A Brief History of Horn

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A Brief History of Horn 2015-07-17T10:35:11+00:00

A Brief History of Horn

Horn has a long history of being shaped by heat and pressure and may be regarded as the earliest forerunner of plastics. Horn with moulded impressions of fine detail are among the earliest examples of the plastic moulders art. Exactly how it was done is lost in history, but it is undoubtedly from this beginning that plastics moulding was developed.  This page is taken from an article by Adele Schaverien in plastiquarian no.22 and is an abridged version of a talk she gave to PHS members in 1999.

Horn is a natural thermoplastic protein with similar properties to some synthetic polymers: it can be moulded when heat and pressure are applied or reapplied. Its most interesting use is as a medium for relief work, usually referred to as ‘pressed horn’. Many questions remain unanswered, but my theory on how and when this particular use of horn developed is based on surviving evidence.

Horn and baleen are formed from keratin, a protein. The horn sheath grows around a bony core in a laminated form (1), and is removed either by rotting or soaking in water, a sharp tap then usually sufficing to separate the two. An early drawing of a German lantern-maker gives a glimpse of the type of press used in the fifteenth century and shows how little tool design has varied since. An eighteenth-century illustration shows a press that clearly worked on the same principle, although considerably bigger and with pressure applied by a horizontal rather than a vertical screw mechanism. Nineteenth century presses appear unchanged, but by then steam pressure was used both for horn and tortoiseshell.

In the absence of written records, and therefore very little physical evidence, one has to speculate on how the impressing or stamping of horn developed. Working from the premise that horn was not decorated before the Middle Ages in this way, one might begin with allied trades such as Tanners and Leather Bottlemakers, who often worked in proximity to the Horners, close to a river upstream of the latter and outside the city limits. This connection is apparent in the Coat of Arms of the Worshipful Company of Horners which displays three leather bottles on the shield around the chevron that carries three bugle-horns (2). Observing the techniques employed by the bottlemakers in embossing and moulding their leather products may perhaps have led to the similar treatment of horn.

A late fourteenth- or early fifteenth-century leather costrel or pilgrims’ bottle (3) is an example of impressed leather (4). The question is, did the horner develop a technique through these links, because the low relief achieved in early examples of moulded or pressed horn appears very similar. Rare Items from the reserve collections of the Museum of London, the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert (V & A) and the Wellcome Collection exemplify early horn relief work: many are of a religious nature. Two fifteenth-century inkpots (5) may well be the earliest examples of pressed horn work that have so far been found, while a seventeenth century horn plaque (6) is another fine survival. Plaques appeared in the late 1500s and early 1600s in Italy, Germany and Austria. Somewhat cruder in execution are two seventeenth -century amulets from Greece (7). Many decorated pieces have been described as ‘carved’, but were the main details moulded before the final carving was added? These objects would have been made in considerable quantities to be bought by pilgrims as they passed, so why not mould in the initial stage of preparation? The second amulet is probably carved, but certainly both illustrate the uncertainty as to how they were made. An oval box, impressed with shallow relief, is a further example of work prior to the eighteenth century (8).

The most beautiful examples of pressed horn are undoubtedly those produced by master craftsmen in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, three of whom are known by name: John Osborn, Samuel Lamberlet and John Obrisset. Their plaques and boxes were mainly produced by die-casting, possibly with final chasing after the initial pressing. The earliest examples, c. 1626, are Osborn’s plaques of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, and his wife Amelia (Fig.l): these portraits were executed with outstandingly fine detail. John Osborn (1581-1643) was English but lived in Amsterdam, and worked in both horn and baleen. Whaling products were landed in Amsterdam and ‘The Northern Company’ was interested in finding more ways to market them (9). Osborn was in his way an entrepreneur, and developed a method of preparing baleen for decorating furniture, picture frames and bas relief panels. Only two of the latter are known to have survived, one in the USA. The style is quite different to the exquisite detail of the formal plaques (10).

