The other day I set my mind to thinking about a new lamp. My old standard lamp – a nanna-style turned wooden number painted green – had been dislodged in the reorganisation of my study, pending the arrival of the Maple suite. I needed something to cast light over the little mahogany dropside table on which I write.
We headed off to the usually reliable White’s, an enormous second hand warehouse, fifteen minutes drive away from here. However their selection of lamps was uninspiring, testament to the desirability of a good lamp in the age of invasive down-lighting. Their best option was a smaller version of the one I was discarding – a crudely turned wooden lamp base that I could at least paint. However it didn’t inspire me enough to put my hands in my pocket. I considered instead buying a small lustre ware sugar bowl for no other reason than it had caught my eye and was ridiculously cheap.
As I was about to leave I spotted a shelf of brassware – engraved and beaten shields, platters, bowls, vases, jugs and cigarette boxes of all descriptions piled together with a few horse brasses thrown in for good measure. These were the sort of decor items that used to be in houses around the country but which have generally disappeared from view.
The logic of such widespread rejection of all things brass probably relates to uncomfortable memory that so many baby boomers have of living with wartime fathers (Kiwi dads brought brass objects and leather footstools back from the Middle East during both World Wars). Then there’s the fact that so many people feel obliged to polish brass.
I for one recall childhood brass polishing sessions at my grandmother’s house. Timed with school holidays they were something we came to enjoy – the horse brasses included. However I fully get that some (most) people just can’t be bothered. For this reason secondhand shops are full of abandoned brass – some of which, judging by Whites’ stash, had lamp base potential.
Given that the Victorians were fond of using brass to Orientalise-up their interiors and the fashion for domestic brass and copper items lasted off and on through to the 1970s, there’s a big range of material out there. Add to that the brass trove in front of me had origins in marketplaces from Cairo to Shanghai and the style options were vast.
There is no publication that I know of that provides a guide to brass and there are certainly no makers or designers marks to obviously look out for. Therefore when distinguishing old from new, good from bad, one can only go on instinct.
If I knew nothing about selecting brass, I knew a little about lamps. I opted for the advice I learnt first hand from the master New Zealand interior designer John Crichton – ‘above all a lamp needs to have presence’ – and picked a large baluster shaped vase with a wide flared rim, with engraved flower forms around the centre (Persian I’ve decided but more likely Indian). It seemed to have some age and cost just a few dollars more than the abandoned lustre sugar bowl and half the price of the rejected wooden lamp base.
A quick visit to the electrician (with a large cork, a plug and a lamp holder) and a lamp shade chosen from a box lot of chartreuse silk lamps shades I bought at an auction with the intention of recovering (I got to like their color) and I now have a new and imposing lamp over my desk.
When assembling the components I realised that my lamp was made in three parts that screw together – it is perhaps not very antique at all – but its size and its pretty engraving ensures that it has presence.
I’m vowing never to polish it – the dull colour provides a patina that suits it far more than would an attack of Brasso. Looking at my lamp as I work, I’m pleased with its scale and decoration and perhaps most pleased that it throws a flattering golden light under which my mind now strays to the decorative potential of the other neglected brass treasures that occupy that shelf at Whites.