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
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
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