Nutmeg graters hang from the rafters of the home of John Reckless, a collector with more than 25 years’ experience.
He recently published a book on the subject and this week an exhibition of his collection opens in Bristol at jeweller Grey-Harris & Co (October 7-22). The show comprises more than 500 pieces from around the world.
The book, Nutmeg: Graters, Pomanders and Spice Boxes, offers even more examples, with over 4000 photographs and information on the graters themselves as well as the history of the nutmeg and its importance in society.
ATG spoke to him about his previous experience as a collectors, the 10-year-process of writing his book – and how his wife views his collection.
ATG: Was this your first foray into collecting?
John Reckless: No, I’ve had a general interest in collecting antiques for about 40 years, kitchen-related antiques in particular. My wife had an aunt in the US and I went regularly to look for a variety of mechanical gadgets at the Brimfield Flea Market. (Don’t think of Brimfield as a little local flea. It’s 20-plus fields about 70 miles outside of Boston with everything from Statue of Liberty models to Georgian silver.)
One large area of my wider collection is cast-iron apple peelers, of which I now have about 60, making it the biggest collection outside North America. In the 19th century there was a huge influx of people into developing America and the revised Patent Act of 1836 meant the processing of patent applications became more efficient, and if you have a better way of doing something you could make some money from it. That’s why there are lots of different examples to be found.
Tell us how and why you were drawn to nutmeg graters
Around 30 years ago I found one cast-iron mechanical nutmeg grater which was followed by other mechanical patented US graters. This led to many others in different media from the UK, Europe and Asia and unusual origins such as Russia and Malta; altogether more than 500.
That’s a lot of nutmeg graters – not to mention the other items in your collection. How do you display them?
I still have huge amounts of what my wife calls ‘my metal junk’. For the cast iron objects and kitchen-related metal things we have a kitchen with a pitched roof and many of them hang from that. My study has some also. Nearly all the nutmeg graters I keep off site for reasons of security now that I have published the book, which is a great pity.
What kind of examples do you own?
My collection includes pieces in silver, enamel, coquilla nut, cowrie shell, various base metals and bone. A couple in ivory are perhaps of museum quality. Now it’s more about looking out for the unusual or the different – I tend not to collect just by maker’s name, especially now that I have a large collection.
What is the most you would spend on one nutmeg grater?
There are a few that get up into the five-figure range. In one or two instances – don’t tell my wife – I’ve bought examples that were in the thousands. Those would be a rarity, to be fair. One of the most expensive examples was a naturalistic one in the shape of a lovely pumpkin on a bed of leaves. It was by the Barnard brothers and was around £9000 including premium.
There are a number of active nutmeg grater collectors about the place, but they tend to keep quiet about who they are, which was one of my concerns about holding the exhibition.
Why was the nutmeg trade so important?
The history of the use of nutmeg can be traced back to early pomanders which apothecaries would fill with ‘therapeutic’ balsams, using nutmeg butter to hold volatile perfumes. I’ve gathered various recipes on those. The pomanders were carried to prevent pestilence and the plague.
As part of my research, I went out by boat from West Timor and went island hopping to the Banda Islands of Indonesia where nutmeg originates.
These islands were found by the Portuguese as the world was being divided up. The Dutch then tried for a monopoly of supply for a century or two.
One remarkable item I’ve collected is probably the earliest known nutmeg still in existence, thought to be from the late 16th century. It’s held in silver filigree bands with little seed pearls.
One of the pomanders in my collection is from the 17th century and is shaped like a tiny snail. These were considered to symbolise the resurrection and be apotropaic and carried as amulets.
When did graters become popular?
In London, the late 17th century. I’ve got one with the date of 1684 scratched in. These early ones are often the cylinder graters and from the 1690s onwards you get the teardrop ones, including the occasional example made from a cowrie shell.
Tell us about some more stand-out items you own
I also have one of the only two tortoiseshell examples that I know of – one is a carved mounted tortoiseshell egg which has been in the basement of the V&A since 1927.
Mine was part of the Eila Graham collection which was sold a few years ago. It was in a box of tortoiseshell combs with the name of a Jamaican 17th century comb-maker.
Another highlight is a gold filigree example which I bought for £78 about 30 years ago. It’s as rare as hen’s teeth and totally useless as gold is so soft. I only know of one other example and that’s in the Birmingham assay office. It’s silver. Someone may have been saying simply ‘look how clever I am’ in making it. It’s possibly from c.1780 and may have been made for a nobleman.
Do you also collect items related to graters?
I’ve gathered various key pieces of ephemera to illustrate the social history of nutmeg and graters. For example, did you know that the nursery rhyme I had a little nut tree is probably related to Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon? I also have a cartoon satirising Florence Nightingale surrounded by items, including nutmeg graters, that she is sending out to the troops. I thought it was quite important to include these things in the book too.
How did you come to write your book?
I’d been thinking about writing a book for about 16 years. I was a consultant physician and this made a good retirement project. It doesn’t contain the whole collection as I have a few that did not quite make the book. I’ve got another 70 or 80.
But I hope that the book will be enjoyed by collectors and become a reference for dealers, auctioneers and others.
Grey-Harris & Co is based at 12 Princess Victoria Street, Clifton Bristol, BS8 4BP.