This version of Powell & Lealand’s famous ‘No.1’ compound monocular and binocular microscope, dated 1871, came with an extensive array of accessories. It included a full complement of eyepieces and objective lenses with a wide range of focal lengths from 4in to 1/50in, mostly supplied by the same Euston Road, London maker.
Flints considered it the most complete outfit offered for sale at auction in the past 20 years – better equipped than another No.1 dated 1897 that sold for £24,000 at Bonhams Knightsbridge in 2017.
Such aristocratic survivors from the ‘brass and glass’ era of microscope making would always have been expensive: according to the firm’s 1875 catalogue a comprehensive display would have cost its original owner £264 7s (more than £20,000 today).
One of the accoutrements, an R&J Beck opaque disk rotator (allowing small objects to be viewed from different perspectives) has a coat of arms with the motto Testus Igne and the name Edwin Clark. A candidate for its former owner is the Victorian engineer Edwin Clarke (1814-94), builder of the Anderton Boat Lift that provides the 50ft vertical link between the River Weaver and the Trent and Mersey Canal.
One additional fragment of provenance for this ensemble was provided by a clipping from a 1976 copy of Antiques Trade Gazette which records its sale for £1500, then a record sum for any microscope, at the Crewkerne firm of TRG Lawrence & Son.
The estimate this time was £10,000-15,000 with the hammer price a double-estimate £32,000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium). The auction house believed it was a record for a Powell & Lealand.
Hugh Powell first went into partnership with his brother-in-law Peter Lealand in 1841, the pair producing a series of microscopes from workshops near Euston Square that culminated with the definitive version of the No.1 in 1869. With only minor additions, it was made almost unchanged for 40 years.
Belgian Henri Van Heurck (1839-1909) wrote glowingly of the firm in his book The Microscope its Construction and Management in 1892: “Messrs Powell & Lealand occupy quite a unique position in the microscopic world. Their workshops are small, the number of instruments which they produce are few, but every piece of apparatus, marked with their name, is an artistic production, perfect in all its details.
“Moreover, both instruments and objectives of these makers are in the greatest request and are used in England by all serious microscopists.”