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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

10 comments:

  1. Dear Erika, Thank you for this most informative and beautiful post. Lucky for such critters, who provided us with so much beauty, that there are many talented decorative painters who have very successfully duplicated these exotic designs. To mind comes Theresa Cheek of "Art is the Answer". ox, Gina

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    1. Dear Gina,
      You're absolutely right: now, we have many new beautiful and kindly sourced art materials and techniques...Much better, I agree!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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    2. Dear Erika, Just now have realized that you have painted a charming assortment of tea caddies for your 2014 calendar. I have always admired your beautiful watercolors. Your artistry and talents shine through in everything you do.
      I'm heading over to your website to order your new calendar. ox, Gina

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  2. Dear Erika,

    Once again, your mastery of the watercolor medium is on full display. Your calendar image is very handsome, and I had no idea that there was such a thing as green or red tortoise shell! My own favorites have been those pieces that combine with other materials like ebony, ivory and silver, and for quite a while, I've been considering a trompe l'oeil project along those lines.

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    1. Dear Mark,
      Thank you for your much too kind words! I was also under the impression before I posted this that the colored tortoiseshell was dyed or backed with a colored material... It really is fascinating stuff.. In my research, I also came across several outstanding Spanish and Italian cabinets on stands that had glorious multi-material inlays like you described... A trompe l'oeil based on these might be very interesting indeed--I hope you get the opportunity to go for it!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  3. Dear Erika,
    What an interesting post! That red tortoiseshell caddy is very nice. We keep a look out for tea caddies in our travels but have never found one (in our price range) that was complete. One day perhaps!
    According to my father, my so many great grandfather not only kept the tea caddy key himself but had the caddy hidden in a secret compartment in his bed! That was in the far off days when tea was expensive.
    I do like these posts that you do.
    Bye for now
    Kirk

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    1. Dear Kirk,
      Thank you for your message-- so nice to have you back from your adventures! I collect much more humble tea caddies and biscuit barrels, and enjoy using them quite a bit... The tortoiseshell/mother of pearl pieces are far out of reach for me as well: I think that red piece had a sale price somewhere in the $8-15K range...! Still, they are beautiful to look at, aren't they? I love the story of your ancestor keeping the key to the precious tea caddy hidden in his bed-- how wonderful! Does that caddy still exist in your family? I hope so-- it must have been beautiful...
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  4. Dear Erika - it is interesting the way our views on the use of tortoiseshell, ivory, stuffed animals etc from the past have completely changed. What was totally acceptable to our ancestors being distasteful to us today.
    However, I do love tortoiseshell inlaid with silver appliqué work such as the example you show.
    Once again you have shown us how skilled you are with your brush and paints - an exquisite box.
    I am pleased to learn that everything is very busy at the bindery - that is very good news for you all.

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    1. Dear Rosemary,
      Thank you for your message! I agree with you completely: while I would never participate in commissioning contemporary craft objects using these endangered materials, I do covet the antique pieces! It's a difficult position, but I can't resist the craftsmanship history and romance of the old pieces... I'm so glad you enjoyed this post and regret the delay in getting it published-- we have indeed been doing very well in the bindery this past year, and often I have to restrict my time reading my favorite blogs as I tend to get carried away!:)
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  5. Hello Erika, Tortoiseshell is such a fascinating and beautiful substance, ecological considerations aside. Its translucency draws you into the interior of the material, where you can discern the dots of pigment that make up the pattern. In fact, that is one test for real tortoiseshell-- in most plastic imitations, the darker color simply shades or blends away, but is not contained in individual dots.
    --Road to Parnassus

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