Love and Hope at the Heart of Christmas

Albrecht Dürer – The Holy Family with Three Hares, woodcut on laid paper, circa 1496

The early large scale woodcut print you see here is an image by the Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Produced around 1496, it comes from a series of prints he made illustrating scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. This image is titled The Holy Family with Three Hares and demonstrates the artist’s extraordinary delicacy of line. It illustrates the qualities of love and hope at the heart of the Christmas story.

Influenced by the artistic life of his native Nuremberg this gifted and versatile artist uses the play of lines on Mary’s dress to give form and mass to her figure. The story of the nativity is told in an enclosed garden symbolising Mary’s innocence and obedience to God’s will. Beyond the garden wall a landscape stretches into the distance. In the garden hares play at Mary’s feet – symbols of Christian love, fertility and protection. The angels hold a crown above the Virgin’s head reminding the viewer of Mary’s role as queen of heaven. She holds a lively looking baby Jesus on her lap. As Joseph watches over his family Mary stares into the distance. The infant Christ, the Word of God, reads the Bible which foretells his life and what will come to pass. The beautifully conceived scene is framed against a landscape with its detailed perspective.

It was Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings which established his reputation and influence.

To produce a woodblock print the artist’s design is pasted to the block so that the engraver can cut the image into the wood. The printer would then print the image.

As you read this I and millions of Christians across the country will be preparing to celebrate that very first Christmas when God came among us as a baby in a manger. Mary’s response to God’s calling and love is acceptance, obedience and service. Her example continues to inspire us.

There has been much to challenge us this year as Covid and its impact has continued to evolve. Whilst there have been points of personal tragedy and heartbreak the response of so many has been generous and hope filled. Our common story remains one of both of joy and sorrow.

People over the ages have often talked of value in terms of the material; by this standard, Mary and Joseph had little and yet they knew that they had been richly blessed. They shared the gift of their child with the world. This gift was so precious, so valuable that even the angels rejoiced and praised God. What was being celebrated was love.

Most of us have been expectantly preparing for Christmas as we hope to be able to welcome or journey to our loved ones. Our processions towards Christmas day will be a little more uncertain and different again this year.

I hope that like Mary and Joseph we will be inspired to share what we have with the world through acts of generosity and kindness, especially in these times. The message of Christmas is that hope comes out of our love and care for others. It is a joyful and hope filled message.

It remains for me to wish you and those you love a very happy and blessed Christmas. Keep safe.

The Joy of Christmas Trees and Cards

Rupert Toovey’s Alessi Nativity Christmas baubles

Christmas seems to be arriving at great speed this year. I haven’t even finished my Christmas cards yet let alone begun the wrapping up. But at least our Christmas tree is up!

You probably have a beautifully themed tree with a colour scheme, matching baubles and accessories but mine, I have to own, is rather more of a tinsel rush with lots of sparkly lights. Each bauble encapsulates a precious memory like Betty Southall’s marvellous gold, spray painted and glitter encrusted pine cone. It has matching wire sprays capped with imitation pearls which makes it look like a firework. Bless her, Betty was an avid auction goer years ago and would often be seen racing into the saleroom car park in her sky blue Morris Traveller trying not to be late for a lot or a party.

My favourite baubles though are a set of Alessi ones modelled as the Nativity. They are particularly precious because they were a Christmas present from my family. Designed by Laura Polinoro and Marcello Jori they’re joyful. The face of the baby Jesus smiles out from a bundle of hay, Mary is dressed in Marian blue and Joseph in red. I love the look of surprise on the donkey’s face – and those ears!

Alessi is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The company was founded by the Italian born Giovanni Alessi in 1921. The company followed in the footsteps of Giovanni’s father Carlo. From the 1970s Alberto Alessi collaborated with a number of leading designers including Ettore Sottsass, Michael Graves and Philippe Starck. Following in the footsteps of the Victorian designer Dr Christopher Dresser they once again combined art and design with the manufacture of domestic objects. From the moment these iconic Alessi pieces were released they became collectors’ items.

The tree is done so Christmas cards next.

