1. 16th century prayer nut – £480,000
Recently the focus of the celebrated Small Wonders exhibition, the virtuoso miniature carving of ‘prayer nuts’ has astonished viewers since their inception in the early 1500s.
This boxwood example, part of a lively 19-lot sale of Master Sculpture from Four Millennia at Sotheby’s on July 5, depicts scenes from the Passion of Christ. It is particularly rare as its interior ‘wings’ form a polyptych, a feature shared by only a handful of other extant examples including those in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Medieval sources attest to their costly and precious nature. Although ostensibly devotional aids they were collected as ‘kunstkammer’ objects by wealthy and aristocratic families. It has been suggested that most were made in Delft, perhaps at a single specialised workshop operating in the first quarter of the 16th century.
One of the 60 or so extant examples (in Copenhagen) has the inscription Adam Theodrici me fecit leading to an attribution to the workshop of Adam Dircksz.
The exterior of this example bears inscriptions from Lamentations and opens to reveal minutely-carved scenes of the Betrayal and Arrest of Christ. The lower register shows Christ before Pilate with scenes of the Flagellation and Christ Bound behind. The narrative continues when the wings are opened, with Christ carrying the Cross on the left wing, the Crucifixion at the centre, and the Lamentation and Entombment on the interior of the right wing.
Both central scenes are accompanied by further Latin inscriptions from the Biblia Pauperum, and a verse from the Vexilla Regis hymn.
It came for sale by descent at Sotheby’s from a German private collection where it had been since the early 1970s. With few direct auction parallels to draw upon, it carried an estimate of £60,000-80,000 but sailed away to bring £480,000.
2. English delftware shoe – £2800
The summer sale at Gorringe’s in Lewes on June 28 included this documentary English delftware blue and white shoe. The 6in (16cm) long model, painted with bands of flowers and scrolls, was damaged (there was a large chip to the tongue) but the underside of the arch was inscribed with the initials AM and May ye 12 1732. A range of such shoes from London or Bristol bearing dates from the first quarter of the 18th century is illustrated by Louis Lipski and Michael Archer in Dated English Delftware (1984). This one sold for £2800 (estimate £300-500).
It seems these English pottery models copied real shoes of the time. The earliest recorded English delftware shoes from the 1650s have lower heels, rounded tongues and bows. Following changing fashions, the heels and bows become larger (one of these dated 1674 sold for £11,000 at Bonhams in May 2017) and by the 18th century, they acquired a higher heel, a square tongue and more modest buckle.
3. Important Victorian doll’s house – £30,000
The Gregson House and its contents dates from the early Victorian period. Measuring 6ft 10in (2.04m) high it was made for and furnished by Miss Elizabeth 'Bessie' Wilkinson (d.1857) of Aston Hall, Birmingham and came by descent until 2010 when it was sold by private treaty to the vendor, a family friend.
At the Furniture, Works of Art & Clocks sale at Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury on June 29-30, it had a guide of £20,000-30,000 and made the top estimate.
Bessie Wilkinson was the scion of a great iron making dynasty being daughter of William Wilkinson (1744-1808) and niece of John 'Iron Mad' Wilkinson (1728-1808) of Ironbridge, Coalbrookdale fame. Her sister Mary Anne married Matthew Robinson Boulton (1770-1842), the only son of the great 18th century entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, but died in childbirth in 1829, leaving seven children and a new-born baby girl.
It was this tragedy that precipitated the creation of the doll's house as aunt 'Bessie' sought to help her nieces and nephews recover from a great sadness.
Vivien Greene (wife of Grahame Greene the famous author) in her book Family Doll's Houses of 1973 wrote that the Gregson House was a ‘splendid example of a cupboard house’. She thought the Still Room was unique in her experience ‘and it is a delight to survey the ranges of built-in cupboards, curved round the room, some filled with china’.
4. Newlyn silver necklace – £950
The artists’ enclave of Newlyn in Cornwall was not exclusively a colony of painters. In the 1890s the Newlyn Industrial Class was established by artist John D Mackenzie to provide education and an alternative source of income for the local fishermen. Crafts such as jewellery, copper, enamel work and textiles were encouraged from workshops on Champion Slip.
While beaten copper vessels, fashioned with fish, galleons and other marine motifs, are the best-known products of the Newlyn craft revival, the jewellery made there is equally distinctive.
An excellent example comes for sale at Sworders’ Fine Jewellery & Watches sale on June 28. This Arts & Crafts necklace, c.1900 is set with plaques of shaded green and blue enamel and specimens of labradorite.
Signed Newlyn Enamel to each plaque, it sold comfortably above hopes at £950 (estimate £500-700).
5. Early cookery book – £6500
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by ‘A Lady’ was the first book by the English cookery writer Hannah Glasse (1708-70). Published in 1747, it became the best-selling recipe book of the Georgian age and appeared in 20 editions in the 18th century alone.
The work includes one of the first English recipes for 'Currey the India Way'.
This copy ‘sold at Mrs. Ashburn's, a China-Shop, Corner of Fleet-Ditch, 1747’ conforms to the description of the first issue and has a provenance to John Le Mesurier (1781-1843), the last hereditary Governor of Alderney whose engraved armorial bookplate and ink signature appear to the title page.
It had an estimate of £3000-4000 when Forum Auctions sold the gastronomy library of the late collector Caroline Crisford in London on June 23. It took £6500.
6. Fabric triptych by Mary Ireland – £3500
Lyon & Turnbull’s June 28 sale – Hints on Household Taste: Paul Reeves – included 18 works by the Birmingham School artist Mary Ireland (1891-1980). Working in the 1930s-1950s, she was most noted for her 'fabric mosaics' which incorporated fragments of antique textiles into the composition of the picture. Borrowing from the Georgian technique of enhancing an embroidery with painted features, Ireland would hand-paint elements (such as the hands and face of figures) onto plain silk, then create the rest of the image from scraps and cuttings of 18th and 19th century appliqué and brocade.
In an interview in 1933 she explained her inspiration: “It was my interest in old fabrics that was really the beginning,” she said. “I hated to think of lovely materials ever being destroyed or lost to future generations. The idea of framing them behind glass seemed a good way of preserving them, and from this the first fabric picture originated.”
The 18 pictures had been collected by dealer Paul Reeves over the last 30 years. All sold and exceeded estimate three-fold to total £24,000. The top selling lot at £3500 (estimate £700-1000) was this three-panel work dated 1933 with the inscription verso Fairytale, A Fabric Triptych by Mary Ireland.
7. Pair of Victorian shell terrarium – £3600
Sailor’s sweethearts or valentines were once thought to have been made by sailors as love tokens during their long trips away from home, as they passed the interminable hours at sea. However, it is now known that the majority, at least, were created onshore in the West Indies and were sold to sailors as souvenirs.
In Sailors' Valentines by John Fondas, the author concludes that the primary source for sailors' valentines was the New Curiosity Shop, located in McGregor Street, Bridgetown, Barbados. The shop was owned by the English brothers BH and George Belgrave.
An unusual variation on the usual octagonal shell collage is the terrarium. A pair of these, intricately modelled as flower and birds under glass domes was included in the sale at Mallams in Cheltenham on June 29. Standing at 46cm high and with wooden bases, these found a winning bid of £3600, well above the £300-£500 estimate.