I have a tiny enamel box, just 4cm by 2cm high, that was surely given as a love-token, perhaps for Valentine’s Day.
It is almost certainly a Bilston enamel patch box and, although the lid has suffered some damage a long time ago, the two lovers on the lid and the inscription are still clear.
Sweets the Love That meets Return
reads the caption and a dashing chap with a curling feather in his hat and a dramatic cloak makes lingering eye contact with a fair maiden carrying flowers.
You can tell it is a box for patches, or beauty spots, and not for tiny sweets or snuff because of the mirror inside. It is a pleasure to hold – the waisted design means that it fits securely between the fingers of one hand to hold it steady while the patch was applied with the help of the mirror.
The box itself probably dates for the 1770s or 80s when the fashion for patches was at its height. They served to cover up skin blemishes or to draw attention to a pretty dimple or to the eyes. In this portrait the lady is seated at her dressing table, about to apply a beauty spot. The patch box she holds has a mirror inside the lid and on the table is another box, much the same size as mine.
Craftsmen in the small town of Bilston, just to the South-East of Wolverhampton, began to make enamelled items in about 1745 when Huguenot refugees settled there bringing the technique with them. The industry was still flourishing in the early 1800s producing snuff boxes, trinket boxes and similar items, but by the 1820s it was in decline with the reduction in snuff-taking and the improvement in manufacturing techniques for fine bone china objects. Bilston enamellers had vanished by the 1850s.
Today Bilston enamels fetch hundreds of pounds. Mine, with its damage, was a very cheap auction bargain!