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things 17-18
spring 2004
a traditional spar box
What's in the box?
The story of the spar box
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Peter Davidson
Radiant realms

North Pennines: high, rain-glimmering roads, precipitous valleys, gritstone chimneys and shafts abandoned among the cotton-grass of the moors. Washing-floors and waterwheels by upland streams, stone portals in the flanks of the hills leading to the mines. The landscape of WH.Auden's earliest poetry:

Head-gears gaunt on grass-grown pit-banks, seams abandoned years ago; Drop a stone and listen for its splash in flooded dark below. . .

The seams of coal and veins of lead below the moors are rich in prismatic minerals as well as in metalliferous ore. Auden wrote in the 1930s of lead-mines in decline: ghosts of industry in remote country. But, in the 19th century, lead extraction had flourished in Weardale and on Alston Moor as part of the mining activity which stretched across the north of England from County Durham and Northumberland, to West Cumberland and the Isle of Man.

In this region also flourished the making of spar-boxes. Spar-boxes ("spar" is a contraction of "fluorspar") are assemblages of refractive minerals, glass-fronted cases filled with the minerals found among the veins of ore, either attached to the inside walls of a box or case or made into free-standing models formed on an armature or over a plaster-of-Paris core. Sometimes they are an abstract arrangement reminiscent of the spar grottoes of the 18th century, sometimes street scenes or fantastical parks or caverns of crystals and shards of coloured minerals. Occasionally a free-standing arrangement of minerals is made to stand under a glass dome: an arch of specularite and quartz, or a glittering tree of fluorspar and crystal needles. So far the history of this art is little known: a few experts are beginning to piece the history together, records have been recovered of spar-box competitions in the north Pennines in the late 19th century, and there was a spar box of some two thousand mineral specimens, cemented together by a miner, Isaac Robinson of Nenthead, shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851.

There is little on record about the makers of the spar-boxes and spar-columns: it might be assumed that the majority were the miners of Man, Cumberland and the North Pennines, who had access to the minerals and slack periods to make the arrangements. This would be wholly consistent with the culture of the northernmost counties of England, with their long traditions of bold designs and technical perfection in many crafts, particularly in the making of quilts and rugs.

At first sight the spar boxes appear simply to be instances of arte povera, a cheap art as specific to place and conditions as is arctic carving on bone or walrus-ivory. Fluorspar, quartz and galena are found in the Pennine mines, hematite and smoky quartz in the mines of west Cumberland. Coming upon these minerals, would be a part of the miner's daily experience. (For most of the 19th century it would seem that these minerals were available to the miners as a bonus, although with the steady rise of Victorian mineral collecting, it would seem that some mine owners came to consider the minerals as a profitable sideline for themselves.)

The northern mines are often situated in remote country and high among the moors (thus creating the juxtaposition of the gritstone buildings of small-scale industry with rough country which haunted Auden's imagination). In adverse weather it was often impossible to reach the high entrances of the mines. The assumption therefore is that the Weardale spar-boxes are the simple product of this enforced leisure: a craft of expediency practised in the sparse and irregular leisure of the miners. Simply an assemblage of what the men themselves called the ‘bonny bits’ from the mines, coincidentally prolonged into the 20th century something of the appearance of the spar and crystal grottoes of the 18th century. (But no such grotto seems to survive in the mining counties.) There are significant reports, in this context, of a 19th-century sparbox clearly continuing the grotto taste: shells and coral as well as what were described as ‘Cornish minerals’, (although they possibly weren't from Cornwall) formed the decoration. The chief development of the Victorian heyday of the Spar-box was the construction of street scenes or scenes of fantasy which seem in appear to combine the grotto-aesthetic with something of the atmosphere of the transformation scenes the ‘radiant revolving realms’ which traditionally concluded the Victorian pantomimes. The Victorian peepshow, which often contained street perspectives, may also have been a decisive influence in this context.

The other source which may be safely conjectured for the spar boxes is the appearance of the mineral-bearing cavities themselves: John Postlethwaite's Mines and Mining in the English Lake District, 1913 (a copy of which was owned and annotated by the adolescent Auden) describes this exactly. ‘Cavities, called “loughs”, lined with crystalline quartz and other minerals, are frequently met with in veins, some of them not larger than a nut, and others sufficiently capacious to admit several men. The interior of some of the larger loughs, when first broken into, form a spectacle of unrivalled splendour, The walls of the cavity formed of crystallised quartz, aragonite, dolomite, fluor spar, iron pyrites, blende, galena, and other minerals, arranged in the most grotesque order and reflecting the light in a variety of colours from thousands of prisms, produces an effect that cannot be described.’

There were no discernible rules for the construction of spar boxes, they seem to have been a genuinely spontaneous art, existing on the line between popular tradition and the small industry of mineral-dealing. (There are records of one miner from Garrigill near Alston, John Walton, who, together with his wife Sarah, founded a modest dynastyof mineral dealers.) An indication of the confluence of mineral-dealing with th world of the spar-box is given by the advertisment of John Eggleston who was active in the 1880s as a mineral dealer in Sunderland, also dealing in "Bird's Skins, Bird's Eggs, Butterflies, Moths, shells, Cabinets, Fossils.." A J. Eggleston of Fairhills exhibited at a geological exhibition in Weardale in 1887, and the greatest of spar-boxes was made by an Egglestone and contained two stuffed birds among its other assemblages. It has been suggested that the aesthetic subtlety of some of the Cumbrian spar-columns is such that more professional artists may have been involved in producing these artefacts, perhaps for the mineral shops which flourished in Victorian England. It also seems likely that the miners themselves occasionally bought in (or exchanged) minerals from other areas for their spar boxes. Certainly there were exhibitions and competitions in the 1880s and 1890s in St John's Chapel in Weardale, with competition classes for both spar boxes and for the spar-models which could take the forms of columns, arches, rotundas with columns, pyramids or trees.

