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Full set of armorials in matching box

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Every now and then something VERY special comes along! This box is a true box of delights - there were just so many surprises attached. I have found very few boxes with matching armorial deep-carved counters, so that was a very good start; and the quality of the counters was very high, with great scenes and very good mother-of-pearl with few striations or other defects. It was increasingly exciting as I went through the counters in the box. How many times have I got to 130 counters and then slowly run out of steam?? This time I couldn't quite believe the tally: 146!!! What was going on? We know that there were 140 counters in a full set and I have long suspected that there were originally a couple of extras provided - possibly one of each shape as spares in case of accident or loss.  But six extras?? Then I went through again - there was an extra shape in there - a smaller round and there were five of them. And 141 of the 'normal' three shapes - round, 'square' and long-oblong, with one extra long-oblong. On closer inspection, the extra small rounds were of a different quality (see image 13 for the two sizes of round counters) - the scenes were exceptionally well-carved. And then it became clear that this box was a complete full set of 140 with one spare - AND a specially commissioned Whist marker set with the same armorial. Whist marker sets would originally have comprised eight counters, so the set was not complete - but it was fortunate that the main set was complete - only the fourth full set I have ever found and only the second armorial one.

A great start. The counters themselves were equally exciting: an unusual crest of a bird 'rising' from a tree stump which was sprouting in both directions and the monogram in Gothic script of GRAR.  Turning to Fairbairn,  the standard handbook for attributing family crests, was a disappointment as the crest was not to be found. The counters do not offer any further help and for me it adds a whole new dimension to a counter when it is possible to work out who the original owner was - or at least their family name. I then turned my attention to the lacquer box. As is the case with most games boxes, the outside was very dirty and to be honest, didn't look very attractive! But as soon as I took off the lid and saw the unusual huge gilded panorama inside the lid (image 6), I knew that this was not an ordinary box. The inside was beautiful and fresh with bright gilding but no further clues to its original owner. The crest was there on the outside of the lid but it was quite hard to make out, and was exactly the same as on the counters except that there was no monogram; this struck me as rather odd. But then - HEY PRESTO! - there was a very faint banner above the crest; unfortunately very dirty, worn and indistinct. Some time ago, I had bought a digital microscope and had had very little cause to use it: and it was like magic when applied to the crest, because it was possible to just make out a few letters of the original motto! And with  much further experimentation with the machine it was possible to put together the full motto: CEDANT ARMA TOGAE, meaning 'Let arms yield to the gown' and it did not take long to discover that this was the motto for Reade, a baronet from Ipswich. Even at this stage, there have been numerous occasions when the exact family attribution for counters has still remained elusive: but everything fell into place perfectly this time! The Reade family crest is recorded as 'on the stump of a tree sprouting on either side, a falcon rising proper'. Fairbairn, rather unusually, records this but does not illustrate it which explains why it was so elusive at first.

 It still remains for me to discover who exactly  G.R.A Reade was, but that, I hope, will come with further research. The motto indicates that the original Reade was probably a lawyer or perhaps a politician and the counters being made around 1840 means that should be possible to determine.

The counters are of excellent quality: it is of interest that the Whist marker set was in my view the work of one of the elite artists involved in decorating mother-of-pearl counters. The normal set has standard subject matter for the full scenes: people at leisure on terraces, playing musical instruments, involved in conversations and performing tasks around the buildings; excellent quality craftsmanship with numerous layers of decoration and even the lowest level of the pearl being incised with decorative features. The Whist markers go even one step higher: they have scenes with boats and horses - subjects which only appear rarely on gaming counters, no doubt because of the artistic demands of such portrayals on mother-of-pearl. I have shown illustrations of several of the whist markers as well as the standard counters for comparison ( images 14-17).

 The box and counters have taken their place in my collection after the excellent work of my restorer in cleaning and renovating the box which is now a very different sight from how it was when I took it to her! And she has even managed to restore the motto so that you no longer need a digital microscope to make it out!

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