Lost Trades Nᵒ. 7: An Overview of Eighteenth-Century English Enamels

Equipage, watch and watchcase in gold and enamel, 1777-1778.
Enamel painted figures marked W. Craft (William Hopkins Craft).
British Museum Collection.

Enamelling is an ancient craft practiced in various ways across the the world. Enamel is made by heating and fusing glass powder to a metal base to create a glossy surface. Sometimes this can be done in segments to form patterns, or the enamelled surface can be larger and then painted or, through an innovation of the late 1740s, printed. Over the eighteenth century, these painted and printed enamels gained in popularity, predominantly made in London, Birmingham, the Black Country towns of Bilston and Wednesbury, and some in Liverpool, and these are the focus here. 

Unless signed, it is often difficult to distinguish where surviving enamels were made, or by whom, and there is no reason to believe that a single item had the same maker from start to finish. The craftsmanship of these articles was not just in the enamelling and painting, but in the forming of the metal (whether chasing in gold, or the forming of copper boxes) and even in the making of increasingly clever devices such as clasps and hinges. The multiple skills for making copper boxes, for example, were prevalent in Birmingham and the Black Country and supported the development of enamelling in the area. These boxes could be formed into elaborate shapes such as the apple, below, as well as a menagerie of animals, almost certainly made in these areas. There is no reason, though, why finished boxes would not have been sold to other enamellers and painters, so the idea that surviving eighteenth-century enamels were the product of one person or even one town is over-estimated. When the maker of enamels is noted it is the painter, so the craftsmanship of these other makers is invariably lost.

Enamel bonbonnière in the shape of an apple, c. 1770,
probably made in Birmingham or the Black Country.
Private Collection.

Signed Enamels and the London Trade

Pendant with portrait of Elizabeth Prentice by Horace Hone,
1807, enamel on copper.
Sold at Christie's in 2013 for £6,875.

Most signed enamels were painted in London, but it is uncertain how dominant other aspects of the enamelling trade were in London. Kent's Directory (of London) of 1766 listed no enamellers, but this does not mean that the craft was not being practiced.* In 1747 A General Description of All the Trades listed enamelling but noted that the 'Masters in this Way are not many', suggesting that the trade was not a dominant as in other towns.** Several well-known painters on enamel were miniature painters and enamel was simply another surface to adorn alongside ivory and other materials, such as Horace Hone (above), Samuel Cotes and Gervase Spencer. These often served elite markets, with surviving portraits being of the gentry and the wealthy. 

Others in London worked with other craftspeople to produce highly ornate equipage (later called chatelaines) which held watches and etui (containers) from decorative chains and were hung visibly from women's clothing. These included William Hopkins Craft (see equipage at top of post) and George Michael Moser (below).

Design for enamelled watchcase and decorative chain, c. 1766,
considered to be by George Michael Moser.
MET Collection.

Watch by J. Snelling and watchcase in
painted enamel by Moser (George M. Moser).
Private Collection.

These were finely made articles set in gold, but most surviving painted enamels served a broader market and were unsigned. There has been an historical tendency to ascribe the finest painted boxes to London and poorer quality painting to the provinces,*3* often because Victorian historians believed that provincial enamelling did not begin until the 1760s, which has been proved incorrect by more recent research. Also, fine painters such as Amos Green and Moses Haughton had links to the Midland enamel trade showing that these presumptions warrant interrogation.

Birmingham and Black Country Enamelling

Base of floral enamel box, maker unknown, c. 1750s,
probably made in Birmingham or the Black Country.
Bowes Museum Collection.

Birmingham, Bilston and Wednesbury are a selection of towns closely situated to each other in the English counties of Warwickshire and Staffordshire, but now part of the West Midlands. These towns contained a network of artisans working within the enamelling trade.

Set of painted enamel buttons.
Wolverhampton Museum Collection.

