Decant Day, 17 August 2016: Plan Chests and Patch Boxes

by Lottie Clark, Decant Curator

Throughout the summer the decant has been all about the art collections! This isn’t surprising as the combined collections of Fine Art and Decorative Art amount to nearly 50% of the collections being decanted.

We’ve had professional art-moving contractors in to pack and transport over 140 paintings – with the smaller works being soft-wrapped in-house by staff and volunteers. Our ceramics, metalwork and woodwork continue to be packed in the stores by our team of volunteers. Meanwhile, the costume is nearing the end of its freezing treatment which is being overseen by our Conservation Officer.

So, that leaves some of the smaller miscellany in the collection to be decanted and transported offsite. One such group of objects is our array of cast medallions and plaques. They were originally housed in a large and cumbersome mahogany plan chest – which has held a domineering place in one of our stores for decades.

Chest and Drawers
Our imposing mahogany plan chest

However, these cast medallions and plaques have recently been re-homed in a brand new conservation-grade plan chest, ready to be wheeled to our offsite store.

In the process of moving each item a plastazote foam recess has had to be cut for each individual piece. This can be done either with a scalpel or a hot wire cutter. Both instruments require careful attention to detail as the work is precise and delicate. The end result is a fantastic way of packing collections though – especially for transporting. Each mould is cut to the specific size and shape of the piece which ensures that nothing slides around in drawers or containers.

Art Plan Chest 2 - medallions
A collection of our Wedgwood plaques and medallions, housed in their hand-cut foam moulds

This method also means unusually shaped objects can be stored neatly and safely. For instance, the top drawer contains our small collection of bone and enamel-handled cutlery.

Drawer and Knives
Some of our bone and enamel-handled cutlery

The final collection housed within the plan chest is the rather adorable set of 42 patch boxes.

These tiny boxes have all been intricately produced from enamel, beautifully decorated with either motifs or mottos, and hinged together with metal – usually copper, although sometimes more precious metals were used, especially if the boxes were produced by jewellers, rather than potters.

Art Plan Chest 2 - patch boxes-crop
Some of our patch boxes in drawer storage

Our patch box collection all comes from the late 18th Century, from roughly 1750 onwards. However, patches themselves are believed to have been used as early as the 1600s. When pock-marking diseases were commonplace any scar or blemish to the face was said to be covered up by a small patch of fabric, usually black. They were applied via a mixture of glycerine and a myriad of animal ingredients, most commonly sturgeon swim-bladder. While black velvet, taffeta or even thin leather could be used, those on impoverished budgets would resort to mouse skin instead.

Patches (or mouches) soon took off as a grooming accessory and became part of the fashionable beauty regime. The black of the fabric contrasted perfectly with a pale complexion, which was heavily sought after. As they were now no longer used to cover pockmarks their placing and shapes also became more elaborate and important. Spot, hearts and crescent moons were the most common shapes, but even animals, birds and, it was said, a horse and carriage were applied to the face of gentlewomen (and some men) of the day!

Much like fan language, patches could also be used to denote flirtatious behaviour, or even political allegiance! A heart shaped patch to the left cheeked showed you were engaged, whereas a patch to the eye corner meant you were passionate. One worn between your mouth and your chin told others you were silent. During the political furore of the Whigs and the Tories patches worn on the relevant sides of the face could display where your political allegiance lay.

While the patches themselves could symbolise courting behaviour, so could the boxes they were contained within. Patch boxes were designed to be portable – for reapplication purposes – so the lid normally contained a mirror within. Sometimes there was an additional compartment for rouge. By means of their small size they quickly became love tokens of their own, or sentimental gifts of friendship. We have several in our collection decorated with mottos and inscriptions that were likely given as gifts.

As with most fashions the beauty patch ebbed away to be replaced by another cosmetic fad and has never really had a resurgence. During the 1940s and 50s the beauty spot made a brief comeback – the most notable wearer being Marilyn Monroe, but by now these were applied by kohl or liquid make-up, not fabric. In the 1990s, Cindy Crawford became renowned for her beauty spot (and her refusal to have it removed) but hers is completely natural. It meant the need for small boxes to carry your patches in also became redundant – but I personally think this adds an extra charm to our little collection. They’re a little slice in time that gives us an insight into how people lived, dressed and even found love back in 1750.


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