‘The Metal stamp’d by honest Fame’*: Researching gold and silver boxes made in Georgian Dublin

This blog post is written by Damian Collins, current M.Litt student in the History Department. Damian is in the second year of his research and is supervised by Dr. Alison FitzGerald.

In Gulliver’s Travels, some weeks after his arrival in Lilliput, Gulliver’s pockets were searched on the order of the emperor by two officers who, on completing their task, prepared a written inventory. One of the objects they found in Gulliver’s left pocket was described by them in the following terms:

‘a huge silver chest, with a cover of the same metal, which we, the searchers, were not able to lift.  We desired it should be opened, and one of us stepping into it, found himself up to the mid leg in a sort of dust, some part whereof flying up to our faces set us both a sneezing for several times together’.[1]

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Figure 1 Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941), The Lilliputians Examine Gulliver’s Snuff Box. (© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London. )

The object the Lilliputians had found was Gulliver’s snuffbox. From this small fictional detail, we learn that Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745), when he published Travels in 1726, clearly considered that a snuffbox (like the purse, knife, razor, comb, handkerchief and journal-book also found in Gulliver’s pockets by the Lilliputians) was one of the small necessaries that a man of Gulliver’s station might be expected to carry with him when travelling.

Records from eighteenth-century Ireland confirm the accuracy of Swift’s observation. Small boxes, made from gold, silver and other precious materials, appear whenever the affairs of the elite and the affluent (and those who interacted with them, whether as retailers, servants or thieves) are described: in novels, in plays, in diaries and journals, in account books, in newspaper advertisements offering rewards for dropped or stolen items of value and in reports of criminal trials.

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Figure 2: William Currie, Tobacco Box, Silver-gilt, Dublin 1745. The box is engraved with the second labour of Heracles, the slaying of the Lernaean Hydra. (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

The desire for these small ostentatious objects of luxury was, of course, not unique to Ireland; in their engagement with luxury consumption and their pursuit of self-expression through ostentation, the owners of these boxes in eighteenth-century Dublin were following international fashion. For the historian interested in eighteenth-century Ireland, the question is ‘what can these boxes reveal about the society in which they were made and purchased?’ The answer, as I am discovering in the course of my M.Litt research, is ‘more than you might have thought’.

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Figure 3: James Kennedy, Snuffbox with memorial hair locket, Silver-mounted cowrie shell, Dublin c. 1790. (Private collection).

My research, under the supervision of Dr. Alison FitzGerald, explores a range of questions concerning these boxes: What was the connection between the rise in consumer demand and the emergence of a corps of specialised boxmaking goldsmiths in Dublin from the 1730s onwards? How did innovation and transfer of skills permit these Dublin boxmakers to adopt and work in what might loosely be described as an ‘international style’? What is revealed by evidence from the objects and their associated records about the rise of retailing of luxury goods in eighteenth-century Dublin? How disruptive was the impact of this new form of retailing for goldsmiths operating within the guild-based economic model?

In this post, I shall present some evidence of how the people in eighteenth-century Ireland who made and owned gold and silver boxes looked at them and responded to them. I shall also make some observations on the use of boxes as gifts by eighteenth-century Irish civic institutions.

Jonathan Swift is, once again, a helpful guide. When the Dean wrote his will in 1740, he made four specific bequests of boxes, one made of gold, one of silver and two of tortoiseshell (which were probably mounted in gold or silver).[2] He was careful, in his descriptions of the objects, to place them into two distinct categories.

In the first category were ‘my yellow tortoiseshell snuffbox’ (bequeathed to his cousin and helper, Martha Whiteway) and ‘my square tortoiseshell snuffbox, richly lined and inlaid with gold, given to me by the right honourable Henrietta, now countess of Oxford’ (bequeathed to Martha’s daughter, Mary Swift). In a second category were ‘the gold box in which the freedom of the city of Dublin was presented to me’ (bequeathed to Alexander McAulay, one of his executors) and ‘my silver box in which the freedom of the city of Corke was presented to me’ (bequeathed to another executor, John Grattan).

Although for a modern observer, all four boxes would probably seem very similar in form and function and would probably be identified as ‘snuffboxes’, Swift showed by his choice of words that he regarded a snuffbox as different from a box received with the presentation of civic freedom.  In his personal taxonomy of possessions, Swift saw snuffboxes and presentation boxes as different types of things.

What were these presentation boxes and what can they tell us about eighteenth century Ireland? On the basis of the research undertaken so far, it is clear that Irish presentation boxes have survived in quite large numbers across the centuries. There are comprehensive collections in the National Museum of Ireland and the Museum for Fine Arts in San Antonio, Texas, with smaller collections in other museums. Irish presentation boxes are occasionally offered for sale in auction houses, both in Ireland and overseas. They feature in catalogues of Irish silver and in works directed at antique silver dealers and collectors.[3] Their unusually high rate of survival, when so much of the gold and silver made in eighteenth century Ireland was lost to the refiner’s furnace, provides an indication (like Swift’s carefully worded bequests) of the significance given to them by recipients (and their descendants).

