A magnificent late Georgian Spanish style hair comb in pieced and fretted steer horn
CONDITION: the comb is very delicate and there is evidence of an old (contemporary) repair on the left hand side of the heading and minor loss to the borders at the sides. Still a very beautiful comb
SIZE: 8 ins h x 7½ ins w (20 x 19 cms)
APPROXIMATE DATE: 1820s – 1830s
MATERIALS: steer horn
This very beautiful pierced and carved steer horn hair comb is of the type often known as a mantilla comb. This is on account of its resemblance to the beautiful high combs worn by Spanish ladies with their traditional dress. In practice any comb with a tall heading which stands proud of the head when in wear is often called a Spanish comb.
The carving on the comb shows the irregularities which indicate that it has been hand carved. The design is an elaborate one and has been carved out with great skill to achieve a lacelike delicacy. At the bottom of the heading is a panel with a central medallion and other motifs such as stars, foliage and wing-like shapes. Above are a series of open arches, with flowers on stalks placed between. The heading has a wedge shaped profile.
The ornament has eight long tines which are all of a piece with the heading. So often with these old horn and tortoiseshell combs the tips of the tines are broken, but these are mostly in good condition and nicely pointed. The outer tine on the left hand side is slightly shortened.
The close up pictures shows that it is beautifully marked with good contrast between the darker opaque and lighter orange-brown translucent patches of the natural horn. The comb has not been dyed to resemble the much more expensive tortoiseshell, as are many hair ornaments of the period. Rather it has simply been clarified to render it semi-transparent and then given a deep amber hue.
Ornaments like this were worn in a characteristic manner, being placed such a way that the tall heading stood up proud. This enabled them to be viewed from all angles and for the details of the design to be seen effectively outlined against the light. The final picture illustrates a number of contemporary sitters wearing hair combs which are taken from portraits of the early 19th century.
Such combs became in vogue in the early 19th century when the fashionable coiffure became extremely tall and elaborate. Combs such as this were used to support the dressing and give extra height. Great loops of hair (often false) arise from the crown of the head back backed up by these Spanish style combs.
Horn was one of the most popular materials for hair combs in the 19th century. Not only was the material was cheap, but also it could be easily treated to obtain a number of decorative effects. It could be dyed a range of colours. It was always cheaper than tortoiseshell, and was often treated to imitate the distinctive “tortoise” pattern of the more expensive material.
Horn could also be clarified so as to be almost translucent. This gives it the attractive colour of honey, and is a feature of many combs of the period. It could also be carved, pierced, stamped and when heated, twisted into ornamental shapes in a plastic manner. Horn is an extremely flexible material, and when heated it can be bent, pierced and stretched into all manner of forms, almost like plastic.
In the first part of the 19th century, the making of combs was still a handicraft, and many combs were made in small local manufactories. However by the mid century they were being produced in vast numbers by means of mechanical die-stamping.
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