‘Bottle tickets’ that show the silversmith skill.
Birmingham has been noted throughout its past for the production of small metal objects, and in the 18th and 19th centuries Birmingham silversmiths were preeminent among artists and craftsmen.
The silversmith’s skill is often seen at its best when employed on small domestic utensils that are both practical and capable of taking a fair bit of decoration. Wine labels fall into this category, although not all were made in silver, and not all were of the more commonly known type involving a label on a chain.
Wine labels (decanter labels or “bottle tickets”as they were first known, made their appearance in about 1730, and were in general use by the middle of the century. They were made fashionable by the increasing use of the decanter, rather than the wine bottle.
Early decanters often had the name of the contents painted on them, together with the appropriate floral or foliate design-vine and grapes for wine, hops for ale, apples for cider-but with the increasing use of engraved and cut ornamentation this practice was dropped, and a separate label was hung around the decanter neck.
Silver wine labels are the most common type found today, probably because of the durable nature of silver, but labels were also produced in enamelled copper, Sheffield plate, porcelain, pinchbeck, mother-of-pearl and other materials.Some labels were also made in the form of a ring,but these are now extremely rare.
Among the other rare and valuable types of wine labels are those made at the Battersea factory,which lasted only fro 1753-1756 and which employed the process of transfer-printing in enamels.Enamelled labels were also produced in the Wednesbury-Bilston area, and in Birmingham.
Silver wine labels, although not classed as “important”silver,often exhibit outstandingly good craftsmanship. The earliest were made entirely by hand,and the first known examples have been attributed to two London silversmiths, John Harvey and Sandilands Drinkwater. These two makers apparently produced labels in a variety of shapes, although the most usual early shape is of an escutcheon, often decorated with vine motifs round the edge and fitted with a hanging chain.
Before 1790 small silver articles of less than ten pennyweights were exempt from the payment of duty and from hallmarking. Thus the earliest labels are marked with the initials of the maker and can usually only be dated by tracing the working period of the maker or by the style and method of decoration.
A Parliamentary Act of 1790 called for the subsequent marking of all small items,so that by the 19th century it is possible to be more specific in attributing an item to a date and maker.
Labels may be found in an infinite variety,and were made for sauces,as well as for spirits and wines.Over five hundred different titles have been recorded, many for drinks long extinct, such as “shrub”a popular mixture of rum and fruit juices; “Noyeau” a blend of prunes, brandy, celery, apricots and peaches and “Arquebuscase”a medicament applied to sores and gunshot wounds.
In addition, individual labels were produced for specific wines such as “White Hermitage”, a wine from the nine yards of Tain, near to Avignon. Frame type labels were also produced and fitted with a clip so that the owner could insert his own choice of title.
Many of the designs in silver incorporate some appropriate floral, leaf or fruit motif but the general style changes with contemporary fashion. There are known to be about fifty variants of the relatively undecorated rectangular shape which, together with the many hundreds of more ornate designs and the great number of possible titles, gives tremendous scope to the collector.
Within the large range of possibilities there are at least twenty general categories of label-including those using architectural, animal or shell motifs; crescent or rectangular shape,and so on. One interesting and unusual form is known as the “pointer” using the image of a pointer dog with the name of the wine beneath.
Others consist of “wire” initials-a single finely wrought and very decorative letter,or make use of armorial or heraldic devices.
Most of the leading silversmiths such as members of the Bateman family, Paul Storr, Robert Garrard,Matthew Boulton and Joseph Willmore made wine labels and a great deal of the finest was produced from Birmingham.
Matthew Linwood was a particularly notable Birmingham maker,and introduced die-stamping techniques into wine-label manufacture in 1794.His casts were extremely finely cut and the many who copied his technique failed to produce work of such a superb standard.
Die-stamping produced a thinner label but for about fifteen years after the introduction of the technique the standard of labels produced were generally high. Some deterioration in quality occurred when a mould was introduced in the process in about 1810 and after a further twenty years the quality of manufacture had declined sharply.
The value of wine labels has appreciated in recent years,and with increased specialist interest, seems likely to continue to do so as more people turn the internet to make their purchases thus bringing labels to most households where as before a visit to the nearest antique shop or antique fair was the only place to source labels for a collection or for general use. As many of these items are of such a high standard of workmanship they are keenly collected and would seem to offer good investment as well as enjoyment possibilities.