A pen and ink Christmas card design by Dame Laura Knight

Over the years it has always been exciting to discover for auction Christmas cards from some of the country’s most prominent artists. These drawings and prints are often very intimate and personal like the pen and ink drawing by Dame Laura Knight. The card is dedicated to Gladys and Saxen Snell. The Female Nude holds a scroll inscribed ‘With our fondest love and best wishes for a Happy Xmas, Laura’.

Laura Knight was part of the English Impressionist movement. She worked in the figurative, realist tradition from the early 20th century and became one of the most popular modern British artists of her generation raising the status and recognition of women artists in a male dominated arena.

Christmas trees provide such joy and cards an expression of love – antidotes to the rising concerns around our Christmas plans especially in the light of Omicron. Stay safe.

James Bond, Goldfinger and the Aston Martin DB5

A 1965 Corgi Toys No. 261 James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, boxed with diorama and unopened instructions

Across Sussex we are all busily shopping and preparing for Christmas.

The must have bestselling toy of 1965 was the Corgi Toys James Bond Aston Martin DB5.

When Ian Fleming’s first spy novel Casino Royale was launched the reviewers delighted in the creation of James Bond and the initial print run sold out in less than a month. The glamorous world of Bond contrasted with post-war rationing and despite its critics the allure of its escapism seems to remain undiminished today.

The publisher Jonathan Cape produced less than five thousand copies of the first print run of Casino Royale in 1953. It is these earliest books of the first novel in the series which are the rarest and most valuable, especially when they are inscribed with a personal dedications from the author.

Goldfinger, the seventh novel in the series, was first published in 1959 and topped the best seller’s lists. This first edition with its original dust jacket made £600 in a Toovey’s specialist book sale. The film of the same title was inspired by the novel and released in 1964. It remains one of the most iconic Bond movies in the franchise. James Bond, played by Sean Connery, is pitted against Auric Goldfinger who plans to contaminate the United States’ gold reserves at Fort Knox with a nuclear device assisted by Pussy Galore and Odd Job.

An example of Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, a first edition with original dust jacket published by Jonathan Cape in 1959

The international stage on which the story unfolds, the humour and the sequences with the famous Aston Martin DB5 involving its ejector seat, slicing wheel hubs, smoke and oil decoys, not to mention revolving number plates and machine guns provided a template for many of the Bond films that followed.

The DB5 appeared on a number of occasions during the Daniel Craig Bond era too.

Corgi Toys was licensed to produce the toy version of the Aston Martin. The Corgi range was produced in Swansea hence the Welsh Corgi dog logo and name.

A Corgi Toys No. 261 James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 with its diorama box, two bandits and secret instructions like the one illustrated realised in excess of £200 at Toovey’s toy sale. The toy car was released in October 1965 just over a year after the film was released. The reason for the gold finish on the car was that whilst Corgi had gold paint it was not able to develop the silver in time. Corgi Toys sold more than 100,000 cars in only the first few weeks and would go on to make almost four million of them.

All this talk of James Bond it’s put me in the mood to watch Goldfinger again and dig out my later, silver Corgi Toys James Bond Aston Martin DB5!

Collecting Time

A rare Omega Seamaster Automatic 1000m/3300ft Professional stainless steel cased diver’s bracelet wristwatch, circa 1970

Watches which tell the time with exceptional accuracy can be bought for very little and yet we have an enduring fascination with mechanical watches which continue to attract the attention of today’s collectors.

Amongst these are the diving watches inspired by the Rolex Submariner which was conceived in 1953 by Rolex board member and keen diver, René- Paul Jeanneret. He identified the potential for a diving watch which could also be worn every day.

The rare Omega Seamaster Automatic 1000m/3300ft Professional stainless steel cased diver’s bracelet wristwatch dates from the 1970s. The Omega Seamaster 1000 was nicknamed ‘The Grand’ by virtue of its 1000 metre rating and with a total run believed to be fewer than 500, it is regarded as a rare watch. The first ‘Grand’ was personally given by Prince Rainier III of Monaco to Jacques Cousteau, who was director of the Monaco Oceanographic Research Institute and Museum between 1957 and 1988. The French underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau, invented the aqua-lung in 1943. His underwater adventures aboard the ship Calypso would be made famous by the BBC television series of the 1960s and 1970s.Cousteau declared the Omega Seamaster 1000 to be his favourite diving watch.

