Leather girdle; gilt and silvered-brass buckle and mounts; buckle with band of scrollwork in full relief; tongue in form of crowned double-tailed mermaid; mounts with sunk tracery in Oriental style, figures of mermaid repeated and masks; backs engraved with floral scrolls; inscribed. Openwork.
How big is it?
5 cm wide, 57 cm high, 2.1 cm deep, and it weighs 262g
Detailed Curatorial Notes
Text from Tait 1991a:-
Origin: Uncertain; previously catalogued as “silver-gilt. . . German (Nuremberg), late 17th century”, but made of gilt and silvered brass, probably German, second quarter of 19th century.
Provenance: Baron Anselm von Rothschild, Vienna, before 1866.
Commentary: This 'curiosity', with its pseudo-Gothic flamboyant tracery networks, was classified under 'Goldschmiede-arbeiten' in Schestag 1866, where it was described as having a silver buckle and the rest being silver-gilt. In both Read 1902 and Dalton 1927 it was catalogued as “silver-gilt”; but, upon request, the British Museum's Research Laboratory has recently (1988) carried out an analysis by X-ray fluorescence spectrometry and has confirmed that only brass has been used, either with mercury gilding or mercury silvering.
The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, possesses two very similar short 'belts', which were included in the section , on 'Renaissance Jewellery' of the ‘Catalogue of Jewellery: Ancient to Modern’ (Baltimore, 1979), nos 546 and 547, with illus., where they were described as “Gold and silver . . .”. Upon request, the Director of the Gallery's Department of Conservation and Technical Research has now carried out a detailed examination under the microscope and, in 1989, was able to confirm that the metal parts appear to be made of a “yellow copper-based alloy (probably brass) which has either been gilded or silvered”. Furthermore, neither belt bears the punch-mark of the goldsmith who made it, as was stated in the 1979 ‘Catalogue’ entries, where references were made to Marc Rosenberg, ‘Der Goldschmiede Merkzeichen’, vol. I (Frankfurt, 1890), p. 84, no. 490 for the mark WD, and p. 73, no. 453 for the mark CB.
The initials WD do appear on cat. no. 546 but they are in relief (just below the hinge). Far from being struck, these initials appear to have been produced by chiselling away the metal and so leaving the WD standing above the surrounding surface.
The initials CB on the other belt (cat. no. 547) appear to have been produced by striking the metal many times, perhaps with a chasing tool, thereby creating an overlapping series of indentations until the initials CB appeared in the metal; they are not the result of using a maker's punch. Consequently there is no longer any reason to accept the dating “about 1600” of these two 'belts', which was first proposed in the Walters Art Gallery ‘Catalogue’ of 1979, since the initials can no longer be related to the goldsmiths' marks recorded in Rosenberg.
The Walters Art Gallery's two 'belts', like the Waddesdon Bequest version, must now be assessed by comparing them with the other similar brass examples that have been recorded. In London alone there are at least five other examples, and consequently there has been scope for a series of detailed comparative studies, resulting in a clear need to question their authenticity and, indeed, to reappraise the evidence in Germany concerning this entire category of belt ornaments.
