|The Portland Font, a private christening basin commissioned by William Bentinck, third duke of Portland , for the birth of his first grandson in 1796. Photo credit: British Museum|
Tradition is very much a part of Britain’s Royal Family but when it comes to newborns the practice of gift giving has a lot of leeway, said Geoffrey Munn, one of Britain’s foremost authorities on antique jewelry.
“In the past there’s been a whole range of things given to high ranking royal babies,” Munn said Monday from Wartski, where he serves as managing director. The antique dealership has a “royal warrant of appointment,” making it one of a handful of jewelers that supply goods and services to the royal family.
From the beginning of the royal monarchy to the early part of the 20th Century, baby deaths were a common occurrence, even among royal families. Because of this, a popular gift to a royal newborn in past centuries was a gold rattle with a handle made of red coral.
“The coral was used as a talisman to keep away evil spirits,” Munn said. “Some people adhere to it now with the use of a red silk, but it’s a very, very, ancient thing.”
Gifts to newborns are often conservative, Munn said. A small string of pearls for a girl and cufflinks for a boy were common gifts. The more elaborate gifts were reserved for the christening, the most important moment in a royal infant’s life. Again, in the past baptisms were done as quickly as possible because of the high chance of infant deaths. Of course, they are still done while the baby is an infant.
“The baptismal is a crucial part of an existence of a child and a royal child even more so,” Munn said. “Until the 17th Century its offspring was thought to be there by divine right, and thought to be chosen by God. Then the baptism was even more crucial.”
For the royal baby who has everything probably the most elaborate christening gift is the personal baptismal font (basin). They were often kept in the possession of families to be used for generations. The only known example of a private basin is on view at the British Museum: The Portland Font (top photo). It was commissioned by William Bentinck, third duke of Portland (1738-1809) for the birth of his first grandson in 1796.
The detachable bowl of the gold and marble basin rests on four winged cherub feet, surrounded by three free-standing sculptural figures representing the Cardinal Virtues. These are: Faith (standing with a cross and her hand held over the bowl in the act of benediction), Hope (seated, holding a symbolic anchor) and Charity (seated and shown comforting children). It was designed by Humphrey Repton and built by Paul Storr, one of the best known goldsmiths in London.
Christie’s London held an auction in November 2009 of “Property From the Late Duke and Duchess of Kent and Families,” which gave other examples of the types of gifts given at christenings.
For example, a tasteful Austrian-made silver gilt service was given as a christening gift in 1907 to Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, who would become the Duchess of Kent. The gift was from Princess Thayer of Hanover who was also the Duchess of Cumberland. The tapering on the beaker and the flatware are stamped with husks and shells. The set consists of a tablespoon, teaspoon, fork, a knife with silver-gilt blade, and a knife with steel blade. Each piece is engraved with the initial M below a Royal crown. The leather covered case was marked with J.C. Klinkosch, Vienna, dated 1907 with Imperial Warrant. The inscription reads “from Great Aunt Thyra 1907.”
An even more modest example of a christening gift was given in 1942 to Prince Michael of Kent. It was a George VI silver flatware set of a fork, knife and spoon with facetted plain handles in a fitted case with an inscribed note. It was made by London silversmiths, Wakely and Wheeler. It sold at auction for 525 pounds ($806).
A more elaborate christening gift came from King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1903 for their grandson, Prince George, Duke of Kent. It was a Victorian silver gilt cup and cover with an inscription that reads: “To George Edward Alexander Edmund 4th Son of George, Prince of Wales and Victoria Mary, Princess of Wales from his Grandparents and Sponsors King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at his Christening at Windsor Castle January 26th 1903.”
Shaped like an inverted bell, it is adorned with scroll handles and a detachable cover with baluster finish. A silver medallion depicts King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. It has the mark of Elkington and Co., London, 1900.
Munn said that engravings that appear handwritten, such as what is on the gilt cup, are popular among royalty and is a common service of jewelers used by the royal family, including Wartski.
“What we usually do is engrave small cups of silver and that can be done in the facsimile of the parents handwriting,” he said. “Every generation of royalty has enjoyed facsimile of handwriting. It’s a very interesting procedure, taken up by the great jewelers. They all know how to do it.”
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