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Robertson: armorial shell and counters

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There are fifteen armorial porcelain services attributed to the Robertson families in David Howard's Chinese Armorial Porcelain; four of them ordered by the Robertsons of Struan, one of the oldest Scottish families, chiefs of the Clan Donnochie and descended from the ancient Earls of Atholl and from Duncan King of Scotland. Their crest is distinctive in being 'a dexter hand erect holding an imperial crown' which was awarded after the clan chief Robert apprehended the murderers of the King of Scotland, James I, in the fifteenth century.  Their arms also have a very distinctive feature associated with this event: beneath the  escutcheon is a man lying in chains. The motto was also awarded in recognition of the event: 'VIRTUTIS GLORIS MERCES' ( Glory is the reward of valour).

Three prerviously known examples of counters made for related branches of the Robertsons are shown; the first shows the arms of Robertsons of Pitmillan; the second (both sides are shown) is a magnificent set with deep-carved decoration and fretted border and of very large size; the third looks like a rather poor relation after that on, and may even be just that! 

Recently a rare opportunity to acquire new counters for this family arose when it became clear that the Robertsons of Struan also ordered TWO sets of deep-carved armorial counters from Canton. These sets were not often ordered as they were so time-consuming to produce and therefore so expensive. The two sets both have deep-carved decoration- as usual with every single counter showing a different artistic scene; one set had the arms, crest and motto in a roundel and the other had the same details integrated into the design of the counter with no border ( in a style identical to the design of the shell, see below). This is a very unusual occurence. It could be that one variation was produced as a full set of 140 counters and the other as a whist marker set of perhaps eight counters.This was special enough; but what really elevated this auction lot was the inclusion of a beautiful, fully carved armorial mother-of-pearl shell. These shells were produced in very small numbers and prhaps four or five different ones are known to exist. Furthermore, the 'pair' of this shell isfeatured in David Howard's  'A Tale of Three Cities' on page 332. The one shown there is the mirror image of this one. David Howard suggests that these were produced to mark a very special occasion - perhaps for a baptism.

This auction was reported in the Antiques Trade Gazette on Tuesday 20 January 2009.

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