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Toilet and writing box

Toilet and writing box

  • Place of origin:

    Spa (The tradition of producing small boxes and other wooden souvenir pieces at Spa in Belgium began as early as the mid-17th century, to provide for visitors who came to take the mineral waters there. , made)

  • Date:

    1790-1800 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Birch and beech, with painted decoration

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Mrs Lothian Nicholson

  • Museum number:

    W.32 to G-1916

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

The mineral water springs at Spa in modern-day Belgium were among the first to attract substantial numbers of visitors. Firstly they came for their health but later just as tourists. Makers were quick to spot an opportunity to see small items as souvenirs. In 1717 a new Pump Room was opened and even more people flocked to the town, which was to give its name to all resorts with mineral springs (like Bath and Tunbridge Wells) and later to any resort which offered care to the body. In the 18th century painted decoration became highly popular. It was relatively cheap to produce, colourful and eye-catching. This form of decoration, which imitates engravings in paint, became popular after about 1780, when prints were widely available and often used in decoration. This box is unsigned and we do not know the name of its painter but he or she was certainly influenced by the designs of a more celebrated painted, Antoine Le Loup (1730-1802), who produced similar grisaille (monochrome) views set within roundels.

Physical description

Rectangular box of wood (probably birch, possibly beech), painted in green, pink and cream, and with scenes in reserves painted in <i>grisaille</i>. The box has a hinged lid, fitted with a mirror that is hinged along the front edge of the lid, allowing its lower edge to sit within the front edge of the box. This supports the mirror at the correct angle for use on a table. The body of the box is fitted with a tray with two boxes, one for pens and ink, one with a pincushion fitted to the lid.
The box is painted on the outside with a light green ground, with framing bands of pink with a cream (perhaps originally white) inner 'stringing' band and a black stringing along the edges of the box. On the top the pink framing bands are wider than on the sides and are embellished with a diamond trellis in white or cream. The centre of the top is painted with a circular scene against a square pink ground with a fine cream or white edging. The image is set within a cream or white band and is painted in grisaille (grey tones) with a woman shearing a sheep and a boy with a basket, all against a wooded landscape. The flesh tones of the figures are naturalistically coloured. The sides of the box are painted with similar but smaller scenes in circles or ovals. showing buildings and landscapes in the neighbourhood of Spa, identified as:
LA GERONSTERE - on the front
LE VAUX HALL ASPA [sic] - on the Proper Left of the box
LA SOUVENIERE - on the back of the box
LE TONNELET - on the Proper Right of the box
La Geronstere, La Souvenière and Le Tonnelet are springs of mineral water in the area of Spa. 'Le Vaux Hall' was the Assembly Rooms, the centre of all entertainment. It derives its name from Vauxhall Gardens in London, already a famous pleasure garden.
The mirror frame, which does not entirely fit the yellow-painted interior of the box, is painted with a green band on a pink ground, the band edged with a fine line of white, the edges of the mirror with a fine black line. The back of the mirror is covered with black paper, broken through along two sides of the mirror. The mirror shows damage to the silvering on the left-hand side. At the base there is evidence of a (now lost) turn-button, to secure the mirror when the lid of the box is closed.
The interior of the box is also painted yellow and fitted with a deep, removeable tray with four unequal-sized compartments, all painted blue. The tray has slightly raised pierced handles to either side, formed from a continuation of the sides. The base of the tray is unpainted. The tray is fitted with two rectangular boxes (B and C) one with a pink silk pin cushion fitted to the lid and the other fitted with a pen compartment and with two brass-topped containers for ink and for pounce. The tray is also fitted with a square tinned iron box, perhaps for a sponge to clean a pen.
The underside of the main box is stained black. It is fitted with a small lock of tinned iron, but the key is missing. The base of the smaller boxes are unpainted and appear to be of birch.

The box may be made of birch or beech. The underside of the tray is of unpainted beech, but it is uncler what the painted areas of the box are made of, although it is known that such boxes were often made of birch. The boxes are simply glued together with the front and back of the main box fitted within rebates cut in the end of the sides, and the top and base fully rebated into the sides. On the tray, the sides are simply butt-jointed, with the longer side enclosing the shorter. The partitions are fitted into V-shaped grooves cut in the sides. The smaller boxes within the larger are made in a similar fashion. The decoration is painted directly onto the woods, as is evident from the craquelure (crazing) of the painted surface.

The box is chipped and abraded in places but is generally in fair condition. The surface shows craquelure from the contraction of the varnish, and the movement of the underlying wood, and the varnish has strongly yellowed with the passage of time. The mirror is missing a turn-button to keep it in place. The base of the tray shows one complete crack and two cracks of lesser length. There is no evidence of repair to either of the hinges (as described when it came into the Museum), which may suggest that both hinges have been replaced.