Of the additional five preserved in London, the earliest to be recorded was purchased in 1855 for the new South Kensington Museum (later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum). It is no more than a single strap-end (10.8 x 2.5 cm) but it is of identical construction and workshop origin, though differing in a few minor details of ornamentation (reg. no. 2304-55, Dept of Metalwork). It had belonged to Ralph Bernal, Esq., whose renowned collection was sold over many days commencing 5 March 1855; it was lot 3548 on the twenty-seventh day and fetched £5. 5s. (see H. G. Bohn, ‘A Guide . . . Illustrated Catalogue of the Bernal Collection’, London, 1857, p. 352). The three stepped levels are of the same design with the two lion masks on the vertical end, but a standing Cupid under swags of drapery replaces the mermaid on the lowest level, where the pierced openwork is fixed on top of an under-plate of silvered brass extending beneath the adjacent areas of cellular tracery. At the time of purchase the Museum stated that it was of sixteenth-century date, but in 1982 this attribution was revised to “German, early 18th century” - no doubt because the sides are chased in low relief with a pseudo-Régence type of scroll ornament. Indeed, this French type of ornament dating from the early eighteenth century seems at variance with the strange mélange of other decorative motifs that are employed on this strap-end. Although one of the Walters Art Gallery 'belts' (cat. no. 546) also has relief decoration on the sides, the style is pseudo-baroque - not the very distinctive pseudo-Régence style of the Bernal Collection strap-end. The latter was correctly described as “gilt-metal” in 1855 and is, in fact, made of both gilded and silvered brass in the same layered construction, but it bears neither initials nor dates.
The next oldest record of an extant example of this group occurs in 1878, when those parts of the Meyrick-Douce Collection which had not been sold by auction in London earlier in the 1870s were presented to the British Museum by Major-General Augustus Meyrick. The gift, totalling nearly 700 items, included one of these gilt-brass buckles attached to a fragment of the leather strap but missing both the remainder of the belt and the matching gilt-brass strap-end fixed to the other end. Furthermore, it was received in a damaged state in 1878 (reg. no. 1878,1101.129); it was there recorded that the decorative tongue of the buckle had been bent upwards, close to the hinge, so that it hid the decoration on the front vertical surface of the rectangular construction containing the cellular openwork, and that the cellular openwork had been lost from the small front compartment (on the upper surface). However, it was not noted in 1878 that the front of the heart-shaped buckle was inlaid with an openwork band of decoration executed in silvered brass and, although the back was said to be engraved, it was not recorded that the date had been incised within the upper part of the symmetrical ornament:
Nevertheless, the incised date has not been added at a different time from the rest of the engraving on this back plate; it gives every indication - under high magnification - of being an integral part of the engraved decoration. The style of the engraved ornament on this back plate is of a pseudo-baroque character, whilst the relief decoration on the obverse is another variation of that found on the Baltimore and Bernal Collection examples - similar in general effect, though differing in detail.
A more important dated example has remained in London virtually forgotten - if not actually out of sight - at the Wallace Collection. Bequeathed to the nation in 1897, the collection is vast and so it is understandable that such a small item is easily overlooked, especially when it is unexpectedly displayed and catalogued within one of the world's most distinguished collections of arms and armour (see Sir James Mann, ‘Catalogue of the Collection of European Arms and Armour’, Wallace Collection, London, 1962, p. 493, no. A. 1070; also A. V. B. Norman, ‘European Arms and Armour Supplement’, Wallace Collection, 1986, p. 206). It is described as a “buckle and chape of a belt, probably Hungarian or Polish, before 1709”. Furthermore it is recorded that, alongside the engraved foliate scrolls, the reverse of the buckle-plate (below the hinge) is incised with the date “1709”; it is also stated, incorrectly, that there are three incised letters (above the date) IBS, whereas they are unambiguously MBS. This example has hitherto been consistently described as gilt bronze, but a very recent examination has now established that it is made of the familiar combination of gilt brass and silvered brass, the latter being used for the lower layer of the cellular network and for the applied pierced band on the concave exterior of the buckle, which incorporates two reclining figures. The tongue comprises a crudely chased seated figure of Hope (with an anchor surmounted by a bird), whilst the lowest of the three stepped levels on both the buckle and the strap-end are almost entirely occupied by a full-length male figure in relief. In each case a bearded saint with halo is depicted; the one holding a knife (?) is thought to represent St Bartholomew, whilst the other, holding a long saw, is thought to be either St Joseph or St Simon Zelotes. The introduction of religious figures, albeit crudely executed, seems to have been exceptional; however, the pair of lion masks (on the vertical end) holding rings in their jaws are regularly to be found; likewise the engraved foliate scrolls on the sides and the reverse are similar in style to the Waddesdon Bequest example.
