Candlestick, cast brass, England, about 1500, museum number: M.18–1964
England; about 1500
This is an early example of an English candlestick. Similar candlesticks have been found in the River Thames in London. The yellowish glow suggests a relatively high zinc content.
Before electricity, lighting one's home was an expensive, time-consuming and smelly business. Candles of beeswax or tallow (animal fat) gave a dim light and needed constant attention. The tallow or wax burned faster than the wick and needed constant trimming. The candle stub of burnt down animal fat or beeswax would have been extracted and melted down to make new candles.
Dish, brass, chased and engraved with silver inlay, Venice, Italy, about 1550–1600, museum number: 194–1887
Brass, chased and engraved with silver inlay
Venice, Italy; about 1550-1600
Coat of arms (unidentified)
Venice was the centre of a flourishing trade with Egypt, Syria and Persia. The city exported sheet copper and brass, which then returned in the form of elaborately engraved and inlaid metalwork for the local aristocratic market. Venetian craftsmen also copied Islamic designs. This dish is a masterpiece of the engraver's art. It is adorned with 'arabesques', interlaced vines and stems, which became a feature of European metalwork in the 16th century.
Candlestick, brass, cast, chased and engraved, Venice, Italy, 1550–1600, museum number: M.2–1953
Brass, cast, chased and engraved
Venice, Italy, 1550-1600
Coat of arms (unidentified)
This candlestick exemplifies the great mix of cultural influences on Venetian brasswork. The shape was associated with Nuremberg in southern Germany. The density of the engraving followed the local fashion for Islamic design. The depictions of flowers, grotesques and Bacchus (the god of wine), rather than abstract interlaced work, have a distinctly Italian flavour.
Astronomical Compendium, sheet copper, gilt and engraved, Augsburg, Germany, 1557, made by Christopher Schissler (about 1531–1609), museum number: M.167–1938
Sheet copper, gilt and engraved
Augsburg, Germany, dated 1557
Made by Christopher Schissler (about 1531-1609) and signed in Latin 'Christopher Schissler made me in Augsburg in the year 1557'
This is an astronomical compendium and includes a sundial for four latitudes, a nocturnal dial with chronomatic tables, a compass, tables giving phases of the moon, and a table of latitudes for London, Amsterdam, Oxford, Paris and other cities. The compendium was made to a popular pattern but the towns engraved were specific to its owner's interests. It may have once belonged to a German prince or a wealthy travelling merchant.
The V&A has a small but significant collection of scientific instruments, collected primarily for its decorative qualities. Sheet brass is ideal for making scientific instruments. It is hard-wearing, easily engraved, light and portable.
Specialist makers of scientific instruments emerged during the 1550s. They catered for an increased interest in navigation, travel, geography and the workings of the universe. By the 17th century, it was fashionable for wealthy gentlemen to have a sound understanding of all branches of learning, from arts and literature to mathematics and the natural sciences. Scientific instruments were designed to impress as well as educate.
Schissler's workshop was famous. He specialised in sundials and compendia and produced instruments for the great Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe.
Candlestick, cast brass, England, about 1650, museum number: 389-1906
England, about 1650
From the 14th to the 17th century, brass candlesticks were the most common form of lighting in well-to-do households. Candlestick designs changed according to fashion, but also for practical purposes. In the 17th century they were made with wide spreading bases for stability and centrally-placed drip pans to catch the wax or fat.
This trumpet shaped candlestick is cast in two sections. The body is hollow cast, the corrugations giving strength to the shaft. The nozzle was often detachable to prevent the candle from falling into the shaft when the wax melted. This kind of candlestick is often seen in contemporary still-life paintings.
Buckle, brass, cast and gilded, Zurich, Switzerland, about 1680, museum number: 4040–1856
Brass, cast and gilded
Zurich, Switzerland; about 1680
Probably made in the workshop of Hans Peter Oeri (1637-92)
This gilded buckle, cast and chased with fighting foxes and hounds, once fastened a cartridge belt for hunting. It was probably made in the workshop of the celebrated Swiss goldsmith, Hans Peter Oeri. Unlike English goldsmiths, European workshops specialised in a variety of metals. Oeri, in German-speaking Zurich, followed the great metalworking traditions of nearby Augsburg and Nuremberg.
Tobacco box, sheet and cast brass, engraved, The Netherlands, 1690–1700, museum number: M.175-1939
Sheet and cast brass, engraved
The Netherlands, 1690-1700
This tobacco box contains several compartments all exquisitely engraved with scenes illustrating the virtues of a sober family life. Inside the lid a woman is depicted committing adultery in full view of her husband. An inscription in Dutch translates as, 'How can a young woman bully an old man? Another makes the baby and I like a mother rock the cradle'.
Another compartment is engraved with a husband and wife at odds and the inscription 'I have an old husband who gives me no pleasure, but Venus manages the business so that I have no reason to complain'. The base has a false bottom. Its lid depicts a happy family, with the inscription, 'One finds nothing so sweet in fidelity as love between a man and wife',
The two exterior faces show scenes from classical mythology promoting selfless dedication: Aeneas escaping burning Troy with his father Anchises, and Alexander visiting Diogenes.
Cup, copper-gilt and crystals, Herrengrund, Hungary (now Spania Dolina, Slovakia), about 1700, museum number: 796-1891
Copper-gilt and crystals
Herrengrund , Hungary (now Spania Dolina, Slovakia); about 1700
Inscribed in German 'I come from iron but the power of the water has turned me into copper in a mine in Herrengrund'.
