Saturday - 01 November 2014

Gallic prisoners’ slice of history at £10,000

09 February 2009Written by ATG Reporter

Prisoner-of-war work is the name given to intricately crafted small objects created from carved bone or wood and straw marquetry by captured French prisoners languishing in the hulks and other jails during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

It developed into quite an industry, with many of the practitioners staying on to ply their trade to a British clientele keen to purchase their models of watch stands, boxes, spinning jennys and other groups.

The most highly regarded pieces are the ship models, which at their most intricate and accurate can easily make five-figure prices. But what could be a more French creation for a Gallic captive to enthral his British clientele than a working guillotine?

This 20in (51cm) high, four-wheeled mobile example certainly ticks all the prisoner-of-war boxes for skill and detailing, with elaborately pierced bone fencing, numerous armed soldiers, cannons and other weaponry.

For added verisimilitude, the guillotine blade descends to sever the head of the female victim, which falls into a basket and is then lifted aloft by means of a sliding mechanism.

Not the most politically correct bibelot, but it has a macabre attraction. The Revolution, with all those decapitated aristocrats, having taken place just across the channel in uncomfortably recent memory, it must have been the early 19th century entertainment equivalent of watching Halloween or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Guillotine models do crop up in the prisoner-of-war output. Clive Lloyd in his standard work on the subject, The Arts and Crafts of Napoleonic and American Prisoners of War, notes a prisoner named Cruchet who made a speciality of them.

This example compares closely to the most elaborate pictured in his book.

Consigned to Bonhams from Wales by an elderly private lady vendor, it arrived with the top section in pieces, but the auctioneers reassembled it for sale as one of the many attractions in their Gentleman's Library auction at Knightsbridge on January 21, where it duly realised £10,000.

By Anne Crane

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