In 1901 the Victoria and Albert Museum bought a complete stitched leather belt of this type (L. 79.4 cm, reg. no. 1599-1901), with a buckle-mount at one end, a similar strap-end at the other, and, in between, two more similar mounts fitted on either side of a u-shaped metal loop to which they are hinged; three small brass medallions with stamped ornament (a fourth missing) were also applied to the belt. All four massive elements are dominantly composed of the layered cellular tracery within the three stepped levels. Although the Museum had purchased them as 'brass mounts', seven years later they were published as “silver-gilt” (see H. Clifford Smith, ‘Jewellery’, London, 1908, p. xxiii, pl. XXXVIII, 3, where the belt is described as a “Nuremberg girdle, seventeenth century”, and on p. 272 the wrong Museum reg. no. is quoted - it refers to the ex-Bernal Collection strap-end). The Museum had acquired this complete belt in 1901 as a 'master-piece' submitted by an apprentice seeking admission as a master-craftsman to a Girdlers' Guild, and this interpretation was published in 1908 by Clifford Smith without any supporting evidence.
In 1975 the Victoria and Albert Museum accepted as a gift from Dame Joan Evans a belt buckle with a similar massive cellular tracery mount (reg. no. M. 97-1975). It was published in 1982 as being made of gilt and silvered brass and being engraved with the initials I.K. and the date 1698; it was attributed to a Hungarian workshop (see Shirley Bury, ‘Jewellery Gallery Summary Catalogue’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1982, p. 75, Case 13, Board J, no. 9, illus. on p. 77). The buckle's applied silvered brass openwork incorporates the emblem of the Pelican in its Piety; the tongue is composed of two crudely fashioned nude addorsed figures with curling trumpets. Although slightly different motifs have been introduced to decorate the surfaces of the massive mount, nevertheless, it is essentially very alike, both in its construction in layers and in its style of engraved and chased ornament. There is no record of the previous owners of this piece but, although it has no leather belt fitted between the plates, none of the layers is missing nor shows any sign of damage or wear - even the base plate with the reverse engraved with a running foliate scroll is there intact.
The most interesting of the group, however, is not in London. It comprises a leather 'belt', the buckle-end of which bears the incised inscription (engraved below the hinge on the reverse):
The reverse of the strap-end is, like the reverse of the buckle-mount, engraved with a bird within a floral scroll, but at the upper end it also has the incised letters IHS, perhaps intended as the Sacred Monogram, although no other religious motif occurs on any part of this 'belt'. The remaining parts of these brass mounts are typical of this group with its conspicuous cellular tracery and the pair of curled-back wires terminating in a flower (or a tassel). Since this piece is the only one of the group known to bear a name, in place of initials, it is even more regrettable that no record of 'Adam Stache' has been traced since it was first published in 1887 in Victor Gay, ‘Glossaire Archaeologique du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance’, Vol. I (Paris, 1887), p. 293, no. 1667 with four line drawings. Subsequently it was stated to have entered the famous Figdor Collection in Vienna (see Sir James Mann, ‘Catalogue . . . of European Arms and Armour’, Wallace Collection, 1962, p. 493); unfortunately, this statement may be incorrect because the Figdor Collection example, acquired in 1934 by the Berlin Kunstgewerbe Museum (inv. no. F. 4297), has recently been examined by the author and it does not correspond with the 'Adam Stache' buckle and strap-end (illustrated in Gay's ‘Glossaire’). The present location of the 'Adam Stache' example is, therefore, still untraced, but if it has survived perhaps this publication of the illustration in Gay's ‘Glossaire’ will help to bring it to light.
