Sometimes an object comes along that intersects lines of collecting…this is such a piece. I love wax dolls, and currently, I have been hyper-interested in sea shells, and Georgian shell art. I saw it offered for sale from a shop in the Netherlands. It doesn’t take much to realize that shipping this any distance presents a challenge, however from the Netherlands to the US? I knew this was a risky move but I couldn’t resist getting this piece. The seller packed it extremely well and it made it here in record time. Sadly, the old glue that held the larger doll in place gave way in the journey, and the adult doll was upside down on her head when she arrived. The head is very thin, hollow wax and she has thin, red wax boots. In the tussle, one of the boots shattered and she got a little ding on her head. Given the fragile nature of this, I am amazed that the thin, old glass didn’t break, and thankfully the wax head didn’t break. As I mentioned it was very well packed and if only the old coating of glue was just a bit stronger, things would probably have been ok.
However, this mishap gave me an opportunity to see this piece in a way that I would not have had otherwise. The more I looked, the more I loved it and wanted to know more. Given the fact that the inhabitants of this little shell scene were upside down, I had no choice but to try to get inside the box. As mentioned, amazingly, the glass did not get damaged in shipping. The glass is held permanently in place with some type of composition or cement embedded with shells and shell operculum. Damage to this would have been a disaster and beyond repair.
The seller has given me permission to use the “before” pictures since they are the only reference I had of the box before the shipping problems. It took many fearful hours to remove the back of the box, held in place with sturdy glue and square nails. This was likely assembled from the back forward, so I was afraid the shells were layered in such a way as to cause damage when removing the back. I was especially afraid of the larger abalone shell on top. It seems good fortune was in my favor once again, since when I was finally able to remove the back, only a few small shells came loose! Once inside, the many little treasures revealed themselves!
The wax dolls date from the very late 1700’s to about 1805…so safe to say 1800. They are typical of wax dolls of this time, likely from England. The larger doll has a wax head and arms. She has a coarse linen body and red wax boots. I have several dolls this same size from this era. I’ve seen wax boots in red, blue and green. The baby is likely solid wax, with tiny molded blue-green wax boots. The larger doll is dressed in a typical dress for the Regency era, made of fine gauze with a high waist and embroidered accents. Her hair is also typical of the Regency era, just short and wispy, painted on the wax. Her hat tops off her Regency attire in a turban style with a feather accent. Having just finished sewing and entire Regency wardrobe for a doll I have, I am very into the clothing details right now. At first I was able to find 4 of 5 pieces of the broken wax boot. The missing piece was pretty large, so I couldn’t imagine were it was. Finally, a gentle shake and it came from behind its hiding place among the shells! I was able to piece all of together to rebuild the little red shoe.
There are so many wonderful and interesting aspects to this piece. The person I got it from thought it may have been made to represent a Christening. I’ve done some searching on the internet as to symbolism of the objects within the box. Aside from the female and child, there are many things that may link the items to a birth, or anticipated birth and good fortune after marriage perhaps? I’ll list each of those in a bit.
I have to say, that handling this doll, knowing I was the first person to do so since she was placed in the box by the creator over 200 years ago was quite moving for me.
The first big surprise once the box was opened was the pocket watch. This has a porcelain enameled face and the numbers and hands are all hand painted. If you look at the “before” pictures above, you’ll see that the watch has a few chain links attached which go up above into the shell ceiling. There is a blue glass bead which is on a extension to the right of the watch. Once the back was removed, out popped a much longer chain which had lodged itself at one time above the abalone shell! On the chain was a watch key and a purple glass wax seal fob charm…all completely miniature and I imagine original to this toy watch. Pocket watches at this time needed a key to keep them wound. The tiny fob seal appears to have a portrait of King George III…it looks very much like him and the time would be correct. This amazing little discovery was such a surprise and conjured up all sorts of stories in my mind. King George III frequented English seaside resorts such as Brighton and Weymouth. This was due in part to his poor health and the reported benefits of sea air, sea baths and drinking seawater to cure various ailments. Shell work was a past time for ladies in the Georgian, Regency and even Victorian eras. Shells were collected and fashioned into various objects, as well as amazing room interiors and grottos. It is easy for me to imagine this little treasure box being made at one of the Georgian seaside resorts!
