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Deceit and Homage –
a nineteenth-century knife box

Luisa Coscarelli

 

Objects can deceive us. They can come across as things they are not. Sometimes it is their design that fools us, other times the materials they are made of. They make us believe they are something different, hide their true function, or deceive our senses. However, the deception of an object is often not intended to scare, unsettle, or confuse its user, but to extend the boundaries of what is possible and known, and/or to pay homage to something prior. This is the case with this weeks object.

Knife box, unknown maker, ca. 1860 - 70, Britain, different types of wood with marquetry of holly, harewood, elm, oak, and mahogany, Museum no. 352-1870, Image ⓒ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Knife box, unknown maker, ca. 1860 – 70, Britain, different types of wood with marquetry of holly, harewood, elm, oak, and mahogany, Museum no. 352-1870. Image ⓒ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This wooden object – in the shape of a classical vase –  is in fact a nineteenth-century knife box. The vase is placed on a wooden pedestal and supported by a polished mahogany foot. Its main body is made up of two sections: the lower shows marquetry – reminiscent of grooves on classical pillars – extending from a bunch of leaves. The upper part shows a band, which is highlighted through lighter wood with inlays of curling leaves and branches. From here the vase tapers, forming the stylised shape of a classical vessel. Actual ancient Greek vessels tend to have a shorter foot, curved handles, and are not as slender as this object. There is further marquetry that is reminiscent of flowers and foliage, and the object is topped off with a lid and a (possibly metal) pinecone.

The theme of deceit can clearly be spotted in the material and decoration. One would expect a decorative design to show figures instead of grooves, and whilst the wood is very close to the brown hues on classical vases, the black is definitely missing. If this was to be an urn, we might even expect to see marble as a material, in which case the deceit is even more obvious. As already noted, the decorative program does not have much to do with the decoration on classical vases, but seems to be an homage to features of classical architecture.

Image 2: Ancient Greek Vase, attributed to Acheloos, ca. 530 BCE, Attic Greek, terracotta, Honululu Academy of Arts, Image ⓒ Wikimedia Commons.  

Ancient Greek Vase, attributed to Acheloos, ca. 530 BCE, Attic Greek, terracotta, Honululu Academy of Arts. Image ⓒ Wikimedia Commons, 2014.

On the lower part of the object, where the foot of the urn tapers into the lower body, one can see marquetry of alternating light and dark pieces of wood. They seem to be emulating guttae (drop shaped protrusions) that are often found high up on building, or temple architraves. While this might not be completely convincing, the marquetry grooves definitely are, and accentuate the relation to the features found on classical pillars.

From the deception incurred by the material of the object, and its deceit concerning the reference to the quoted objects decoration, the deceit continues when looking at the function of the object. By now it is pretty clear that this is not simply a vase or an urn. The fact that the object has a keyhole, which is prominently placed in the wood with an off-white material, assures the user that this is an object that can be opened and locked. First of all, this means that the wooden object cannot be opened where one would expect, and second of all that something of value was supposed to be placed inside it.

Knife box opened, unknown maker, ca. 1860 - 70, Britain, different types of wood with marquetry of holly, harewood, elm, oak, and mahogany, Museum no. 352-1870, Image ⓒ Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014.

Knife box opened, unknown maker, ca. 1860 – 70, Britain, different types of wood with marquetry of holly, harewood, elm, oak, and mahogany, Museum no. 352-1870. Image ⓒ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The upper and lower halves of this urn are fixed to each other with a wooden pole. Upon raising the top half of the urn one reveals a variety of compartments that are lined with velvet; these were destined to hold knives. Knife boxes were relatively common for the well-to-do since the seventeenth century.

Image 4: Knife box pair, unknown maker, ca. 1860 - 70, Britain, different types of wood with marquetry of holly, harewood, elm, oak, and mahogany, Museum no. 352-1870, Image ⓒ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Knife box pair, unknown maker, ca. 1860 – 70, Britain, different types of wood with marquetry of holly, harewood, elm, oak, and mahogany, Museum no. 352-1870. Image ⓒ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This one (and its twin) would have been placed on a sideboard in the dining room, and conveniently looked like part of the room’s decorum, while at the same time functioning as safe storage for valuable cutlery. Interestingly, these knife cases were collected as eighteenth-century antiques by people in the following century. The V&A bought these pieces in 1870 thinking them to have been made a century prior, and therefore a genuine antique. However – and here comes the biggest deception of all – they are in fact fakes made to look like they were eighteenth-century antiques.

 

 

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Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A.  If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: objectoftheweek@gmail.com

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Luisa Coscarelli –

Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.

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© Luisa Coscarelli 2014. All Rights Reserved.

 

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