When collectors spot a nice papier mache piece, they first look for the impressed mark of Jennens and Bettridge, the premier manufacturer of papier mache items from 1816, when they took over the Birmingham firm of Henry Clay, to 1870. From 1825, when the company took out a patent for “ornamenting papier mache with pearl shell.” In the same year, they officially became “japanners in Ordinary to His Majesty,” and then was given the same title for Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, when she took the throne in 1837.
For many years Jennens and Bettridge mainly produced smaller papier mache items such as trays, fans, boxes and other wares. By 1839 larger items had become popular and in that year the firm supplied Buckingham Palace with two folding screens.
From the early 1850s, large pieces including chairs, tables, cabinets, and even beds and pianos were being produced. The firm by then employed 64 full-time artists, most trained at the Birmingham or London Schools of Designs. Today, many museums include Jennens and Bettridge pieces in their collections. The Victoria and Albert possesses a magnificent tray and an unusual chair, for example, and the Art Institute of Chicago has two chairs that date to 1844 in its collection.
In this stunning, elegant tea caddy, it becomes evident why J&B was the most prestigious and top-rated papier mache factory during the heyday of such items. This beautiful example, dating to between 1840 and 1860, has a sloped S-shaped lid that fits snugly over two separate compartments with S-shaped sloping lids to each compartment. This has been called a bombe slipper form. This design made it easier to lift one of the mother-of-pearl filials on the lids to see the contents of the tea compartment.
But the brilliance of the design pales in comparison to the hand-painted scene on the lid of the caddy. The talented artist shows a man fishing at dusk, when it is said by many anglers is the time when fish are more apt to bite. There is a romantic feeling to the lone fisherman by an arched bridge casting his line with a surrounding background of mountains and trees. The scene is quietly powerful and magical.
On all four sides of the caddy are intricate, traditional designs picked out in gold leaf and filled in with red and turquoise blue enamel. The shape of the caddy, aside from the sloping lid, is slightly bombe, as the middle of the box swells out and then comes in, giving it an even more interesting and decorative shape and appearance. Even the sides of the lid are embellished with gold leaf and enamel paint. When the lid is raised, the same beautiful design was placed on the inside. This was a factory that decorated almost every part of the caddy. On the bottom is the typical impressed maker’s mark: “Jennens & Bettridge, Makers to the Queen.”
The condition of this piece is excellent for its age and type. The original hinges are brass and still work well. The complicated gold leaf and enamel designs are still very present all around and inside the caddy. There are remnants of the old silver paper that lined the two tea compartments.
The lids of the two inside containers are especially wonderful, having retained not only their designs and original mother-of-pearl filials, but also an amazing sheen to their black color and finish. The tea caddy also retains its original lock and escutcheon; however, the key has been lost. I have had the caddy professionally cleaned and restored so that it is in ready to display and use condition.
It measures 9-1/4 inches wide and 6-3/8 inches deep. Due to its unusual shape, the height varies from 4-1/4 inches in the front to 6 inches at the back.
Early Victorian Jennens and Bettridge Tea Caddy