This is a souvenir from about 1700 of the Herrengrund copper mines in Hungary. Its inscription alludes to the miracles wrought by the local water. High in copper sulphate, the water collected in hollows and deposited copper on to iron scraps. In the centre of the cup is a miner at work, surrounded by crystals of iron pyrites.
Door Furniture, brass, cast and gilt, England, about 1775, museum number: M.3–2004
Brass, cast and gilt
England; about 1775
This fine set of door furniture is a recent addition to the V&A collections. It is based on designs by one of Britain's greatest 18th-century architects, Robert Adam (1728-92), and was probably made by an important Midlands locksmith, Thomas Blockley (1705-89). The design reflects Adam's professed aim for 'light mouldings, gracefully formed'. The urn-shaped escutcheon swivels to reveal a key hole plate, while one of the rams' heads turns to act as a secondary bolt. The other is a dummy to balance the design.
Snuff Box, sheet copper, raised, tinned inside and engraved, England, dated 1792, museum number: M.1030–1926
Sheet copper, raised, tinned inside and engraved
England, dated 1792
Owner's initials 'IAR, 1792'
Croft Lyons bequest
Tobacco was introduced into Europe from South America in the 1560s. Over the next 100 years smoking became popular, particularly in Britain and the Netherlands, although taking snuff (powdered tobacco) was considered more gentlemanly. Snuff-taking required proper etiquette. One inhaled a pinch in each nostril from the base of the thumb, used a handkerchief to dab one's nose and brush one's collar, and at all times resisted sneezing.
A large consignment of tobacco commandeered by English ships at Vigo Bay was sold on the London market in 1703, increasing its popularity. Snuff boxes became essential accessories for the man about town and provided lucrative business for manufacturers. By 1750 snuff boxes were mass produced in brass.
Snuff boxes needed to be light and comfortable if they were to be carried in one's pocket. Coffin-shaped snuff boxes reminded snuff-takers that life's pleasures would pass. This one reinforces the message with an engraved hourglass on the lid. They were sufficiently popular to be noticed by Charles Dickens. "'You'll make your fortune, Mr. Sowerberry,' said the beadle, as he thrust his thumb and forefinger into the proffered snuff-box of the undertaker: which was an ingenious little model of a patent coffin." (Oliver Twist, 1839)
Candelabrum, brass, cast and mounted with glass, Birmingham, England, 1846, designed by A.W.N. Pugin (1812–52); made by Hardman & Co., museum number: 2740–1851
Brass, cast and mounted with glass
Birmingham, England; 1846
Designed by A.W.N. Pugin (1812-52); made by Hardman & Co.
This magnificent six-light candelabrum was part of a series designed by AWN Pugin in 1846. A fine example of the Gothic Revival style, which Pugin championed, it may have been designed to go in the rebuilt Houses of Parliament. It was made by Pugin's preferred manufacturer, the Birmingham firm of John Hardman and Co. This was one of the Museum's early purchases, bought from the Great Exhibition in 1851 where Pugin designed the Medieval Court. The Museum paid £7 for it and catalogued it as 'English, modern'.
Chafing Dish and Stand, raised copper with cast brass fittings, electroplated inside, London, England, about 1895, museum number: M.38–1972
Raised copper, with cast brass fittings, electroplated inside
London, England, about 1895
Marked 'BENSON' for designer W.A.S. Benson (1854-1924), made in his workshop
This chafing dish, supported on a stand over a burner, kept food warm. W.A.S. Benson's strikingly original and simple designs exploited the combination of copper and brass. Copper is easily worked and retains its strength. It also conducts heat. Brass handles allow this dish to be carried without risk of burnt fingers.
Benson was also an amateur engineer. He combined an Arts and Crafts passion for the handmade with the use of modern machinery. William Morris called him 'Mr Brass Benson' for his prolific use of the metal.
Bath taps and design, copper, silver and white metal, London, England, about 1900, designed by Nelson Dawson (1859–1942), museum numbers: CIRC.191–1963, E.717-1976
Copper, silver and white metal (possibly Britannia metal)
London, England, about 1900
Designed by Nelson Dawson (1859-1942); made in his workshop
A feature of the metalware collection is that much of it was designed primarily for use rather than just for display. These bath taps, were made for William Frederick Danvers Smith (1868-1928), 2nd Viscount Hambleden, who was a senior partner in WH Smith and Sons. They were installed in his house, Greenlands, near Henley-on-Thames (now a management training college).
In Nelson Dawson, Smith chose one of England's most important Arts and Crafts designers. Dawson adopted a European approach of combining metals. His drawing for these taps, dated May 1900, is also in the V&A.
The design, incorporating blue enamels and silver, was more ambitious than the end product.
Maria Jauhianen, 'Lehti', sheet brass, photo-etched and powder-coated, London, England, 2004, museum number: M.7–2004
Sheet brass, photo-etched and powder-coated
London, England, 2004
Maria Jauhianen (b. 1971)
Winner of the Applied Metal Design Category of the Oxo Peugeot Design Awards, 2003
Brass remains primarily a functional metal. However, a few contemporary designers are using brass and decorating it with bright and exciting finishes.
With Lehti ('Leaf') the Finnish metalworker Maria Jauhianen confounds normal expectations of metal to create a delicate, seemingly weightless fruit bowl. She photo-etched her drawings of a decomposing leaf onto a thin metal sheet and dissolved the remaining areas with acid. Red powder-coating has given the bowl great strength and flexibility.