Collecting Candlesticks

If you walked into my home today, one of the first things you would almost certainly notice is a large collection of 17th and 18th c. brass candlesticks; about 60 of them on the fireplace mantel and maybe another 100 scattered throughout the house. What, you may ask, is Bill’s obsession with early brass candlesticks?

 

In thinking about it, I realize it goes back to my younger years. As a kid my parents took me to Colonial Williamsburg; a restoration of an entire 18th c. Virginia town. My interests were always in the craft shops where tradesman dressed in period clothing demonstrated their craft. My two favorite shops were a combined cabinet maker/musical instrument maker and the Getty Foundry. I could spend hours in those shops watching the craftsman and asking them questions. Note to museum demonstrators: Some of those annoying kids that just keep asking questions may grow up to do something you inspired, Thank you.

 

At the Getty Foundry, they made shiny brass candlesticks, which you could buy in the gift shop. They had the most interesting shapes and pleasing proportions, all copied from 18th c. English originals. When we were just a colony, before the revolution, America had no brass industries yet and was forced to import what they needed from England. When my mother redecorated the house in the early 70’s she bought some of these reproduction candlesticks. I grew up with these candlesticks adorning the dining room sideboard, and though the only time the candles were ever lit was Christmas dinner, their presence in my life left an indelible mark.

 

When I got into making miniatures, I started copying these candlesticks. In fact, many of my early miniatures reflect my childhood fascination with Colonial Williamsburg.

 

Fast-forwarding about 40 years to 2010, I was spending a lot of time in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of my many pastimes was riding my bicycle around town to the different flea markets on weekend mornings. Being the collector I am, I have always searched out every type of antique venue and market, looking for objects to own or copy. One morning I spotted a lovely brass candlestick made in England, circa 1760 or thereabouts; It was 100 Danish Kroner (about $17)! Back home in the fine antique shop around the corner from my house, it would have easily been $400. Needless to say, I bought it. I got to thinking “if there is one nice period candlestick, there must be more!” So the next day I rode to some different markets and found 2 more for under $50. I didn’t quite realize at the time, that this was the start of a new collecting obsession.

 

 As my visits to Copenhagen increased, my hunt for period candlesticks became a bit more excessive. This was partially fueled by the fact that nearly every time I went hunting I found at least one at a very reasonable price. I quickly noticed the different styles and countries they were made in. I also figured out that 18th c. Danish candlesticks were priced much higher in Denmark than 18th c. English candlesticks. It seems the Danish dealers didn’t know much about English brass and therefore had no idea of a sticks age or how to price them.

 

One thing I found interesting was that on almost every aisle of every flea market there were at least a dozen candlesticks; far more than you would see at a market here in the states. It seems the Danes love candles, partly to brighten up long dark winters, and partly because of Hggye, the Danish art of coziness. Many Danes light candles nearly every night, on the dining room table, the windowsills, and anywhere else they might brighten one's life. They sell votive candles in the grocery stores in bags of 100s (that is often only a week’s supply). For centuries these people have been, and still are, surrounded by candles and candlesticks. But just as fashion changes, so does the desire to modernize their homes—they don’t want their homes looking like their grandmothers’, with that old junk cluttering up their modern Ikea looking apartment.

 

As people upgrade to more modern accessories, the flea markets and junk shops fill up with lovely old candlesticks; some old, some new. I studied the ones that looked interesting to me in museums and books, soon learning to spot the difference between a 17th c. original and a 19th c. copy from 20 feet away and whether it was from English, Spanish, Dutch, French or German origin. My shopping continued and at times, I even had to buy an extra suitcase to bring home my finds. I thought of myself as a “bottom feeder,” buying only the early ones at the lowest prices. My best deal was a Spanish stick from about 1660 which I got for $6!

 

Even when I was back home in the States, yearning to be cycling around the flea markets across Europe, I could get my fix on eBay. My most successful shopping was on foreign eBay sites, in their own language. Just as with the flea markets, people that don’t want grandma’s old junk and don’t know its value, sell it cheap. There were a few Danish designs from the early 18th c. I saw in museums that I just had to own. I eventually added those to my collection; usually for much higher prices than I would normally have paid, but still, less than the thousands of dollars I have seen them sell for. 

 

Unlike my childhood, where you might only light candles for special occasions, I use candles all the time and tend to buy them by the gross. I enjoy lighting them nearly every day (though never all 60 on the mantel at once as it would get a little hot!). I have finally stopped buying candlesticks as I’ve run out of space. My recent obsession, collecting Danish paintings, will end soon for the same reason.

With the knowledge I have gained about period candlesticks I often make copies of them in miniature. When I make a miniature, I very often have a full-scale version on my workbench—I feel that having the real thing in your hand while making the miniature lets some of its soul transfer to the work. The miniature becomes more than just a little candlestick sitting on a table; it is researched and correct for the period. In the “Stories” section of this website, I will share what I have learned through pictures and narratives of me making a miniature candlestick, from beginning to end.

 

I machine them from solid pieces of brass as opposed to making a pattern and casting them in quantity. Each one is an original. Many of the complex shapes would challenge the most experienced machinist. To me this is the fun part, figuring how to make them. It brings together so many interests of mine: History, thoughts of travel, challenging machining, and beauty.

 Step-by-step images of 

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William R. Robertson | Kansas City, MO

"Details Matter"