Place of Origin

Spa (The tradition of producing small boxes and other wooden souvenir pieces at Spa in Belgium began as early as the mid-17th century, to provide for visitors who came to take the mineral waters there. , made)


1790-1800 (made)


Unknown (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Birch and beech, with painted decoration

Marks and inscriptions

No translation found
On the front of the box. This is the name of one of the mineral springs in the neighbourhood of Spa

The Vauxhall at Spa
The main Assembly Rooms at Spa were known as 'Le Vaux Hall', taking the name from the pleasure grounds on the south bank of the Thames in London. The painter has ommitted a space after the initial A in the final word as written here.

No translation found
Name of a mineral spring in the neighbourhood of Spa

The keg
Name of a mineral spa in the neighbourhood of Spa


Height: 34 cm open with mirror at angle, Width: 21.5 cm, Depth: 31.5 cm, Height: 11.2 cm lid closed

Object history note

Given to the Museum by Mrs Lothian Nicholson, Skipper Hill, Five Ashes, Sussex (see Registered File 1916/987M) on MA/1/N668. The condition of the box when it was acquired was described as 'chipped; hinge broken'. It was suggested that this made a good comparison with another Spa box, made about 40 years earlier (W.21-1914) recently purchased from the Fitzhenry Collection.

Spa had been noted for its healing mineral water springs since the 14th century. By the 17th century it was already much visitied and by the end of the 18th century it had received the popular title of the 'café of Europe' from the Holy Roman Emperor, who visited in 1781. Its name became the generic word for any resort that offered healing waters. In England Bath and Tunbridge Wells became known as 'spas'. It was a place of healing but also a resort. Small souvenir boxes and other woodwares were made at Spa from the mid-17th century, to provide for the visitors' desire to shop. The earliest boxes and trinkets were in walnut, with inlay of brass and tin wire, and sometimes flowers of mother-of-pearl (see V&A 126-1893 or W.42-1926). Spa became even more popular as a resort after the opening of the Pump Room in 1717 and the town attracted hundreds of visitors yearly. During the 18th century, painted decoration for souvenirs became very popular (see V&A W. 21-1914 for a painted toilet box signed by the maker Vincent Rousseau). The taste of painting panels to look as if prints had been applied became popular after the 1780s. The subjects of the designs on the box are the different springs of water found throughout the town (La Geronstere, La Souvenière and Le Tonnelet, together with the 'Vaux Hall', which was an Assembly Room, the centre of entertainment in the town. Just as the word 'Spa' migrated from the town to other centres, so the phrase 'Vaux Hall' came to Spa from London, where Vauxhall Gardens had become noted as a pleasure garden during the 18th century. Such scenes became standard decoration on Spa souvenirs. One of the best-known painters at Spa was Antoine Le Loup, who painted just such scenes within circular panels. He often signed his work. Le Loup was the son of a painter, born in 1730 and still working at the moment of his death on 21 November 2019 (see www.spahistoire.info/bredar.html , acccessed 20/02/2019). A particularly fine box signed by Le Loup was sold by Matthew Barton Ltd., London on Tuesday 22 November 2011, lot 84 but that dated from the middle of the 18th century, and the grisaille painting of imagined classical scenes covered the whole surface of the box. The painter of this box appears to have been less skilled than Le Loup, but was working in a well-established tradition, as can be seen by comparing the scenes on this box with paintings by Le Loup. Polychrome versions of similar scenes can be seen on the tea caddy W.81-1919 in the V&A collections.

The publication of prints (stipple engravings and later aquatints) within printed circular or oval mounts started in Paris in the very late 1760s. The adoption of these forms for stipple engravings or aquatints from the 1780s onwards may have been influenced by the creation of watercolours in these shapes which were made with the helpf of 'Claude glasses' - dark mirrors which allowed artists to see views within a composed, 'pictureseque' view. The artist turned his back on a view and used the mirror to crop his view to the best pictureseque effect. Such glasses were often oval or circular and were favoured by artists such as the Rev. William Gilpin (1741-1807), whose views of Picturesque Scenery on the Banks of the Wye' were published in 1782 and were extremely influential in creating the taste for the picturesque and the appreciation of natural scenery.

Descriptive line

Toilet and writing box of wood (probably birch, possibly beech), painted in green, pink and cream, and with scenes painted in <i>grisaille</i> after designs by the Spa artist Antoine Le Loup. The hinged lid is fitted with a mirror and the interior of the box with a tray with two boxes, one fitted for pens and ink, the other with a pin cushion fitted to the lid.




Cabinet making; Painting




Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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