Papers in the case of a spar-box, recently sold at Leyburn in Yorkshire, establish a date in the 1830s, thus constituting a conjectural first dated example. This was an art that arose, gained a level of visibility in the 19th century, and then died down at some point in the mid 20th century, but sufficiently within living memory to be revived. In the exhibition of spar boxes held at Killhope in Weardale in 2001, there was an example from the 1920s, made by a steel-worker from Workington in West Cumberland, an example which interestingly also included shells. Experts suggest that there may have been spar boxes being made in northern England, in continuity with the Victorian tradition, as late as the 1950s. Certainly the tradition was dormant for a short enough time for it to be easily revived and there are again highly skilled spar-box makers in the northern counties of England. A retired Northumbrian stonemason remembers, from watching many years ago, the technique of rubbing a cluster of minerals gently on the rounded end of a hammer to divide them into prisms to secure the greatest sparkle. He remembers also some traditions of design for the more elaborate boxes, including the use of multiplying mirrors in the back corners of the case. It took him little more than an evening to construct a small spar-box, using tile cement as the medium of adhesion. What emerged from the surprisingly rapid process of arrangement was a small cave of glimmering spar with stalactites and stalagmites of quartz adding depth and brilliance to an arrangement which included a receding lake of greenest fluorspar in the most shadowed corner.

So far we are uncertain that spar-boxes were exclusively local arte povera and it is established beyond doubt that Weardale boxes usually contain some minerals bought-in from the mines in the west of Cumberland. Records show no fewer than seven mineral dealers in Alston in East Cumberland in the course of the nineteenth century, so a source is clearly identifiable. The population of skilled mining communities is axiomatically fluid: as there are samples of Pennine fluorite in virtually every mineral museum in the world, so it was said in the nineteenth century that it was likely that there would be a Weardale miner in any mining community in Europe. This might possibly explain the fact that there are in existence spar boxes from Bohemia and Russia, although so far none have emerged from the lead-country of south-west Scotland.

The spar-boxes now at Killhope (beside the very lead-workings of Auden's poem ‘Who stands the crux left of the watershed…’) are themselves the nearest thing there is to a national collection (there are also examples in northern museums and private collections) and a description of some of the finer examples there will serve to give a sense of the art at its most developed.

The Eggleston Spar Box is the grandest in the collection: a substantial Victorian cabinet with two glass-fronted boxes one above the other. It was made by Joseph Egglestone of Huntshieldford, near St. John's Chapel in Weardale, in the first years of the 20th century. Later it was taken around the local shows by his son and exhibited for threepence or sixpence per viewing. In the upper case is an assemblage of natural wonders, eloquent of its period, with stuffed birds and mosses arranged behind a proscenium of mineral crystals. Fine pyramids of large pieces of spar stand on the floor of the upper part of the case. The lower cabinet is a superb representational spar-box, with a street scene all made of glimmering fragments of minerals multiplied into an infinite boulevard by judiciously-placed corner mirrors. There is a grotto-roof of spar and crystals. Little lamposts stand amongst pyramids of translucent and reflective minerals. The effect is remarkably reminiscent of the Victorian pantomime transformation scene, with a close of ordinary houses in the process of metamorphosis into a reflecting grotto.

Nearby is the beautifully restored spar box made by Robert Ridley at Allenheads in 1896. This is a work of the highest fantasy, with magnifying lenses let into the upper part of a magnificent case, to give peepholes into a cave of quartz, aragonite and fluorite. The main window in the lower part of the case shows a mirrored street-scene, with two Victorian bow-fronted villas, with lace curtains, facing each other across a shimmering yard. The scene is so organised that you catch a glimpse of your own face framed amongst the transformed villas and paths and pyramids of spar. Originally, the case had provision that the villa windows could be lit by candles placed inside the structures.

The Killhope collection also has, under glass domes, cones and arches of spar. There are a pair of rotundas of three spar columns with a circular roof, like the Temple of Vesta in translucent metamorphosis, all made of green fluorspar and white quartz. There is a vast pyramid of purple fluorite, galena and needle-crystals. There is an extraordinary stylised pine-tree made up entirely of refracting and translucent minerals. This is a work of art of such strangeness, such confidence and assurance in its use of materials, that it echoes (presumably unconsciously) not so much the 18th-century tradition of fluorite grottoes as the prodigious objects of the renaissance cabinet of curiosities.


Acknowledgment: very little is written about spar boxes, so I am particularly grateful for excellent and generous advice from David Hacker, who has among many kindnesses (including the correction of my amateur geology) given me sight of his own article on "Fluorite, the Dealers and Collectors". Nineteenth-century spar boxes, including the prodigious Egglestone and Riddley cases, can be seen at the Lead Mining Museum at Killhope in Weardale (merite le détour), whose staff have kindly answered many questions. (Please contact them if any examples come to your notice.) Pennine minerals and modern spar-boxes can be found at Castle Crystals, The Bank, Barnard Castle, also an inexhaustible source of knowledge and advice.

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things 17-18, Spring 2004

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