There is a strong and intriguing link with medallists and their work (11). The Pinto Collection (12) has a large display of gaming pieces in boxwood, produced in the seventeenth century by PH Muller and Martin Brunner, and all decorated in the style of medals (13). A portrait bust of Queen Anne by Samuel Lamberlet (Fig. 2) is one of the earliest examples of an eighteenth-century pressed horn box. He was born in Neuchatel and worked as medallist to the Court of Brunswick-Luneberg from c. 1698-1727, producing medallions in horn, pressed from metal dies, which he set into the lids of snuffboxes. These illustrate the devices used by medallists. They often placed wording -‘the legend’ – on a separate defined ‘ring’ and, when this occurs on horn boxes, it appears to be superimposed on the medallion. A star or dot is placed (within the ring) between each word or initial in the legend, and a daisy or marguerite shape at the end, followed by the medallist’s initials, e.g. SE. (The latter are sometimes within the design of the box lid.) In many examples, the same medallion has been used to decorate these lids, but individuality appears to have been achieved by framing each plaque with a variety of moulded rings. Some vary in width, some are convex or concave, and a few have a reeded finish, so that one is left to conclude that different moulded rings were selected from a prepared stock and placed around the impressed plaque to form the box lid.

Both Lamberlet and John Obrisset, a Huguenot who worked in London in the same period, chose to make portraits copied from contemporary medals. Knowledge of how these boxes were made is lost, but it is possible that a method to soften horn was employed before subjecting the plaques to the dies. Manuscripts that date from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries reveal that ways of softening horn, ivory and bone were known, although one wonders how depth of relief was achieved.

The problems faced by working horners today are that the material has been altered through breeding and modern feeding. A good result will not be achieved if the flattened plate is not absolutely smooth, and the ever-present unknown factor is that the horn will not respond if it retains its ‘memory’. John Obrisset’s father was an ivory carver in Dieppe: the family fled to England after the Edict of Nantes. Often a son tries to improve on his father’s business methods, and perhaps this is why he turned his hand to impressing horn and tortoiseshell. John called himself a carver, but has also been described as a medallist and snuffbox maker. The Horners’ Company is extremely fortunate to have five boxes signed by him and three others attributed to his workshop, as well as three signed by Samuel Lamberlet. Two similar boxes have a portrait bust of Charles 1, one circular (Fig.3) and one oval. It is likely that a cast was taken from a medal by John Roettiers struck in 1670. Was their depth of relief due to advanced technical achievement or to comply with baroque taste? There are two possible explanations: were the boxes chased after the initial stamping or was the horn softened sufficiently to allow deeper relief?

‘Horn moulds’ Horn was not only a medium for receiving impressions: it was also used as a mould – the subject was raised while researching horn objects in the Sculpture Department of the V&A. It was a hope, quickly dashed, that these moulds might be examples of those used to produce the remarkable pressed horn boxes. I was subsequently able to study some 20 moulds at the Department of Medieval & Later Antiquities at the British Museum. Philip Attwood, of the Museum’s Coins & Medals Department, identified many of these moulds as incuse versions of medals struck in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (14).

The use of horn as a mould is puzzling because there is a limit to the amount of heat and pressure that can be applied without ‘reverting’, or spoiling the cast taken from the medal. Several had four location holes, presumably to align them in a press, but there was no record of their function. All the moulds show very clear, fine detail so that anything introduced into the moulds would have had to be sufficiently ‘soft’ and require low temperatures to make a satisfactory pressing.

However, after prolonged enquiries, I came across an entry in the catalogue of the 1882 Exhibition arranged by the Horners’ Company: Item 95 – Horn mould for embossed straw work. Marian Nichols and a colleague at Luton Museum provided the answers relating to such work. It was produced throughout Europe and used to amazing effect, largely for a wide range of mementos. Boxes of every kind were made, as well as fans, furniture and pictures. Today we would refer to these objects as giftware or souvenirs, and they were indeed produced for the mass market (15). The Holy Family picture shown (Fig. 4) is signed on the back by the maker (16). Clearly horn moulds were used to build up designs and the illustration (Fig.5) demonstrates how this was done.

