Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Three 19th Century Snuff Boxes

A Scottish 'Mauchline Ware' Snuff Box
by I. Richmond of Cumnock

This Blog features a detailed look at three Scottish family owned snuff boxes from my collection, all ranging age in age from the 1830's to the 1850's and being quite different in design. That the provenance of these items is known adds considerably to their historical interest, not to mention their sentimental value.

"An Antique Pair of Snuffers",
and drawn by Frederick Barnard.
From "Harper's Weekly", 5th May 1888.
[Source Wikipedia]

Snuff is in fact simply powdered tobacco, the inhaling of this product to get a "hit" of nicotine being particularly common in the British Isles and elsewhere throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It is clear that senior male members of my family also enjoyed "taking snuff".

A Cowrie Shell Snuff Box dated London 1829

My first box is a cowrie shell snuff box which has been fitted with a sterling silver base with the underside of the cover additionally being gilded. The silver mark is for London 1829 but there is unfortunately no makers mark. The cover also features a fascinating inscription reading :

Was presented me 
Jany eighteen thirty-three. 
To solace me when alone, 
A poor blind man och on! 
By my only surviving son 

The Engraving on the Cover

Provenance of original ownership is always extremely important and adds so much to the history of any item. This snuff box belonged to my Great Great Great Grandfather, Mr John Hall Snr. [born circa 1755, died 1835], a "portioner" [land-owner] residing in Roslin village, Midlothian in Scotland. This would have been a gift from his third son John Hall Jnr., hence the "O'Three John", who himself died in 1856 aged 71 years. While noted in the inscription as being "blind", this could just as easily have been cataracts. After John's death in 1835 this box, along with his engraved gold carnelian intaglio wax seal, were kept as keepsakes by his daughter who had married my Great Great Grandfather (pictured below) in 1808.

The gilded Underside of the Cover

My second featured item is a 'Mauchline Ware' holly root snuff box, the flat side being shown in the image at the top of this page. While featured in a previous Blog, new specific information has since come to hand. The manufacturer can be positively identified as "I. Richmond" of Cumnock in East Ayrshire, being a very typical example of his own specific design. This is confirmed from the design of the box, the red-jacketed huntsman, and the so-called "sea weed" decoration around the edges, all being typical trademark aspects of his designs.

A close-up of the Pen and Ink image on the Snuff Box
by I Richmond, Cumnock

One whole side of the box is formed from a hollowed out holly root while the flat cover of sycamore wood includes a coloured pen and ink drawing of a mounted huntsman wearing a red riding jacket and doffing his top hat while out riding. Along the top are the words "For Auld Lang Syne" and two hands clasping. Some wear is evident to the cover. This box includes the highly ingenious 'Mauchline Ware' hidden hinge although this example is unfortunately broken. The best estimate of date of manufacture would be circa 1840's to 1850's.

The Holly Root Snuff Box
by "I. Richmond" of Cumnock 

The provenance of this holly root box is known, having been in the possession of one of two brothers of the Watson family originally of "Burnhead Farm", in the Parish of Dalserf in Lanarkshire, Scotland. Both of these brothers died in 1881 and 1883 respectively.

The Horn Snuff Box with Silver Inlay

My third box is not in itself particularly remarkable but still has quite an interesting tale to tell which now proves its provenance beyond any shadow of a doubt whatsoever. Sometimes one has to simply believe that we are truly meant to discover information and that someone is looking down on us and guiding us. Such occurrences, with some being more than mere chance, have occurred to me on a number of occasions over the years. Interestingly, such serendipitous occurrences happened quite often (but not just to me alone) when I was employed in a National Church Archive.

Horn Snuff Box With Original Contents

But firstly, this item is a simple and well-used horn snuff box with a silver inlay which in itself has not been engraved. We can also observe the (intact) 'hidden hinge' common to most 'Mauchline Style' wood or horn snuff boxes of this era. Upon opening the box some of the original contents, although much decayed, are evident. While I knew that this box had come down through my paternal family line, I had no engraving on the box itself or family notes to make an incontrovertible identification as to original ownership. But luck came my way in a quite unexpected but conclusive manner.

Horn Snuff Box belonging to my Great Great Grandfather,
being identified by the shape and markings on the horn

Extensive genealogy enquiries in Scotland in the 1990's brought me into contact with a distant and hitherto unknown relative in New Zealand who advised me that her family had held an old unidentified photo album since 1912. As the original owner of the album was known to be a member of my paternal family she kindly lent it to me for my perusal. I could only make one positive identification, being a previously unknown carte-de-visite portrait of my Great Great Grandfather (pictured below) who died in 1870 aged 86 years, facial features being able to be compared with another but different image I already held. The portrait is in itself rather interesting, quite unusually being taken slightly side-on. But what took me by surprise was to see his snuff box placed on the pillar beside him. Under high magnification the very same markings appearing on my snuff box could be discerned. Having held this family owned snuff box since 1978 I had never thought that the original provenance could ever be positively proven. Dating this box is extremely problematic but it could be from the 1830's to 1840's.

My Great Great Grandfather (died 1870)
with his Snuff Box on the Pillar

Quite surprisingly, another piece of my own jig-saw puzzle of family artefacts came together while I was writing and researching this Blog. The moral of this last story is therefore, never lose hope and keep an open mind, information can come our way from the most unexpected quarters. Often even just a small but critical part of the jigsaw puzzle enables the overall picture to become obvious.

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