EVIDENTLY WORTH A BIT MORE THAN A BRASS FARTHING
Brass somehow seems to lack the antiquarian heft of other metals and alloys (hence the rather dismissive title with regard to its perceived worth), not having quite the same plangency as sterling silver or pewter. However, its history can be traced way back to classical times and properly made brass was used for coinage, weaponry and decorative artefacts across the Roman empire by the start of the first millennium. I say ‘properly made’ to distinguish the efforts of the republic’s smelters from those of their predecessors, as the term brass had long been used to erroneously describe a wide range of alloyed metals, prior to becoming more specifically – and correctly – used for the copper-zinc material.
Britain retained its share of brass-producing metalworkers – replicating the Roman methodology – throughout the dark ages and into early medieval times (witness the legacies of their work in still extant churches across the land – and who hasn’t studiously frotted a 900-year-old commemorative plaque with a crayon and sheet of greaseproof paper during their feckless youth?) The curious alchemy, however, became less diligently curated over time, and brass production became an almost exclusively continental preserve for anything over and above the scale of a cottage industry, which is all that persisted in our own green and pleasant lands.
This continuous production abroad led, inevitably, to ongoing improvements in the techniques and efficiencies, and increasing quantities of foreign brass were imported into Britain (up to the latter part of the 17th century) to the increasing chagrin of the government as the material became more sought after to furnish the requirements of the nascent industrial revolution. As was so often the case, action was taken to minimise the exchequer’s expenditure on imports and to encourage the growth of a home-made solution; tarrifs on imported zinc, copper and brass were increased, domestic production was subsidised and – even in the face of continental suppliers slashing their prices to preserve their share of the market – brass production in the UK began to gather momentum.
By way of a curious coincidence – but one which is rather convenient for my purpose – a marvellous 1721 document entitled ‘The State of Copper & Brass Manufactures in Great Britain, offered to the Consideration of Parliament’ by a sadly un-named mandarin in Townshend & Walpole’s administration then makes an apposite observation. The sage tome states that the duty on candles, which stood at one penny, should be eliminated with immediate effect as the loss in revenue would be far outstripped by the returns from nurturing a robust brass-making industry – the candles being ‘consumed by the miners in raising copper ore, lapis calaminaris and pit coal used in the refining (of) copper and converting it into brass’. And so, the (brass) die was cast, and British production flourished.
Clearly, this tacit connection between brass and candles cannot be allowed to go unacknowledged, and what better to formalise the bond than, well, a brass candlestick (or a pair thereof – for double the impact). Our brace of brass bougie-batons date to around 1730, when the intervention from Westminster had achieved its original aim, and the material was being made in sufficient quantities to provide for a wide range of domestic products as well as being a vital resource for the nation’s industrial expansion and advancement.
Candlesticks are, it becomes immediately apparent, a rather splendid niche in the antiques firmament – having their own extensive lexicon of relevant terminology, and I am delighted to report that our examples have a fine example of a ‘side-ejecting’ stump-removal artifice; the procedure being affected simply by raising the small handles up the length of their accommodating slots. An optional but by no means optimal design seems to be that of the ‘push-rod extractor’, employed to exactly the same ultimate purpose but by pushing a rod – sheathed in the candle’s hollow stem – from underneath (though to be fair, and rather typically, I prefer our example, which provides a more elegant solution – and does not require your candlestick to be turned upside down, thus precipitating your redundant stump onto the floor once ejected).