turnbull (25% buyer's premium) in Edinburgh on December
The latter were part of a Midlands consignment from a descendent
of the Silburn family, BADA dealers in Ipswich from the 1920s to
the 1970s (see ATG No 1862, October 25). The primary attraction of
castle-tops lies in the sheer variety of the landmarks they depict
and the ways in which they are
Quality and condition count but, generally speaking, the scarcer
the view the better the price. One recalls the card case depicting
the Bevis Marks Synagogue seen at Dreweatt Neate of Donnington
Priory back in July 2005. Built in London by Joseph Avis, a Quaker,
for the Sephardic Jews and opened in 1701, Bevis Marks is the
oldest synagogue still in use in Britain.
When Nathaniel Mills, the most prolific and best-known of the
Birmingham boxmakers, made a card case depicting an exterior view
of the building in 1845 it was perhaps as a special commission
rather than a commercial line. It sold at £8000, an auction high
for a castle-top box.
There was nothing to match this across the recent sales (and
typically the rarest castle-top vinagrettes retail some distance
below this record sum), but the representative sample pictured on
the facing page includes a number of rarities. Petworth dealer
Nicholas Shaw, a specialist in castle-tops who bought in both
Wiltshire and Dorset sales, believes there are in excess of 200
different castle views out there.
He points out that, while some destinations were clearly very
popular at the time - Windsor Castle, Warwick Castle, Newstead
Abbey (the family home of Byron) and Sir Walter Scott's home
Abbotsford among them - collectors are wise to scarce depictions of
these relatively common subjects.
The East Terrace of Windsor Castle is such a view. Seen on a
vinaigrette with unusual border decoration by George Willmore at
Lyon & Turnbull, it sold to a London dealer at £2800 (estimate
£350- 500) - twice what one might pay for an example with a more
typical view of Windsor from the Thames.
Likewise, the particular view of Westminster Abbey seen in high
relief on a vinaigrette in this sale was evidently a rarity. Five
telephone bidders and strong interest from the internet saw it take
£4400 from an Australian collector.
While most castle-top card cases have a central cartouche for an
owner's initial to the reverse, the few that are double-sided carry
a premium. An example by Yapp and Woodward, 1850, with views of the
Tower of London and Windsor Castle took £2600 in Salisbury.
Former dealer George Petzall owned three boxes by Mills
depicting the relatively scarce Melrose Abbey and a vinaigrette of
1844 took £3600.
Equally well-received were boxes depicting Oxford colleges: a
vinaigrette at Duke's with a view of St John's sold at £3600, while
£3800 was paid at W&W for a vinaigrette engraved with a view of
With subject matter so important - and identification not always
so easy - research does pay. When embarking upon their collecting
odyssey the West Sussex vendors at Duke's sale set about writing to
a huge number of stately homes, castles, cathedrals and country
houses requesting postcards to aid
Doubtless this research helped in the cataloguing of two scarce
Liverpudlian scenes: a Mills vinaigrette with Liverpool Collegiate
High School and a card case by Frederick Marston, 1849, with a view
of St George's Hall, Liverpool. Both sold well at £3200 and £2400
Specialists always enjoy the occasions when they spot a rare
scene unidentified (or, better still, incorrectly identified) in an
auction catalogue. Two unidentified Mills vinaigrettes in the
Petzall collection presented possibilities for research: one was
engraved with a riverscape and buildings, the other with a large
monolithic building similar - but perhaps not similar enough - to
Both sold at multi-estimate sums of £2600 apiece.