Friday 23 March 2018

Treasures: Wibbly wobbly wonders

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Lion and Prince of Wales moulds
Lion and Prince of Wales moulds
'The Contraption' by Lowry

Eleanor Flegg

'Take the Brawn of six Cocks, being steept in Water, and shifted for 24 hours, then take a quarter of a Pound of Harts-horn, and boil these together two hours," wrote William Rabisha in 1661.

The recipe is for a strengthening jelly made with ingredients that include "Majesty of Pearl, or if you please, Corral".

In the 17th century, jellies were immensely popular. Most were savoury. At the time, sugar was a luxury that few could afford. Gelatine was made from the boiled feet of pigs or calves. Alternatively you could use hartshorn (the finely grated horn of a deer), or isinglass (made from the swim bladders of fish).

Jellies were not only nutritious, they were also beautiful. Moulded in elaborate shapes, they could form the centrepiece of a dinner table or an interesting wobbly side dish.

Now, antique jelly moulds are popular among the collectors of 'kitchenalia', once-useful objects from historic kitchens. The earliest examples date from the 18th century and are made of ceramic. Their shapes reflect the interests of the time such as pineapples (a common 18th century obsession) or even astronomy.

A recipe by Mrs Raffald, dating from 1769, suggests you "colour your flummery with cochineal and chocolate to make it look like the sky". Flummery was a type of jelly thickened with oatmeal. It probably wasn't that nice, as the word is now used to describe meaningless insincere flattery.

Some jellies were not even meant to be eaten. At the end of the 18th century, Wedgewood made two-part moulds so the clear jelly, in the shape of an obelisk, was formed around a decorative centre cone, about 22cm high. Guests would have seen the pretty flowers on the ceramic core shimmering through a layer of jelly. I feel that these 'core moulds' must have incited lewd comment at the dinner table but Parson Woodforde's diary of 1782 quite innocently records a "very pretty pyramid of jelly in the centre, a landscape appearing thro' the jelly, a new device and brought from London".

The Victorian love of elaborate embellishment was enthusiastically applied to jelly and most antique jelly moulds date from the 19th century.

Some, shaped like tiered castles, were made of copper. They look like a metallic version of a bucket you might take to the beach. Ceramic jelly moulds, on the other hand, look like lumpy bowls from the outside. You you have to turn them over to see the lovely interior detailing. The person who wrote "it's what's inside that counts" was probably thinking about jelly moulds.

In general, this is an area of collecting that is accessible, inexpensive and fun. I spoke to a Wicklow-based collector who has more than 70 jelly moulds, amassed over the past 40 years. They were purchased at auctions, antique shops and church fairs, and none of them cost more than £25 at the time.

"All the family think I'm daft, but an appreciation of old things is no harm," she says. "It's a window into the way people used to eat. One mould I'm very fond of was broken and has been mended with a piece of metal. It must have been a treasured object in someone's house."

Like many jelly mould collectors, she actually uses her collection. "I don't even like jelly, but it's interesting to see how they worked. Some of the tall Victorian moulds have such deep crevasses that you have to make the jelly very strong to get it out."

The shape of the jelly mould can give a clue to the type of jelly it was made for. A fish-shaped mould, for example, is surrounded by shapes that fit spears of asparagus and was clearly intended for a savoury jelly. Others have ripples so you can put finger biscuits along the edge and a dip in the centre to fill with fruit or cream.

"I like the idea of selling objects that once had a purpose," says the antique dealer Roger Grimes. "It's interesting to handle an object that actually did something. There's more to it than just a pretty vase." His current selection of jelly moulds are Victorian, made of ceramic and individually priced between €15 and €25. Very occasionally, jelly moulds can be valuable. An 18th century creamware mould (that's cream-coloured ceramic) might sell for up to €500, while a collection of Victorian copper moulds sold at Adam's for €2,600 in 2014 (the estimate was €200 to €300). In November 2015, a lion-shaped mould with a Prince of Wales feather mould sold at Christie's of London for £2,125 (€2,687). "With ceramic moulds, look for creamware or pearlware with the mark of well known makers like Wedgewood or first period Belleek," Grime advises.

Not all culinary moulds were used for jelly: a mould with holes in it, for example, was intended for cheese curd. The excess liquid drained through the holes. Moulds made out of pewter were often used for ice-cream and copper moulds were traditionally lined with tin to prevent verdigris poisoning. While the external copper on an antique jelly mould will probably polish up nicely, the interiors don't age well and experts recommend re-tinning if you intend to use them.

Twentieth century jelly moulds were often made of pressed glass and, although interesting to collect, aren't particularly valuable.

Bunnies became popular in the 1930s and 1940s, as did moulds that advertised particular brands of jelly. There's an urban myth that branded aluminium Jell-O moulds were handed out to immigrants arriving on Ellis Island.


In the salerooms


The Chatworth Fine Art sale will take place on Tuesday, March 8 at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny.

Potential lots of interest include a fireplace that came from No 44 Stafford Street (now Wolfe Tone Street) in Dublin, the house in which Theobald Wolfe Tone grew up. The fireplace was removed from the drawing room of No 44 by its present owner in 1960.

It is made from carved Cararra marble and estimated to sell between €15,000 and €20,000.

The auction also includes two fine quality 12 bore double barrel sporting guns, by Purdey, each with finely engraved locks and figured walnut stocks.

Both date from the early 20th century and were the property of a titled gentleman. They come in a brass bound leather pair case, also by Purdey, and are estimated to sell between €14,000 and €18,000.

Among the usual items in the sale, an early 19th century diorama, The Paper Factory, is a fine example of early 19th century taxidermy and was made in Paris in 1820. The factory is staffed by mice, busily making paper of all types and colours. For viewing times and full details, see


'The Contraption' by Lowry

A Fine Art and Antique Auction will take place in the Swan Hall at Herman & Wilkinson, Rathmines on Thursday, March 10. Items of interest include The Contraption (€1,500 to €1,800), above, an offset colour lithograph by Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887 - 1976).

The engaging print shows a man riding a covered tricycle (it doesn't look easy) and is signed and numbered as one of a limited edition of 750. It was published by the Adam collection in 1975 and printed by Chorley and Pickersgill.

In September 2015 another print from this edition sold at Bonham's of Knightsbridge for £3,500 (€4,434). The sale also includes 120 lots of coins. One of these is an Irish Independent 9ct Gold 75th Anniversary Michael Collins medallion (€600 to €1,000), in the original box and one of 50 struck.

There is also a "large hoard" of Padraig Pearse ten shilling commemorative 1966 coins (€12 to €15 each), in uncirculated condition. Interesting oddities include an early 19th century Blackamoor figure (€600 to €1,000), the carved wood decorated in traditional style costume and polychrome motifs. For further details and viewing times, see


A large auction of furniture and fittings, mostly originating from the hospitality and commercial sector, will take place in Unit 1c, Toughers Business Park, Newbridge, on Saturday March 5 at 11am.

The sale, conducted by Michael V Mullen, will be a large one with more than 1,000 items from premises including the Berkeley Court Hotel in Ballsbridge; Belmont House, Knock; and the Bank of Ireland, Baggot Street.

Further details available from

Indo Property

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