The first of these town's recorded as adopting enamelling was Bilston. A local physician who knew the areas well, Richard Wilkes, recorded in his diary in 1737 that:

Upon the Death of Queen Caroline, mourning Rings handsomely enamell’d wᵗʰ this Inscription on the outside Qu. Car. Ob. 20 Sep 1737 Æ. 54. were sold at 4/ a Dozen, & lookt very little inferior to those made of Gold, especially upon a Gentleman’s Finger. All sorts of Toys are made of this Metal at Bilston, as well as in London.*4*

Toys were not children's playthings in the eighteenth century, but adornments such as rings, button, buckles, equipage (chatelaines) and decorative boxes. 

Sources are sparse on early enamelling, but it is conceivable that the Midland enamellers refined the art of enamelling onto copper. A 1699 treatise on enamelling noted the difficulties of enamelling onto copper compared to gold and silver due to impurities in the metal affecting the enamel.*5* Throughout the eighteenth century copper was increasingly used to make enamelled boxes and other adornments with increasing refinement. In about 1753 Reinhold Angerstein visited Bilston and noted that the town 'consists mainly of factories for metal boxes' continuing that he 'viewed one or two of these works, where the people were occupied with the making of paste gems and enamelled work to be incorporated into boxes'.*6* These boxes were not only formed from sheet copper, but had to be hinged and the lid and base fitted closely to provide smooth opening and closing. Too tight and the box might open with a jerk spilling its contents, too loose and the contents might fall out in the pocket. The making of boxes, hinges and clasps were skilful crafts in themselves, even before they were enamelled and painted.

Bilston was probably the most prolific centre for producing copper-based enamel "toys" in the eighteenth-century. At the peak of the trade in the 1760s it had seven enamellers listed in the earliest local directory, more than any other town, including London.*7*

Gypsies in a Landscape by Moses Haugton the elder.
Birmingham Museums Collection.

The Wednesbury enamel trade is not thought to be as large as Bilston's. The most well known enameller in the town was Hyla Holden, described as an enameller and toy maker (toys, again, meaning adornments, like those depicted) in his 1766 will.*8* He employed three apprentices between 1748 and 1763, the first, John Leonard, being apprenticed as a 'boxmaker'; the second, John Hawkins, being a 'Box painter'; and the third, Billy Davis, was apprenticed as an 'enambler'.*9* An unreferenced source, written in 1849, notes that Holden employed Moses Haughton as an enamel painter, who was born in Wednesbury and later became a renowned painter especially of still life (image of Haughton's later work above). Apart from a few, the names of the box painters are lost as they did not sign their work. 

Another unreferenced account of Wednesbury enamelling comes from the Wednesbury-born historian Frederick William Hackwood. In 1889 he noted that a Wednesbury firm 'discovered the secret of a pigment which gave to certain of their best wares a delicate pink tint, and that they amassed a fortune by it', but that the secret was later stolen by other makers.*10* Although unreferenced, the account was probably based on local oral histories so probably bore some truth, but it is unclear exactly what boxes this references. The consumer desire for pink enamel is also seen in Aris's Birmingham Gazette in 1751 when Abraham Seeman, an 'enamelling painter' advertised 'enamelling colours, especially the rose colours' which he noted had been used by the 'Most of the eminent painters of Birmingham, Wednesbury and Bilston'.*11*

Enamel snuffbox or bonbonnière, probably made in Birmingham
or the Black Country, c. 1750s.
Private Collection.

One of the earliest Birmingham enamellers was John Taylor. Taylor was noted as working as a japanner in Birmingham in Wilkes's 1737 diary, but is thought to have also entered the enamelling trade in the 1740s. Birmingham was also important in the development of transfer printing onto enamel, discussed shortly. 

