June Treasure of the Month

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June Treasure of the Month

A snuff box attributed to Johann Christian Neuber, dated c. 1775

The Treasure of the Month series offers the opportunity to highlight less well-known works from the collection and to look with fresh eyes on beloved masterpieces. This month, Senior Curator Dr Helen Jacobsen reveals not only the stunning beauty of Neuber’s snuffbox but also the artistry and skill of its makers, opening up its secrets in the process...

The box is attributed to Johann Christian Neuber, a goldsmith in Dresden and Court Jeweller to Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony. He was renowned as a ‘maker of galanteries’, or small precious yet useful objects like watch cases, cane handles and snuffboxes, mainly set with hardstones. This box is made from plaques of carnelian, a semi-precious stone, which are set in a fine, spidery trellis of gold; it was originally intended for holding snuff, at a time when taking snuff – a powdered tobacco product – was a fashionable habit.

On the lid is a scene depicting Leda and the Swan, probably taken from an anonymous print source and carved by another Dresden lapidary. The allusion to classical Antiquity would have made the box attractive as a highly fashionable accessory in the neoclassical style. It would also have appealed to collectors of hardstones, who were interested in the newly developing science of mineralogy.

The admiration for hardstones was nothing new; in his Natural History Pliny had written about the high regard in which they were held for their beauty and colour, and since Roman times there had been skilled craftsmen who were able to cut and polish semi-precious stones for use in jewellery, vases and other decorative objects. These skills were revived in the Renaissance, and the interest in hardstones developed; in the eighteenth-century collectors included natural historians, connoisseurs and even artists, for example François Boucher.

Mounting hardstones in snuffboxes became a popular way to combine natural history curiosities with objets d’art. Saxony was particularly blessed with rich deposits of these semi-precious stones and new methods of cutting and polishing were developed, allowing Dresden to become a major centre of production.

The early history of the Neuber box is unknown, but it was later owned by several renowned collectors who valued it not so much as a functioning snuff box but as a prized work of art. By 1870 it was in the collection of Empress Eugénie, who brought it and several other goldboxes to London when she went into exile, perhaps with the intention of realizing their cash value. Sir Richard Wallace bought it and five more of her boxes in 1872 from the dealer, Frederick Davis, to whom she had entrusted their sale.

There is, however, more to the Neuber box than meets the eye...

By depressing part of the base, two hidden portraits are revealed – one of Voltaire and the other of the marquise du Châtelet, a renowned mathematician and sometime lover of the great author. The portraits are both in remarkably pristine condition, perhaps because the secret of how to release them was lost until 1976 when they were rediscovered by chance. The mystery of the box does not stop there, as both miniatures date from after the box was made: we do not know when they were added or what was originally hidden in this secret space.

- Dr Helen Jacobsen, Senior Curator