18 September 2013

An Antique Tortoiseshell Tea Caddy

A late18th century green tortoiseshell tea caddy, painted for our desk calendar.
Where have the weeks gone?! I must beg your forgiveness once again for the long delay in posting here-- we have been wonderfully busy here at the bindery, and have hardly been able to keep up with all of the wonderful bespoke projects that have come our way! I send warm greetings to all of our wonderful clientele and blogging friends-- it's so nice to be back.
Today, I thought I'd continue using our calendar motifs as a point of departure and share this painting of a beautiful octagonal green tortoiseshell tea caddy. This is an object whose materials and fine craftsmanship define it as particularly of its time and place. It's English, dating from the late 18th century when tea was an expensive and highly prized commodity in Europe. In England especially, the18th and 19th centuries saw the confluence of a mature craft tradition, new availability of exotic materials from around the world, and a growing consumer culture ready to collect the exquisite objects being produced. It was a perfect combination of artists, materials and audience that inspired what I consider to be some of the most beautiful objects in decorative arts history.  
A George III Tea Caddy, courtesy Nick Brock Antiques.

In my research, I came across an illuminating article from Mallett Antiques in New York on the history of the use of tortoiseshell as a material in the decorative arts. Interestingly, the article includes some fascinating information about the material itself:
"[The Hawksbill tortoise's] shell is an interesting material because it is a living substance, made of keratin. It is an insoluble protein composed of 55% carbon, 20% oxygen, 16% nitrogen, 6% hydrogen, and 2% sulphur. The shell thickens with age of the turtle, and can get to 8 mm for the Hawksbill turtle. Its density is of 1.29 and its hardness on Mohs scale is 2.5. The reason why it is the Hawksbill turtle that was mainly used in France in the 17th and 18th centuries is because of its very thick shell and rich colours."
A green tortoiseshell tea caddy similar to the one I painted, with a beautiful pink velvet lining
from Richard Gardner Antiques.

"Moreover, another very interesting property for furniture makers is the discovery that the shell has the characteristic of being able to auto-graft itself. The discovery in the 19th century of the possibility of auto-grafting enabled a higher volume of work, and considerably extended the applications. Turtle-shell could be welded, turned, sculpted, shaped and this enabled craftsmen to create work of lace-like dexterity." In fact, when heated, the tortoiseshell will expand and "fuse"  itself to a delicate silver inlay as in the box below.

  A  good example of how the "auto-grafting" tortoiseshell could be used in combination with silver:
a small round silver and tortoiseshell trinket box, the top with silver appliqué work,
by William Comyns & Sons, London, ca. 1909. Image courtesy Richard Gardner Antiques.

Continuing from the Mallett article: "The green turtle tortoiseshell (chelonia mydas), is much thinner and little coloured for the adult turtle, offers less interests and has much more difficulty to auto graft itself. Though the preferred choice was to work with hawksbill tortoises, the 19th century under Napoleon III’s reign, saw a massive use of green turtle tortoiseshell to make veneer, mainly because of its low price and easy supply compared to hawksbill."

A rare red tortoiseshell, ivory and silver tea caddy, ca. 1790.
Image courtesy Hampton Antiques.

Of course, the amazing properties of tortoiseshell as a material were nearly disastrous for the beautiful tortoises, and, as much as I admire the beauty and craftsmanship of these tea caddies and boxes, I'm happy that the age of tortoiseshell as a craft material is in the past. After all, no man-made object can compete with the beauty of nature.

Image courtesy Center for Biological Diversity