A late eighteenth-century box showing views of Rouen in shallow relief illustrates the difference between the handling of this period and that earlier. The relief appears sharper than the seventeenth-century box, even allowing for wear and tear. Rouen was a prodigious centre of horn-working. The bases of these later boxes, whether in horn or wood, have a variety of impressed designs such as intricate basket weaves or trellis patterns on the underside of the base. They were rarely left plain, as were the early eighteenth-century boxes. Moulded wood lids of the type known as ‘Napoleonic’ were also decorated with a wide range of subjects and their bases impressed with patterns similar to those produced in horn.

By the 1840-50s the production in vast numbers of hoof and horn buttons and hoof/ horn composition brooches was well under way for the armed services, service industries, private household and club liveries – and, of course, fashion. The Horners’ Company has a collection of brooches, and there are buttons in the archives of James Grove & Son, Halesowen (17). (Horn buttons were made in the eighteenth century, and possibly in the seventeenth, but none are known to have survived.) Finally, an exceptionally interesting piece owned by the Horners is the ‘Handel Box’ Illustrated (Fig.6). It is made in an exotic, so far unidentified wood with the outer detail carved, but are the portrait busts of Frederick George Handel and William Shakespeare moulded or carved – or have both methods been employed in making this box?

References (1) Horn differs from baleen, which forms a fine tubular structure in large plates in certain whales as it acts as a filter when they feed on plankton. (2) They formally amalgamated In 1476 after a close association for over a 100 years. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, through excessive taxes and falling business, many guilds either died or joined with an allied trade to survive. (3) In the reserve collection at the Museum of London. Illustrated in Fisher’s History of the Horners, facing p.32. (4) This leatherwork is often referred to as ‘cuir bouilli’. The leather is soaked In cold water until well saturated, when it is very plastic. It can be moulded over formers or in moulds of either plaster, wood or metal. Tooling, stamping or punching is carried out when damp. It is then allowed to dry gradually, supported by the mould or filling which is later removed. (5) From the reserve collection at the Museum of London. (6) In the British Museum. (7) In the V & A sculpture col lection. (8) In the Wellcome Collection, Science Museum, London and thought to date from the seventeenth century. (9) Like horn, baleen was used to produce a huge variety of useful items. (10) ‘The Northern Company’ as a result granted him an exclusive patent in 1614 and in the intervening years until the Dutch monopoly was dissolved in 1641 two years before he died. (11) In the nineteenth century a scholar declared that ‘impressed wooden medallions was an art which was brought to great perfection in Germany late in the seventeenth century’. (12) The Pinto Collection is in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. (13) It is likely they would have been used for draughts or backgammon. Perhaps these examples are not surprising since German medallists chose boxwood or pearwood to produce the models when preparing a medal. Medallists were also known to work on plaques and snuffboxes. (14) Medals have been used since Roman times both as a public relations exercise and propaganda. (15) By laying the straw across the grain a marquetry and/or parquetry effect was achieved. Sometimes it was dyed but if left in natural colour it had the effect of gold embroidery. (16) ‘Roland’ lived in Le Puy-en-Velay which was on a pilgrims’ route. He worked during the latter part of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century as a merchant and ‘maitre de paille’. (17) Among the dies cut by James Grove during the 1840-50s were sporting buttons with delightful, lively designs. Usually these buttons were made from hoof, since this was easier to work. Small circular pieces cut to size were placed in a heated mould, six or twelve at a time, the operator applying pressure and removing the cooled buttons in a relentless continuous process.

Figs. 2-5 are reproduced by kind permission of the British Art Medal Society, c/o Department of Coins and Medals, British Museum. [See also A Schaverien, The Medal, ‘ Horn, Medals and Straw’, no. 32, 31-38, 19981 The articles shown in Figs. 2, 3 and 6 form part of the collection of the Worshipful Company of Horners.