In the nineteenth century the French manufacturers, such as Fiolet and Gambier, were masters at creating ornate figural pipes. Often these pipes had coloured enamels applied to the white pipe clay – a characteristic that is especially common on French clay pipes, but never found on the English ones. Over time, and as a result of continually being smoked, the pipe clay itself discoloured, but the coloured enamels stayed as bright and as vibrant as when they were applied so that they stood out in strong contrast with the background. Some of these French pipes were very intricate, with lots of undercutting in the designs that required the use of a more elaborate multi-part mould rather than the usual mould with two halves that was used in England.
A number of these French pipes were of morbid or deathly subjects that included skulls and skeletons. As with many of the French designs, these were copied by the English manufacturers and remained popular into the early years of the twentieth century.
This Halloween’s issue of In the Spotlight highlights just two of the many French figural pipes that the Archive has in its collection. The first was produced by Gambier and depicts a skull. Not only has this pipe been enamelled but the eyes have been inset with spooky looking artificial gem stones. This particular pipe has been quite heavily smoked so the white enamel detail can clearly be seen.
The second is the full figure of a skeleton and was produce by Dumeril of St Omer. This is also enamelled, although it has not been as heavily smoked as the Gambier skull. Not only do we have a full skeleton but behind his head is the figure of a bat! He’s also smoking a pipe – I wonder if it is a skull pipe?
This September the Society for Clay Pipe Research and the Académie Internationale de la Pipe both held their annual conferences in England – the first time the two organisations had been together since 2008, when they met in Liverpool during the city’s Capital of Culture year. The two conferences were run back-to-back and the National Pipe Archive was offered a stall during the SCPR part of the proceedings. This gave us the opportunity to highlight the work we have been doing on the digitisation of some of our collections. We are most grateful for the kind donations that were received as a result of this display. We plan to put the funds towards some much needed storage boxes.
The Pipe Archive is fortunate in having examples of some very early clay pipes amongst their collections and these provided the focal point for a small group of pipe researchers who recently visited from the Netherlands. Of the many early pipes from the very beginning of the 17th century that were available to study, two took their eye – both from London and both part of the Elkin Collection (LIVNP 2012.04).
The first, and probably one of the earliest marked pipes in our collection, is an example with a heart-shaped heel bearing the initials RC. It is likely that this pipe was made by Robert Cotton, one of the first pipemakers documented in Britain, who sailed to Jamestown, Virginia, in April 1608. Once he arrived in America, Cotton set up a workshop that produced a distinctive series of pipes, examples of which have been found during the recent excavations there.
The second pipe is perhaps Dutch rather than English and is decorated all around the stem with a series of small stamps and decorative bands of milling. There is also a small symbol stamp on the base of the heel and this must have been an impressive piece when complete.
It is very difficult to differentiate between pipes produced in England and the Netherlands during the late 16th and very early 17th centuries. This is partly due to the fact that a number of early English pipemakers fled to the Netherlands as a result of religious persecution, where they set up new pipe making workshops. It is hoped that the on-going research into these early pipes will help to shed a little more light on what was happening during these early days of pipe production.