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Fig. 1: Pair of brass and iron andirons, probably New York, 1790–1810. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

A connoisseur is “one aesthetically versed in any subject, esp., one who understands the details, technique, or principles of a fine art; one competent to act as a critical judge of an art, or in matters of taste,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.1

Connoisseurs of American antiques have long been interested in placing any given object in time as precisely as possible. Often this is for intellectual or academic purposes, but it can also be for pragmatic reasons, such as determining an object’s value. Correctly identifying an object as a product of its era, for instance, determining whether a brass object ornamented with an urn was made in 1790 or 1890, can have tremendous monetary significance. Hence, learning the skills to make such judgements is paramount when acquiring objects.

Several writers in the past outlined their hierarchy of observable factors for use in connoisseurship, for the most part directing their comments to the fine arts.2 Winterthur Museum Curator and Director Charles F. Montgomery built on the legacy of his predecessors when he used antiques and the decorative arts as the focus of his structural essay, “Some Remarks on the Science and Principles of Connoisseurship,” published in 1962.3

In his essay, Montgomery outlined a series of observable factors that a connoisseur should consider individually and then use collectively when making decisions about early American decorative arts. These include, for example, determining the material(s) from which an object is made, how it is fabricated, what purpose it serves, the identity of the artisan who made it, and the type of person for whom it is made. He also recommended that other factors such as color, style, form, ornament, and condition can provide helpful insight into an object.

Techniques of Connoisseurship: The following study in connoisseurship presents factors one should consider when assessing an object, in this case as applied to brass. Remember, when applying the principles of connoisseurship, two underlying factors are paramount to keep in mind: relative age and relative merit.

Analysis of Age Two pair of brass and iron andirons will serve as representative examples of relative age (Figs. 1, 2). Both are similar in overall character, and neither is marked by its maker. Their style suggests that both were made between 1790 and 1810 in the northeast United States. Yet upon close examination several factors indicate this is true only for one pair. The most tangible factors in this analysis are weight, construction, and wear.

Fig. 2: Bow-back Windsor side chair, Rhode Island, 1790–1795. White pine (seat) with maple and ash. H. 37, W. 16 (seat), D. 165/8 (seat) in. Private collection; photography courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

Weight: Brass, like all metals, has traditionally been sold by weight; the heavier an object, the more expensive. Competitive brass workers, therefore, tried to make their objects as thin-walled as possible, while at the same time ensuring they were sufficiently substantial. Although there is no exact weight for an andiron of this type, there is a typical weight range, which a connoisseur learns by handling numerous examples. One pair of these andirons (Fig. 1) is within that range, while the other (Fig. 2) is substantially heavier. As brass became less expensive through the nineteenth century because of growing supply and more efficient manufacturing techniques, cast objects like the various components of these andirons tended to be made with more generous amounts of metal. With this knowledge, it might be concluded on the basis of weight alone that the lighter pair (Fig. 1) dates from about 1800, while the heavier pair (Fig. 2) dates closer to 1900.

Construction: During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the components of cast brass objects that had a substantial cross section (in this instance, the columns but not the legs) were separately cast in halves in order to make them hollow, thus reducing the weight. The halves were then brazed together. So,each hollow part of an eighteenth- or early-nineteenth-century brass andiron upright has two vertical seams, one on each side, usually rendered almost invisible by finishing; condensing one’s breath on the surface often reveals the seam. By about the mid-nineteenth century, brass founders developed techniques for casting hollow components in one piece, obviating the need for seaming. The urns, columns, and plinths of the andirons in Figure 1 are all seamed, while their counterparts in Figure 2 are not. On the basis of this construction feature, a connoisseur would conclude that the pair with seams dates to the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, and the pair without seams dates after 1850.

Wear: The affect of wear on an object that has been used as intended can be a significant indicator of age. The iron billet bars, when subjected to the heat from wood fires for several generations, will have corroded edges, with the flat areas severely pocked from rust. The bottoms of brass andiron feet become heavily scratched from rubbing on stone or brick hearths, while their edges, sharp when new, become rounded. This is also true, although to a less visible degree, for the corners and edges of the plinths and capitals of the columns. Their flat areas, as well as the undecorated surfaces of the columns and urns, having brilliantly reflective surfaces when new, acquire a patina of millions of tiny scratches from handling and polishing, subtly changing their character. Both pair of these andirons demonstrate wear through use; however, the pair in Figure 1 has accumulated a demonstrably greater amount of wear.

Fig. 3: Pair of brass candlesticks, England, 1780–1800. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

Results: The connoisseur, having observed the individual features of weight, construction, and wear within a comparative context and noted that they align with each other relative to the two pair, could safely conclude that although the andirons look similar to one another, one pair is significantly older.

Analysis of Merit Relative merit, or quality, is also important to the connoisseur. This is often a highly subjective matter from one individual to another. In addition, perceptions can and do vary from time to time depending on general sentiment. Normally, however, connoisseurs base relative merit on design, workmanship, and quality of materials.

