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Beware the dates

I was in Melbourne last week with a few hours to spare before returning to Sydney, so I visited the State Library of Victoria to get colour copies of the colour plates from Oliver Baker’s Black Jacks and Leather Bottells. Here they are for anyone who is interested in copies.

The request system at SLVIC is completely different from the one I’m used to at SLNSW, so I spent some time talking to a couple of the library staff about what I was doing and they were interested enough to have a look at the plates. Both at different times looked at plate one and made comments to the effect that it had been made in 1712 because the date was on the design. That’s the problem in a nutshell. Not only can you not trust the mueseum placards or guide’s handbook, you can’t trust the dates on the objects themselves. A properly maintained leather jack has a life expectancy of several hundred years. Just because at some point in that lifespan, someone has painted a date or added a coronet to existing arms, doesn’t mean everything is the same age.

Musea often make similar assumptions on origins. After some discussion with a curator of the V&A Museum regarding the origin of a gaming pouch, she revealed that in the absence of a provenance, an object predominately features the fleur de lys as decoration will be identified as being of French manufacture despite the method of manufacture being characteristically English.

Let’s take a closer look at plate one. The step down to a triangular handle means it pre-dates the end of the seventeenth century but the real give away is the double embossed line around the spout. That particular decoration was only done during the second quarter of the seventeenth century. What we’re looking at is a blackjack that was made somewhere between 1625 and say 1645, possibly one of a number for the guild, and then in 1712 someone picked that one and had the arms painted on it. We’ll probably never know the reason, but the moral of the story is to trust no one. Make sure all the aspects of the item support a particular date or origin before making a claim.

Since writing this and my comment below, I’ve been able to get the relevant section from page 76 of  Baker, which I’ll quote here in it’s entirety.


In the summer of 1895 a black jack of great size, and resplendent with arms and ornament, was sold for £18 15s with the household effects of the late Mr. Hall, of Folly Bridge, Oxford. It afterwards passed into the hands of Mr. Harding of St. James’ Square, who discovered from the coats-of-arms painted on it that it had been the property of the Joiners’ Company of Oxford. An illustration is given at Plate I, from which it will be seen that it is an extremely fine and picturesque example, and that its emblazoning is much more decorative than is usual with black jacks. The front has a large shield with the arms of the old Joiners’ Company; on the dexter side of the jack is a shield with the arms of Oxford City. Under this shield is the date 1712. On the sinister side is another shield with the words “John Baker, Master.” The date of the arms and painting is therefore not earlier than the reign of Queen Anne, but the jack itself has the air of being rather older, and there are incised lines on the spout portion arranged in a pattern not unusual in jacks of the 17th century. It has also the letters “IG” twice impressed in the leather. which arc doubtless the maker’s initials. John Baker must have re-painted, and, perhaps, presented the jack while holding the office of Master. It is 19 inches high and 9 across the bottom, and now forms a striking feature of the collection of Mr. W. J. Fieldhouse at Wootton Wawen near Stratford-on-Avon.

 While I may be confused by the way the apparently embossed characters are shown in Plate 1 rather than the photorealism I’m more used to, I can’t see IG/IG. It still looks like 16/36 to me.

5 thoughts on “Beware the dates

  1. While uploading the plates, I’ve just realised the arming shows the year 1636 in the top centre, between the two dividers. I’ve had a look at the history of the Joiners’ Guild in Oxford and can’t find any significance in the date with relevance to the guild, so it may be the real date of manufacture.

  2. Hi there LWR,
    I ran accross a downloadable full pdf copy of Oliver Bakers book. It’s a bit rough, but I’m thrilled to have it peruse at home instead of in the ref library. Don’t know if you already have a copy in some form, if not and you’re interested, I’ll send you the link.

  3. Pingback: The (An?) Oxford Joiner’s Jack « The Reverend's Big Blog of Leather

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