In the Birmingham Directory of 1767 four enamellers were listed (image above), three of them also working as japanners, and the other being a button maker. There was overlap between the enamelling and japanning trades in the skills required in painting the boxes. The enameller Thomas Humstone, for example, had been apprenticed to Thomas Arden in Birmingham as a 'painter' in 1759.*12* This suggests that the Birmingham likely bought in some boxes and other bases for enamelling and painting from Bilston nearby. The Directory described the enamelled goods made in Birmingham as 'Candlesticks, Snuff-Boxes, Ink-stands, Ink-Cases, Tweezers, Tooth-pick Cases, Quadrille Pooles, Smelling Bottles, Clock and Watch Faces, and all sorts of small Trinkets for Ladies Watches' so a variety of goods were produced in the town.*13* Watch faces are considered an underestimated production of Birmingham enamellers, as they were unmarked, or marked with the name of the watchmaker or watch retailer rather than the maker of the face.

Further Information

  • For information about transfer printing, see the post here.
  • See information about the making of enamel boxes from the box to the finishing, by Erica Speel, here.

© Jen Dixon (University of Birmingham) 2015. All text belongs to the author (mappingbirmingham@gmail.com).
Kent's Directory [...] (London: Henry Kent, 1766).
** A General Description of All the Trades (London: T. Waller, 1747), p. 84.
*3* Susan Benjamin, English Enamel Boxes From the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries (London: Orbis Publishing Limited, 1978).
*4* Diary of Richard Wilkes, reference on request.
*5* An account of enamelling from 1699, translated from an earlier edition written in French, described the enamelling onto gold, silver and copper, the processes of making different colours of enamel, and the making and applying of enamel paints.: Jean Haudicquer de Blancourt (translated form French), The Art of Glass (London: Dan. Brown 1699).
*6* Reinhold Rucker Angerstein, R. R. Angerstein's Travel Diary, 1753-1755, translated by Torsten and Peter Berg (Trowbridge: Cromwell Press, 2001), p. 42.
*7* Sketchley's Birmingham Wolverhampton and Walsall Directory (Birmingham: James Sketchley, 1767), Bilston section.
*8* Will of Hyla Holden enameller and toymaker of Wednesbury, written 11 August 1766 and proved 3 April 1767, National Archives, PROB 11/927/223. 
*9* Apprenticeships to Hyla Holden of Wednesbury: 21 May 1748, apprentice John Leonard son of ditto [John] as Boxmaker, National Archives, IR 1/18; 12 May 1752, John Hawkins as Box painter, National Archives, IR 1/51; 9 March 1763, Billy Davis as enambler, National Archives, IR 1/23.
*10* Frederick William Hackwood, Wednesbury Workshops (No publisher details: 1889).
*11* Aris's Birmingham Gazette, 16 September 1751, quoted in Benjamin, p. 66.
*12* Apprenticeship of Thomas Humpston [sic] to Thomas Arden of Birmingham, painter, 2 Aug 1759, National Archives, IR 1/53.
*13* Sketchley's Birmingham Wolverhampton and Walsall Directory (Birmingham: James Sketchley, 1767), pp. 24-25.
*14* Susan Benjamin, English Enamel Boxes From the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries (London: Orbis Publishing Limited, 1978), p. 90.
*15* Aris's Birmingham Gazette, 27 November 1752, quoted in Benjamin, p, 65.
*16* Susan Benjamin, English Enamel Boxes From the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries (London: Orbis Publishing Limited, 1978), p. 40-41.
*17* Diary of Lady Shelburne, 16 May 1766, full reference on request.
*18* Letter from Horace Walpole to friend Richard Bentley, 18 September 1755, and letter from Horace Walpole to George Montagu, 18 May 1749, in: The Letters of Horace Walpole, 4 vols (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1842), II, p. 275 and 28.
*19* Auction advertised for 8 June 1756, quoted in Benjamin, p. 44.
- The London enamelling trade was noted in 1681, but was certainly being practiced well before this time.[Thomas de Laune, The Present State of London (London: George Larkin, 1681), p. 161.] 
- George Michael Moser (1706-1783) painted fine enamels on gold: Edgcumbe, R. (2009, May 21). Moser, 'George Michael (1706–1783), chaser and enameller'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-19391.]
- William Turner, Transfer Printing on enamels, porcelain and pottery: its origin and development in the United Kingdom (London: Chapman and Hall, 1907).

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