The Figdor Collection buckle and strap-end (with a short modern leather belt and metal rosettes), now on permanent display in the Kunstgewerbe Museum, Berlin, bears, on the reverse, the engraved initials: G. G. V. R. Immediately beneath the initials a date was engraved but appears to have been deliberately (?) erased, although in 1934 it was read as “167 . . .”; today, only the first and second digits can be discerned with difficulty, but it is still labelled “1670-80” and described as an apprentice's 'meisterwerke'. In other respects this example is typical of the group, but it is by far the most worn, having lost most of its gilding and all of its silvering. The sides and backs are engraved with foliate scrolls, into which cornucopiae have been introduced, and the cellular tracery on the front surfaces is not accompanied by any of the more exotic motifs in relief that have been noted on other examples. Nevertheless, the curious feature of bending the wire backwards to form a free-standing U on either side is again repeated, although the terminals are very modest - as, indeed, are the two short chains and oval pendants attached to the vertical front plate of the strap-end.
Undoubtedly the next most important example in the group to trace and examine is the piece reputedly incised with the date 1406. It was feebly illustrated and briefly described in Christie's ‘Catalogue of 'The Vienna Museum', the property of Messrs Löwenstein, Brothers, of Frankfurt-on-the-Main’ (12 March 1860), lot 1143: “A beautiful old girdle clasp, of engraved and chased steel and metal gilt, with the date "1406" - in a case; see photograph, no. 47.” According to the introduction to the 1860 Christie's Sale Catalogue, the history of this collection known as 'The Vienna Museum' extended back to the sixteenth century, when it “was commenced by the Emperor Maximilian I, a well-known lover and patron of the Fine Arts, and was continued, and considerably increased, by his Grandson, the EMPEROR RUDOLPH II. It continued Imperial Property until the year 1782, when the building at Prague, in which the Museum was contained, being required for Barracks, it was sold to the CHEVALIER VON SCHÖNFELD, a distinguished amateur of the time, who, after having increased it by the addition of his own Collection, opened it to the public, under the title of "THE TECHNOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF VIENNA".” Whatever the true history of the nucleus of this collection may have been, a glance through the 1,291 lots being sold by the Löwenstein Brothers of Frankfurt in 1860 confirms that many items were of undisputed eighteenth-century origin and others would now be recognised as nineteenth-century versions of earlier types - rather like this '1406' girdle buckle and strap-end. Despite the extraordinary early date engraved on it and the inadequacies of the old illustration, there can be no doubt that this short 'girdle' with the massive buckle-mount and strap-end at either end belongs to this same family and shares the same common origin. Unfortunately, the present whereabouts of this curious '1406' example remains unknown. A recent photographic enlargement of the strap-end has revealed, firstly, that the date appears to be ' 1706'; secondly, it is incised below the initials T.I.L; and thirdly, that (unlike the incised dates and initials on the other examples) this set of initials and date are not incised on the reverse of the strap-end but on the upper face at the far end of the cellular openwork 'Gothic tracery'. The design of this cellular pattern has several unique features, although the standard bent wire u-shaped terminals on either side have been used on both elements; similarly, the openwork foliate design of the tongue of the buckle is exceptional and seems curiously insubstantial for such a massively heavy belt-fastener. Judging by the enlarged photographs, the style of the two parts seems almost as improbable in 1706 as in 1406 and, pending its rediscovery, little confidence in its antiquity can be expressed.
Shortly after the sale of the 'Vienna Museum', the famous ‘1862 Loan Exhibition’ at the South Kensington Museum included yet another example of this group, cat. no. 7,382: “Silver-gilt buckle and pendant with open geometrical ornament and deep sides ornamented with scrolls. 17th century”. This item is stated to have belonged to Lord Londesborough (for an account of this famous collector of the middle decades of the nineteenth century see Hugh Tait, ‘Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum, I: The Jewels’, London, 1986, pp. 18-20, and Hugh Tait, ‘Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum: Vol. II. The Silver Plate’, London, 1988, pp. 209-14). Unfortunately this piece was neither included in Fairholt's 1857 Catalogue of the Londesborough Collection entitled ‘Miscellanea Graphica’, nor illustrated at the time of the Loan Exhibition, but it was probably made of gilt-brass and silvered brass like all the extant examples of the group.
