What you see: An Elizabeth I silver pomander, engraved with portraits of royals and dating to the early 17th century. Christie’s estimates it at £20,000 to £30,000, or $25,900 to $38,850.
The expert: Harry Williams-Bulkeley, International Head of Silver at Christie’s.
Was the pomander a common household object in 17th century England, or was it purely used by nobles and wealthy merchants? I think it was really people of wealth–rich merchants and aristocratic ladies would have had them. They tend to be in silver and rarely in gold.
A fair number of people like to think that previous ages were smellier or stinkier than our own. Is that accurate, and is the silver pomander evidence that bad odors were a common hazard in 17th century England? Yes, very much so. There was no plumbing, and there were open ditches in the street where people threw the contents of their chamber pots. And there was the miasmic theory of disease, the belief that odor itself could give you a disease. The pomander was a way to banish evil smells and evil humors and keep yourself healthy.
Why would a woman have been the likely original owner of this silver pomander? In contemporary portraits [of the period] you see ladies wearing them.
If 17th century Englishmen didn’t carry pomanders, what did they carry instead that served the same purpose? People had scented gloves and scented handkerchiefs. The pomander developed as a form of adornment for women, and it had practical use.
And pomanders usually take the shape of an orb, or sphere? They tend to. Early pomanders were a ball of a scented substance–wax with scents impregnated in them. The form it usually takes is a circular foot with a central stem that has a number of hinged segments. It opens like the petals of a flower.
How would the silver pomander’s owner have used it–to perfume herself, to shield her nose from unpleasant smells, or both? She would hold it up to her nose, like a nosegay or a viniagrette, which is a box that had a sponge with smelling salts or scented waters.
So it’s kind of like us putting Vicks VapoRub under our nostrils today? Exactly.
Would she have worn the silver pomander every day, or did she only wear it on fancy occasions, or at court? It could be everyday. She didn’t necessarily wear it around the house, but it denotes status. It’s a costly object. Certainly, if she went out around town in her finest dress, she’d wear it.
What sorts of nice-smelling things might she have put in the silver pomander? And would she put the same thing in each of its six compartments, or would she put different, complementary things in the compartments? I think it’s each to their own. She might want rosemary for this, or lavender for that. Each scent had certain properties and beliefs about what they would help with. She could put the same thing [in every compartment] or a cocktail. There’s no difference to aromatherapy today–if you’re stressed, try lavender, if you need invigoration, try lemon verbena.
The silver pomander features several portraits of people who are believed to be royals: King James I, King Charles I (as Prince of Wales), King Henry VII, King Henry VIII, and a woman who could be Anne of Denmark (James I’s wife) or Elizabeth, queen of Bohemia. How do we know these are the people depicted? They’re really [after] engravings by the de Passe family, a Dutch family that specializes in head-and-shoulder portraits. They’re not exact matches, but similar ones match up. They’re known engravings of members of the Tudor and Stuart royal family. Anne of Denmark was originally attributed as Elizabeth I.
Would the silver pomander have advertised the political leanings of the wearer? Would she have taken a risk if she went out in public with this hanging from her chatelaine? All the royals [depicted on the pomander] are Protestant monarchs. You’ll find by this time (early 17th century), Britain was established as a Protestant nation. Under the reign of Queen Mary I, the owner wouldn’t have wanted to wear the pomander, but it postdates that. At the time, the monarch was Protestant and the country was 90 percent Protestant.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how challenging the silver pomander was to make? You’ve got six little segments. It’s difficult to make sure they’re all the same size and have the same curve so they come together to form an orb. It’s got a carefully milled thread, so you can screw the top down [and hold the six segments closed and in place]. And it’s been heavily engraved with shield shapes ornamenting the tops of the segments, the medallion portraits, and so on.
What is the silver pomander like in person? Is it heavy? It’s about two inches high. It fits in the palm of the hand. If you make an “OK” sign with your middle finger and your thumb, it’s that sort of size. It feels heavy in the hand.
What condition is it in? When you see it open, [you can see that] the not-quite-rectangular openings in each segment have been squeezed over the years. But really, it’s survived in surprisingly good condition.
I understand that little early English silver survives because various groups sought it to melt it and turn it into money. I realize we don’t know exactly how this silver pomander survived, but what are some plausible theories? In Civil War England, Royalist and Parlimentarian forces were desperate to pay their armies. Silver was the coinage of the day. If you melted a cup and struck coins, you got money. Two silver plates from the Armada service are in the sale. The service was buried in a barn and not rediscovered until 1827. It was almost certainly hidden to avoid being seized by Parlimentarian forces. But this pomander is a small object [which would yield] an ounce and a half of silver, not a huge amount. And it’s easily hidden away. You could stick it in the back of a drawer and if you weren’t really searching for it, you wouldn’t necessarily find it. A silver cup is less easily hidden.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I think number one, it being English. It’s unmarked [it lacks hallmarks that would identify the silversmith], but it would be very strange for it to be anything else than English, and to have portraits on it is rare. Pomanders are more likely to have scrolling foliage on them, that sort of thing. And it’s a gem of an object in an amazing collection of objects that survived all the intervening years. It’s a lovely personal object, beautifully decorated in great detail, and it [represents an] extraordinary survival.
How to bid: The Elizabeth I silver pomander is lot 101 in The David Little Collection of Early English Silver, taking place at Christie’s London on December 3, 2019.
Harry Williams-Bulkeley features in a piece on the Christie’s website in which he talks about the David Little collection, and the forces that make early English silver so rare.
Images are courtesy of Christie’s.
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