Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Cockfight Corkscrew

Bert Giulian sends this posting
The Reemergence of an Important, Early Piece

The Corkscrew: A large, heavy silver corkscrew measuring 15 cm (5.9 inches) in length and weighing 3.75 ounces (116 grams). The corkscrew has a sheath and a large, flat ring handle with two fighting cocks extending from the top. The ring is 6.5 cm (2.5 inches) in outer diameter and is inscribed in an early English script:

On one side: Maintained by Thomas Bostock. Handed by TD

On the other side: At Shrovetide Last a Game there Last
by Bonny Red and Lanthorn bred
Bonny Red in Time of day did stovt dunn slay Lanthorn att night blue ovtt Light

On one edge of the thick ring is engraved the name RED and on the other edge LANTHORN.

The substantial sheath has a well-constructed, subtle seam. The ornamental rings at the top of the sheath were designed as a separate piece and incorporate the interior threading, a technique common on early corkscrews.

The wire helix has two turns, and this short size is also characteristic of the earliest known corkscrews. At that time, corks were small, often extending from the top of the bottle, and did not require stronger worms.

Provenance: The Cockfight Corkscrew was sold at Christies, July, 1982, for ₤2700, at that time a record price for a corkscrew. The estimated date for the corkscrew was stated as 1680. It was owned by the late, respected, English dealer of silver and corkscrews, Brian Beet.

On July 11-28, 1983, the Goldsmiths Company conducted an exhibition entitled The Goldsmith & The Grape, Silver in the service of wine. On that occasion, Bernard Watney wrote an article entitled Silver Corkscrews, seventeenth century to twentieth century. The article included a picture of this corkscrew with the description:

Large English corkscrew with sheathed worm, the inscribed and mounted handle commemorating a cockfight, c. 1680.

The corkscrew was also pictured in the book The Drinker’s Companion, 1987, by Nicholas Rootes, again reporting the sale at Christies and the date as “around 1680”.

The Subject: In addition to being a corkscrew, the piece is a cockfight gaming trophy. Cockfighting was widespread during this period until banned in England and Wales with the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1835.

Matches were particularly popular around “Shrovetide,” the three days before Lent. Major tournament competitions frequently offered cash prizes, and some towns awarded gold cups or other suitable trophies. Prize money could be well in excess of all but the most prestigious horse races, and additional substantial amounts were placed as bets.

The birds were of particular breeds. For example, Bonny Red might have been a Black Red, Shropshire Red, Knowsley Red from Lancashire, or another breed. Victorious fighting cocks were celebrated and, similar to prized race horses, had pedigrees and attained substantial value.

Bonny Red was “maintained” or owned by Thomas Bostock. The cock was “handed” by “TD”, also known as a “cocker” or “feeder”. He was responsible for the feeding, training, and delivery of the birds in peak condition for the fight. A top-level feeder was a man of substance, well respected, well traveled and would be at least as well known as the owner. The initials “TD” are impressive on the ring, imbued with gravitas.

The last few words of the inscription are difficult to interpret. Cockfights were often of short duration, but some could occasionally last for hours. The reference to “night blue” suggests a lengthy and heroic struggle between Red and Lanthorn, and the trophy attests to the adulation of these birds by their enthusiasts.

Discussion: The construction and characteristics of the Cockfight Corkscrew indicate a very early piece. The date was further established at Christies with study of the content, word usage, and lettering style of the inscription. Some of the words are now obsolete. This corkscrew would be one of the oldest and arguably the oldest on record.

The most familiar corkscrews of the early eighteenth century are small pieces for the pocket, often with sheaths and finger rings. Silver corkscrews were common, along with steel examples, and occasionally brass or gold. While the Cockfight Corkscrew has a sheath, it is hardly portable, being two to three times as large as other known early corkscrews. Watney stated in his article:

There is good early evidence that institutions, ranging from churches to gaming clubs, possessed imposing silver corkscrews, as part of their necessary equipment whether for communion or carousing…

Perhaps, these large, heavy duty pieces, required for frequent use rather than strength of pull, in some cases at any rate, predate the growth in fashion for individual, light-weight bottle-screws carried in the waistcoat of the dilettante.

I am not aware of any other corkscrews of this impressive size dating from such an early period of our corkscrew history. Watney’s concept that these larger pieces coexisted with the smaller corkscrews and that they might even antedate the sheathed, finger ring variety is intriguing, but no other large corkscrews have surfaced.

At this time, the Cockfight Corkscrew remains a unique piece, and it is a crossover with silver collectors and with those interested in the immensely popular subject of cockfighting. For some time, the piece has been well known as part of our very earliest corkscrew heritage. The corkscrew has considerable charm and has been famous among collectors of eighteenth century pieces for almost thirty years. It has achieved the status of an icon.

Related Corkscrews: There are few figural corkscrews from the eighteenth century.
Shown here are two other early sheathed corkscrews with handles in the shape of cocks, again testimonies to the interest in cockfighting during this period. These corkscrews are of the more typical length of about 7.5 cm (3 inches), about half the size of the Cockfight Corkscrew.

The oldest is a copper-bronze alloy and would date from the first quarter of the eighteenth century. It is unmarked. The other is brass and is slightly heavier, probably from the second quarter of the century. It is clearly marked on the knop-turned shank with the unidentified cutler’s initials “EW”, possibly Elias Wallins or Wallin of Birmingham. Both sheaths have vertical seams.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Corkscrew Restoration

Some people choose to only collect corkscrews which have remained in perfect condition, but for the rest of us the opportunity to acquire rare and wonderful objects that are a bit damaged or worn, sometimes for a fraction of the cost of a perfect example, is too good to pass up. For some years now Roberta Gordon, based in New York City, has been restoring corkscrews to a very high standard. Working with ivory, bone, horn, tortoiseshell, celluloid and other plastic material her restoration is almost invisible to the naked eye. If you collect other objects as well as corkscrews, Roberta also restores ceramics and enamel. Most jobs usually don't take more than a month, so if you send her an email with a picture she will send you an estimate.