In conclusion, the recorded dates on these few examples are 1662, 167-, 1680, 1698, 1706 ('1406'), 1709 and 1732; yet the essential design remains unchanged and the crude execution, especially of the figures, is uniform. Similarly, the decorative elements that are cast are frequently repeated, and the stepped, layered construction and the pseudo-medieval cellular network are unfailingly present.
The peculiar choice of ornate motifs, which stylistically belong to different epochs, is eclectic and therefore more indicative of a nineteenth-century origin than of an earlier era. Perhaps the oddest single feature is the consistent use of a wire curling back on itself to form on either side an overlapping visual link between the middle level and the lowest of the three levels; although the wire is not given the same terminal motif on each piece, nevertheless this primitive and meaningless feature - unparalleled in Western Europe - is obtrusively present throughout.
Finally, the use of unfired pigments to introduce a polychrome effect is equally difficult to explain. Wherever a detailed examination of these extant pieces has been made, the presence of blue, green or red pigments has been recorded. In the Walters Art Gallery, for example, it is now confirmed that the layered structure of cat. no. 546 consists of a gilded brass plate (at the bottom), then the leather strap with a thin silvered plate on top of it, and then a thin red layer (most likely a painted paper or parchment) which shows through the double cellular tracery layers. Furthermore cat. no. 547 is similar, though not identical, and has a thin blue layer (most probably painted parchment) at the base of the triple cellular tracery levels. Similarly, when the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired the complete belt in 1901 it was described as having “the openwork laid over green parchment” and, as described above, the Waddesdon Bequest example is decorated with a blue pigment, azurite.
The long tradition of enamelling - fired vitreous colours - on metals was in a particularly flourishing state in Hungary, Transylvania and the rest of Eastern Europe throughout the period covered by the incised dates on these buckles, 1662-1732. The painted technique employed by the workshop that produced these massive pieces is crudely elementary, impermanent and no doubt very inexpensive. It is difficult to find any parallels in Europe.
Nevertheless, the tradition persists that they are the 'master-pieces' submitted by apprentices seeking admission as master-craftsmen to the Nuremberg Girdlers' Guild (see A. Jegel, ‘Alt-Nürnberg Handwerksrecht und seine Beziehungen zu anderen’, Nuremberg, 1965, p. 486, where the wording of the early eighteenth-century Rules of the Guild is given: “Welcher nun uf dem Gürtlerhandwerk alhier Meister werden will, der soil zum Meisterstuck machen erstlich ein Paar Gürtelgeschmeidt von Messing mit zweien Pöden oder von Laubwerk, ...”). More recently, one of these buckles and strap-ends was selected from the examples belonging to the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg (inv. no. T 5225) and included in a special exhibition catalogue, ‘Der Verschluss, eine künstlerische Aufgabe des Goldschmieds’, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, 1982, p. 21, no. 57, illus. on p. 25, where it is described as “Süddeutschland (Nürnberg?), um 1600 (?)”. However, apart from having a tongue in the form of a pierced openwork double-eagle, this gilt-brass example seemed to differ in only minor details from the majority of this group.
The overwhelming evidence of the extant examples so far examined, therefore, tends to support the view that all of them were made in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and, being well-marketed, attracted the notice of early nineteenth-century collectors like Ralph Bernal and Baron Anselm von Rothschild.
- Franz Schestag, ‘katalog der Kuntsammlung des Freiherrn Anselm von Rothschild in Wein’ Vienna, 1866, no. 290
- Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 226
- H. Clifford Smith, ‘Jewellery’, London, 1908, p. 272
- O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 226
- Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. II. The Curiosities', British Museum, London, 1991, no.51, figs. 412-414.
- Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
- Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
- Tait 1991a: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; III The 'Curiosities', London, BMP, 1991
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