Unlocking Secrets in More Ways Than One

By William K Hawkes

If you had asked me two years ago what I envisioned myself doing now, two years from then, I probably would have said something along the lines of "well… running my own business as a jeweller or running a store maybe…" … you get the picture!

Far from either of those situations, I started off the first week of this term sitting in the stately home, specifically the library, of someone who had been one of the greatest patrons of the surrealist art movement, Edward James.

Now, lets be honest, I have been in some unusual situations, some more daunting than others, some more exciting than others, but I cannot even begin to explain the assault on my senses that the "Old Library" of the Edward James estate house had created. The smell of oak paneled walls, the wonderfully ornate gilt trim to the wood cabinets, which as one might imagine held the most mind staggeringly impressive collection of books on all things conservation and art as they towered high above us to the ceiling which must measure some sixteen feet. And all this at 9am on a Monday morning…. I thought then, and still do now, that all my dreams had come true in one fell swoop!

For those of you who don't know, the graduate diploma is the precursor to the postgraduate diploma, which is integral with the MA in Conservation studies; and that, in turn, is my ambition, with a focus in metalwork conservation. This is an area that, as a jeweler, I had only a small insight into it held a plethora of possibilities. And by the second day of the graduate diploma those possibilities were becoming a reality. Our tutor Jon Privet had handed us each (there are only three of us) a discarded furniture lock on which to practice. Damaged and somewhat "shabby" looking, the key was missing and the piece looked like it had been given what they call in the northeast "a right kicking"!

Ordinarily I would struggle to be excited by such an item, and I can't help but admit that I had to remind myself that the more exciting pieces would come as my abilities justified them, but it wasn't long before the allure of history had whetted my appetite for investigation and Jon got me almost dizzy with questions about this seemingly innocent object.

To explain, I will use the format of "who, which, where, when, how, why, and what": who would have used and made such a lock? From which items of furniture might it have been prised? Where would it have been made? When would it have been made? Why was the corner of the back plate broken away, and how? And most importantly, what was I going to do about it all? All of these questions were suddenly whirling round in my head and the answers were all to be forensically unearthed during the next couple of days.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the first step in dealing with the furniture lock was simply to open it up. In the outside world, away from the distinctive smell of the conservation studios and laboratories, that's the logical first step. However, that approach, we were soon to find out, was utterly wrong and would if employed lead to a raft of results that were all considerably less than desirable!

Probably the greatest tenet of conservation of objects is that we don't want to do any further damage to an item, and this would explain why I found myself wrapping masking tape around the business end of a screw driver, a piece of copper sheet and the jaws of a vice to protect the object from each, but such was the desire we had to ensure the furniture lock was not damaged. The simple explanation for this is that if metal comes into contact with another metal, the harder metal always marks the softer- common sense really, but what we were insuring was that our furniture locks were not going to be marked by any of the tools which were going to be used to open them.

In the event, which until this past week was actually very likely, that I had simply polished the head and refurbished it, I would have actually got rid of a piece of information which actually proved with my current understanding to be of great value to me.

As you will be able to see in the plate above, there was a very small and indistinct hallmark. Starting from the left, the sponsors' mark will tell me who made the head of the stick. In this case the mark is quite indistinct and faded but to an expert in silverware and walking sticks it will still mean a great deal; this is something I will have to investigate further. The next mark is called the traditional fineness mark; specifically in this case the "lion passant" which indicates that the piece is sterling silver and when bordered in this shape, it's the mark of sterling silver for London. The next mark bears this out, as it's an impression of a leopard's head in a shield that indeed, is the mark for the London Assay office. Finally we come to the business end of the hallmark. In this case we have a vague but decipherable shield shaped border that encloses a letter "Q" with serifs.

Having been a jeweller it's a prerequisite to be adept in the use of "Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks", and armed with this book and the information provided by the hallmark I was able to date the walking stick to 1891. So with this purchase I had acquired a piece of "gentleman's furniture" which had been in existence for, at the time of writing, 122 years!

Let us just contrast this for a moment, with the other scenario, which as I said, was until recently far more likely. Even if I had simply, and only polished the head as a conservative restoration or cosmetic "clean up", I would have inevitably dulled the hallmark to the extent that it would have been less legible and therefore less able to impart its information to the observer. This in turn, would have meant that the hallmark would have needed to be read by stronger magnification as a best-case scenario, and more likely, the hallmark would have lost so much definition that the information would have been lost forever.

So, first impressions… quite aside form the myriad of sensory stimulation that the West Dean, Edward James estate provides, I'm really curious and intrigued to find out more, to delve into the depths of the who, which, where, when, how, why and what of metalwork conservation. To unlock the secrets held by many things which ordinarily we take for granted. On a personal level I will need to change many of the ways and processes I use to work with metal, much more discipline and consideration is needed! However this subject really will, I'm certain, satisfy my fascination about science, history, forensics, society and many many more!