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Figure 4: James Kennedy, Presentation box, Silver, Dublin 1795. The box, notable for the excellence of its engraving, was presented to John Pentland by the Corporation of Dublin in recognition of his role ‘in the suppression of Defenderism’. (Private collection).

Looking at civic records and contemporary newspapers accounts, it becomes apparent that the practice of civic gifting of gold and silver boxes was more prevalent in Ireland than in Britain or the North American colonies. It was also adopted by a wide range of Irish civic institutions: most of the Dublin guilds at one time or another presented boxes, and Trinity College (unlike the universities of Oxford and Cambridge) made numerous presentations of boxes throughout the eighteenth century. Closer to home, on the foundation of the college in Maynooth in 1795, the trustees decided to present the chief secretary, Thomas Pelham (1756 – 1826), with a gold box.[4]

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Figure 5: Aeneas Ryan, Presentation box, Silver, Dublin c. 1812. This box was presented by Trinity College, Dublin (the college arms are engraved on the base) to Robert Peel while he was Chief Secretary in Ireland. (L&K Duvalier).

Contemporaries seem to have understood that the Irish gifting practice had developed in a quite distinctive manner. In 1765, when Arbella Denny (1707–1792), native of Lixnaw and general do-gooder in Georgian Dublin, was presented with a gold box – one of several she received in recognition of her charitable endeavours for ‘foundlings’ and ‘fallen women’-  an anonymous poet wrote:

‘Hibernia’s Worthies are enroll’d

Free Citizens, by Box of Gold;

The Metal stamp’d by honest Fame,

Will dignify the Bearer’s Name;

And Marks of high Regard bestow

To matchless Merit, here below.’[5]

Operating in another sphere of the contemporary moral economy, Mrs Margaret Leeson, alias Peg Plunkett, Georgian Dublin’s best-known courtesan, recalled (or imagined) in her autobiography an episode during which a deputation from the ‘States of Castle-Kelly’ or the ‘Anecdote Club of Free Brothers’ ‘presented the freedom of their commonwealth to me and my nymphs and nymphlings, elegantly engrossed on parchment inclosed in a beautiful silver box’. [6] In her anecdote, Peg seemed to combine a desire to emulate elite practice with a subversive mockery of the pervasiveness of that practice in Georgian Dublin.

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Figure 6: James Bowles/William Hoare/James Watson, Miss Plunkett.1740s-50s (?). Peg Plunkett (otherwise Mrs Margaret Leeson), was a Dublin courtesan, memoiriste and possible recipient of a silver presentation box. (© Trustees of the British Museum).

In addition to civic figures like Denny, lord lieutenants and their chief secretaries were prominent among the beneficiaries of this Irish gifting practice, giving rise to a further observation and a question. When compared with continental Europe where gifting of boxes was also widespread, the Irish gifting practice appears to involve a curious inversion. In Dublin (and in other Irish cities and towns), tradesmen and aldermen presented valuable boxes to members of the elite; in continental Europe, it was more common for the very powerful to present boxes to the less powerful. Why did the Viceroy in Dublin, unlike the French King or the Prince of Saxony, receive rather than give gifts?  What does this aspect of the Irish gifting practice reveal about the perceptions of the civic institutions and their members who made those gifts?

Gold and silver boxes, whether used as personal accessories or presented as civic gifts, were objects of significance to the people in Georgian Dublin who made them, owned them, who gifted and received them. As a source for the history of the city, they are, together with the documentary records associated with them, largely unexplored and potentially rewarding.

*The Freemans’ Journal, 24 September 1765.

[1] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World

(London 1899), p.17.

[2] ‘The last will and testament of Jonathan Swift’(www.jonathanswiftarchive.org.uk) (29 November 2017).

[3] See, for example: Ida Delamer & Conor O’Brien, 500 Years of Irish Silver (Bray, 2005); John Culme, British Silver Boxes 1640 – 1840: The Lion Collection (Woodbridge, 2015).

[4] John Healy, Maynooth College, Its Centenary History 1795-1895 (Dublin, 1895), p. 151.

[5] The Freemans’ Journal, 24 September 1765.

[6] Mary Lyons (ed.), The Memoirs of Mrs Leeson, Madam 1727- 1797 (Dublin, 1995), p.169; Evelyn Lord, The Hell-Fire clubs; sex, Satanism and secret societies (Medmenham, 2008), p.202.

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