In the 1970s Omega was viewed as being more revolutionary and professionally focused than the higher priced Rolex watches.

In the 1960s Japan’s economy grew at an extraordinary rate. It’s well educated work force moved from low-productivity rural jobs into modern manufacturing and services. The US and European economies began to grow post-war providing demand whilst prices for raw materials remained stable and Japan boomed.

Japanese goods entered western markets and began to establish her international brands. Amongst these was the watchmaker Seiko which quickly became recognised for its innovation, precision and quality. The company began to develop diving watches in the 1960s to compete with Swiss manufacturers like Omega and Rolex. The similarities of its style and design with its Swiss competitors is not accidental as east meets west.

A Seiko 6215-7000 Automatic stainless steel cased diver’s wristwatch, circa 1967

The 1967, Seiko released the rare reference 6215-7000 which featured water resistance up to 300 meters. The monobloc case had a screw down crown to protect the watch. It was a technically very complex watch and was produced in small numbers over about a year. It was the reputation of watches like this one that established Seiko’s brand which would come to dominate its Swiss competitors in the Quartz movement era that followed.

Despite their worn condition these two rare diving watches realised £3600 and £7400 respectively in Toovey’s specialist watch sales.

We have a fascination with handmade watches and value them far more highly than homogenous, mass produced timepieces. Interest, demand and prices continue to rise in this exciting field of collecting.

Reflecting Life over the Centuries

A rare Victorian silver novelty smoker’s companion, finely cast and modelled as a monkey riding a bear

Silver objects across the centuries have so often captured and reflected the society for which they were made.

Over time a delight in novelty has persisted. Dutch silver wager cups were produced from the late 16th century. The most popular of these were the windmill cups like the 1638 example you see here from Amsterdam which recently sold at Toovey’s for £10000. Its bell shaped bowl is decorated in relief with fruit and leaves. The windmill has simulated plank decoration and a dial above a miller ascending a ladder. Because the base was modelled as the sails of a windmill the cup could not be put down until the bowl was drained. Before drinking the contestant would blow through the pipe setting the sails in motion. There is some debate as to whether the dial indicated the number of beakers to be drunk if they failed to drain the cup before the sails ceased turning, or if it signified how many drinks were to be offered to the gathered company.

A mid-17th century Dutch silver windmill wager cup

Mr Punch has a special place in my heart. It was always a treat to pop in to see my Gran on the way home from primary school. A Victorian cast iron doorstop in the form of Mr Punch would welcome us as he held the door open and in the kitchen sweets were arranged on a silver dish for us to find.

A rare Victorian finely silver novelty Mr Punch mustard pot

It brought back fond memories to discover the rare Victorian silver novelty mustard pot, finely modelled as Mr Punch sitting cross-legged with pipe and goblet, a mischievous look on his face, and with the original feather handled spoon. Such wonderful quality of workmanship and design…that’s the way to do it!

Mr Punch was inspired by the Neapolitan character Pulcinella in the commedia dell’arte. Since before Victorian times the unreliable Mr Punch and his long suffering wife Judy (originally known as Joan), together with a cast of other puppet characters, have indulged in an often outrageous pantomime of familiar slapstick humour.

In the same specialist Toovey’s auction a rare Victorian silver novelty smoker’s companion was finely cast and modelled as a monkey riding a bear supporting two circular bowls with a wicker basket on its back. The monkey smoking a pipe/cigar conceals the table lighter within the detachable head cover with plumed helmet.

These beautifully worked humorous objects were made in London in 1870 and 1876 by Robert Hennell IV and realised £5500 and £5800.

Silver has captured and reflected life over the centuries.

These pieces illustrate the extraordinarily high demand and prices for silver collectors’ objects today.