The little watch key has a design on each side. I believe the blue glass bead post was originally to hold the chain, and this is how I reassembled it. Perhaps there is some significance to the time painted on the watch face? I’ll never know…
In addition to this hidden treasure, the box is filled with many other things. Getting into the box gave me a good opportunity to dust and lightly clean the interior. There is a little glass covered pond or water’s edge, filled below the surface of the glass with sea treasures, and seaweed. For me, this also makes a connection to a seaside resort where shell collecting was a favorite pastime. I love this little detail in the piece! Alongside the water are some rocks upon which some items are placed.
There is a small chalice or goblet which appears to be made of bone. Some of the symbolism behind this could be ceremonial drinking, a sharing of blessings, in Christianity – holy communion, and in paganism the vessel is a symbol of femininity.
There is a tiny molded bird, with a reddish breast – so perhaps a Robin. This could symbolize Spring, good fortune, new beginnings or rebirth.
There is a molded basket with some kind of fruit in it. I am not quite sure what it is. They appear to be molded but could be some type of seed pod. At any rate, they represent a bountiful basket of some type of harvest. The basket, along with the bird and various other little sections of the box are gilded. It looks like thin sheets of gold leaf since some of them were loose.
Also next to the water is what I think is a sheep or goat. It is molded of some type of clay and has an actual ball of wool for the body. There are many meanings that could be attached to this. The fact that it has horns does not necessarily mean it is a male. Sheep are often a symbol of peace and purity. In Greek mythology, Amalthaea – the goddess of nurture was represented as a goat that nurtured the infant Zeus. I read that this is where the term “Nanny” came from. In Celtic cultures, the goat is associated with healing and motherhood. The zodiac sign, Aries the Ram is tied to spring, or new beginnings. There are also many connections to the horns as cornucopia or horn of plenty, and drinking vessels. A more basic association would be an association with agriculture or having sheep to be able to provide a source of wool for weaving. I tend to think of the sheep as a sign of “plenty” in this scene.
Other charming details of this enclosure are the little mirror on the back of the scene. Perhaps it’s just decorative or made to represent a window. In the picture below, you can see the watch chain in it’s new position.
There is a tiny piece of painted trim just in front where the lady is seated. I think this would indicate something that she would be sitting on alongside the water. Once I got to see the entire doll, she has a gold foil paper purse at her waist on the far side, so not readily visible from the front. Her dress is trimmed with old style metal sequins which are attached with wound head straight pins. This was a earlier method of making pins where the head was actually a wire wound around to form the head. She has a little necklace of metal wire and a pendant fashioned out of metal foil. There was a matching foil accent on the far side of her turban hat, which I switched to the front to cover the ding to her head.
The interior of the box is painted with pea green paint that is seen so often in the 18th century. And then, there are the shells! The pretty mixture of pink and purple clam shells on the interior mixed with some more exotic types of shells on the front interior. There are also blue glass beads forming the centers of three shell flowers on the top, along with the little bits of gold leaf throughout. On the ceiling of the box is a piece of sea fan. I love the placement of the large abalone shell in the top of the box – it makes such a statement! All of these pieces had to fit together perfectly once it was time to seal the box again.
Considering this was assembled from back to front, being closed off with the glass once it was completed, this is the first a glimpse ever from the back of the box, which I found very thought provoking.
It is like a secret look at how this little doll has been sitting and peering through the glass of her little world for ages…a view that may never have been seen if not for the mishap. I did not want to glue the doll again, and so my solution was to sew cotton batting to the back of her dress and glue that to the box. You can see that in the photo below.
While I was really upset that I had to alter the back of this box, I feel I did as little as possible to change the original state of the box. It is quite possible it was given as a gift for a new child, or perhaps as a marriage gift with wishes of abundant harvest, good fortune and a family. Whatever the purpose, it is so special and so easy to get lost looking at this lovingly assembled treasure.