Two pair of candlesticks (Figs. 3, 4) will serve to illustrate the assessment of quality. Neither is marked, but their salient features indicate they were made in England during the second half of the eighteenth century. Both pairs were designed in the popular fashion of the time, which drew on the ancient Roman architectural column for inspiration in their shape, detail, and proportion, yet they are different from each other. Their differing interpretations help to explain the appearance of the two pairs and, in particular, our response to them as aesthetic creations.

Design: Both pair of candlesticks might be described in general terms as being in the form of fluted columns on square bases. From that description alone, they might be considered as equal in quality. Yet in looking at the photographs, apparent differences in interpretation are manifest. Probably the most obvious of these is the treatment of the individual capitals. On the pair in Figure 3 they are in the form of plain flaring cylinders with simple convex molding. The pair in Figure 4 has capitals with imbricated acanthus leaves, scrolled volutes, and more complex molding. A second difference between the two pairs can be seen in the fluting of the columns. The pair in Figure 3 is fluted along the shafts, while the pair in Figure 4 employs counter fluting near its bases.

If one measures the success of an artistic creation on how fully developed it is when measured against its source of inspiration, in this instance Roman columns, the pair in Figure 4 is more satisfying. Similarly, the pair in Figure 3 uses one band of ornamental gadrooning on its bases, and the pair in Figure 4 uses two. While one border of gadrooning is perfectly satisfying, the addition of a second border enriches the appearance of the base considerably. For that reason as well, a connoisseur would find the pair in Figure 4 more appealing.

Combination of Elements: In response to these observations, one might conclude that more is better. If a conical capital, fluted columns, and a single band of gadrooning is good, then a fully developed Corinthian capital, counter fluting, and two bands of gadrooning automatically make a candlestick more appealing. That would be simplistic and not necessarily true, for it depends on how appropriate the motifs are for the form, how well interpreted they are, and how successfully they are integrated into the whole. In this instance, the varying ornamental motifs are knowledgeably interpreted, competently executed, and pleasingly integrated into the candlesticks pictured in Figure 4.

Fig. 4: Pair of paktong candlesticks, England, 1780–1800. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

Proportion: A less easily discerned, though nonetheless important factor in judging quality of artistic creations such as these candlesticks is proportion. This is most discernible in the height of the capitals relative to the height of the columns on which they rest. It can also be seen, for instance, in the height and profile of the molding under the gadrooned borders of the bases. The size and relationship of these varying parts to each other and to the whole contribute significantly to an observer’s response. In this instance, the pair in Figure 4 strikes the eye and mind more forcefully as visually pleasing and memorable creations, subtly but importantly due in part to proportion.

Material: Often the material from which an object is made can be important to the connoisseur in judging quality. The pair of candlesticks in Figure 3 is made of brass, an alloy yellow in color made of copper and zinc that was popular and widely used in eighteenth-century England. The pair in Figure 4 is made of paktong, an alloy white in color made of brass and nickel. This compound by contrast was difficult to make in the eighteenth century; early objects made of it are rarely encountered today, adding to the interest a connoisseur would have in the pair pictured in Figure 4.

Results: In this second scenario, the connoisseur, having observed the individual features of design, workmanship, and materials within a comparative context, could safely conclude that the candlesticks in Figure 4 are more aesthetically pleasing than those in Figure 3 (remembering that such a comparison is one of personal taste, but with generally consenting results).

Connoisseurship is a fascinating and enjoyable discipline. And like any discipline properly practiced, it takes work, attention to detail, and a willingness to constantly refine and adjust one’s opinions as more is learned. This short essay has been formulated to demonstrate the interpretive potential in early brass and, by extension, other types of antiques for increasing our understanding and appreciation of our rich cultural heritage.

Donald L. Fennimore is Curator and in Charge of Metals at Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, Wilmington, Delaware. He is the author of numerous publications, among them Silver and Pewter (1994), Metalwork in Early America (1996), and Flights of Fancy: American Bird-Decorated Silver Spoons (2000).

  1. This definition implies three things: first, that the person who makes critical statements in a judgmental way is qualified to do so either because of innate talent or through study and experience; second, that connoisseurship is a response to matters in which there has been an element of human creativity; and third, that any comment or observation made by a connoisseur is within a hierarchical comparative context driven by the concept of quality.
  2. One of the first authors to address connoisseurship was Jonathan Richardson, who wrote “An Argument on Behalf of the Science of a Connoisseur,” first published in 1719. William Hogarth also turned hisfertile mind to that end when he wrote and published The Analysis of Beauty in 1753. Both are helpful guides to understanding connoisseurship and are mandatory reading for anyone interested in the subject. A further informative essay with a slightly different focus, penned by Ralph Nicholson Wornum in 1851, is entitled “The [Crystal Palace] Exhibition as a Lesson in Taste.”
  3. Reprinted from the 1961 Walpole Society Notebook, privately published. Montgomery’s tenure at Winterthur extended from 1949–1971.

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