Seeing the Light
by Muriel Marshall-Jones
Collect It! Magazine
Issue 54, December 2001
Hand-painted large size Burmese shade and base, decorated with Clematis berries and leaves realized £1,210 at the recent BBR sale. © BBR
Some subjects go largely unnoticed and are pursued by just an enlightened few. This is certainly true of nightlights and fairy lamps, says Muriel Marshall-Jones, who introduces us to these attractive collectibles.
Fairy lamps and nightlights are very similar. Perhaps it's more correct to call the less ornate ones 'nightlights as these were used for utilitarian illumination, both indoors and out, prior to widespread availability of electricity'. The larger, more ornate examples tend to look more like a lamp. But for simplicity, we'll refer to them all as fairy lamps - the "pretty" name certainly reflects their attractive appearance.
Although most of us are aware of fairy lamps, they are not widely collected. However, they are chased by a relatively small band of very committed collectors a fact highlighted recently when the fantastic collection of Janet and Roger Wilson was sold at BBR Auctions. Thc rarer examples were hotly contested between several enthusiastic collectors and dealers who specialize in this area.
From Left to right and showing prices at the recent BBR sale: Hearn Wright & Co. London makers, Queen Victoria figural (£220) Clarke's Burmese shade and base (£1,210) Brocks Illuminated Lamp made in Belgium (£110). Doulton Cricklite base with Clarke's shade (£583). Free-blown Prince of Wales Plume (£275). © BBR
Not unlike the Sue Davidson eye-bath collection (sold at BBR last year), the fairy lamps were largely uncharted territory' for the auction house. The Wilsons' collection included 82 lamps: such number and variety' had not come up for sale in over 20 years at BBR, so estimating prices was a difficult task. However, the collection included many rare examples, so it was clear that some would attract keen bidding. For the most part, BBR's Alan Blakeman was guided in his estimates by the Wilsons and what they had originally paid. In the event, some examples sold way above expectations.
From left to right: A free-blown rich ruby, wire net pattern, circa 1858 (£275). A harlequin style, rich bright ruby, reg. no, 291933, circa 1894 (£132). Brocks Illuminated Lamp made in Belgium, large size, red, wire net pattern (£110). Free-blown ruby, lozenge pattern (£242). © BBR
It was obvious that the Burmese lamps would do well: these ornately decorated items are considered the "cream" among collectors. It was no surprise then that the star of the sale turned out to be a hand-painted Burmese shade and base, which sold for £1,210 against its estimate of £800-£1,000. Made by Clarke's, this large piece sported hand-painted clematis, leaves and berries; the base was ribbed and the shade was ruffled. Yet it wasn't only the ornate Burmese fetching high prices: among the surprise successes was a Clarke's large satin shade minus its base. The plain shaped piece, with vertical bands of pink, blue and yellow, had been more or less overlooked during the sale's preparations and was expected to fetch just £10-£20. How wrong that was: it went on to raise £682!
A rare "house" on a Clarke's green satin finished "hill" base which realized £528 at BBR sale. © BBR
Clarke's is the focus for UK collector Graham and his partner Helen: all but two of their items were made by the British manufacturer. "We have over 250 examples, ranging from small single-pressed glass ones to large epergnes and candelabras," says Graham. Clarke's and Thomas Webb are probably the two best known and sought after names in the world of fairy lamps, he explains. The lamps were first produced in the mid 19th century and they continue to be made to this day; although obviously not in such large quantities or with such an array of designs. Clarke's was taken over by Price's Patent Candles, of London, in 1910 but the company has retained the Clarke's name
Through the years, many examples were sent to America and other countries, and this has resulted in a band of enthusiastic collectors overseas; indeed, the only collectors club for Victorian and contemporary lamps is based in America. It can be accessed on the Internet at www.fairlampclub.com - an impressive website on the subject.
Jim Sapp recalls the club's beginnings: "It was founded in November 1996 by myself and the authors of "Fairy Lamps - Elegance m Candle Lighting", Bob and Pat Ruf. I proposed a partnership to form a club to enable the sharing of information related to fairy lamps. We agreed that we needed to promote this unusual and rare collectable. From an initial membership of 20 knowledgeable collectors, it has grown to over 150 members throughout the US, the UK, Australia and Canada."
A rare ruby double-sided Owl's head which realized £385 at the recent BBR sale. © BBR
Having a collectors club in existence has great benefits. Jim explains: "My wife Pat and I started to collect in 1971. There were many lean years in building up the collection; but with the network of fellow collectors and the rapid growth of the Internet, the last five years have seen a dramatic increase in our collection." Today the Sapp's have around 150 examples. Jim and Pat's collection was inspired by her grandmother, who had 40-50 vintage lamps that she'd collected during the 1940s and '50s. This helped the couple when it came to assessing a lamp: they could distinguish old from new.
So what is the real attraction to the hobby as far as Jim is concerned? Every lamp in my collection is special to me. It may be the type of glass, unique design or even an unusual maker. But I must say it is the seemingly infinite variety of art glass that "lights my candle"! There is perhaps nothing more beautiful than Thomas Webb's. Burmese, especially decorated in his unique style. But in addition, I think l enjoy sharing my hobby with others the most."This is important to Graham and Helen too and they have been working Jim on compiling information on fairy lamps. One on-going study on Thomas Webb's Burmese being conducted by US Antique Trader and the club can be viewed at http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/
Oaks/3333/Fairylamp/WebbDecorationsFinal.html. Thc design painted onto his examples are truly stunning, considering the lamps were primarily just everyday utilitarian objects. The colors of the glass too are very attractive and to see a collection lit must be quite something - so much so that it's quite tempting to wish we didn't have electricity,© Collect It! Magazine, UK
To join the Fairy Lamp Club you can pay securely online via PayPal on the club's site at vvww. fairylampclub.com. Alternatively, write to Jim Sapp, 6422 Haystack Road, Alexandria, VA 22310 - 3308, USA. Checks should be made payable to James L. Sapp. Membership is $20 per year for non-US residents and includes four newsletters per year. Jim can also be contacted at email@example.com
- 'Fairy Lamps with Values' by Bob and Pat Ruf is highly recommended by collectors as the 'bible'. It is a hard backed book containing 800 color images of lights. Published by Schiffer, ISBN 0 88740 975 X. It is available from various sources including Amazon.co.uk (£49.95 plus postage) and at http://glassbooks.com/3057.htm at a cost of $53.95 (approximately £38.50) plus shipping. The book is a good reference tool, however the prices quoted are now a little out of date.
- Quite often bottle digs throw up nightlights and, as they are of little interest to bottle collectors, the novice fairy lamp collector can find bargains at bottle fairs.
- Never attempt to light an old fairy lamp as the age of the glass means it is highly likely to crack. There is a handy description on the Fairy Lamp Club website on how to light your lamps without the use of a candle or any heat.
- Some fairy lamps have ceramic bases, not glass, from names such as Doulton Lambeth and Thomas Goode.
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