Vintage ships’ decanters

These fine seafaring vessels continue to cut a dash at well-appointed tables, says Simon de Burton

A c1820 star-cut-base decanter, £1,150 at Butler’s Antiques
A c1820 star-cut-base decanter, £1,150 at Butler’s Antiques | Image: Courtesy of Robin Butler

Aficionados of fortified wines might recognise the name of Henry Bathurst, the 19th-century bishop of Norwich. His habit of “forgetting” to keep the postprandial port bottle circulating around the table led to the use of the expression “Do you know the bishop of Norwich?” as a subtle way of encouraging similarly absent-minded dining companions to pass it on. But a somewhat less familiar individual in vinous circles is the British admiral George Brydges Rodney, whose sterling performances during the American War of Independence led to the name “Rodney” being adopted to describe a special type of decanter designed to perform well at sea.

A Rodney has an uncommonly broad and bulbous base and greater weight – usually twice as heavy as a regular decanter – to enhance stability at sea, as well as extra neck rings to provide a more secure grip when pouring in a swell. Another identifying feature is the flat stopper, which will not roll about when set aside. 

Two late-1800s crystal Rodneys with a facet-cut ray pattern, $4,800 at Elise Abrams Antiques
Two late-1800s crystal Rodneys with a facet-cut ray pattern, $4,800 at Elise Abrams Antiques

“The precise date when ships’ decanters first made their appearance is not known,” says Suffolk-based antiques dealer Robin Butler. “But what we do know is that they were first called Rodneys in the 1780s,when it was fashionable for decanters of different shapes to be named after naval heroes. Decanters with cylindrical bodies, for example, were called Nelsons following his celebrated victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.”

Butler, who has specialised in antique wine accessories since 1976, maintains a selection of ships’ decanters he believes to be “the largest on the planet”, including a c1800 conical model (£1,250) made from thickly blown glass cut with narrow slices to the neck and shoulders and fitted with a circular “bull’s-eye” stopper. Another c1820 conical – and exceptionally high-quality  – version (£1,150) features panel-cut decoration and a star-cut base. 

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The most desirable models, says Butler, are those made between 1780 and 1830. This 50-year time frame proffered decanters of the highest quality, but they are also relatively rare and invariably made from clear glass, adds John P Smith, chairman of the London-based society of collectors, The Glass Circle. “Coloured glass was only used after 1830, and mainly towards the end of the 19th century, when there was something of a Regency revival and a return to cut glass,” says Smith. “Green is the colour most commonly seen in later pieces, although blue examples occasionally turn up.”

One of the most remarkable coloured examples that has passed through Butler’s hands is a c1830-40 pale turquoise decanter possibly produced by one of the era’s most distinguished London glassmakers, Apsley Pellatt, which sold for around £900. Meanwhile, a set of three c1850 Victorian ships’ decanters in bold Bristol green glass, engraved with “Whisky”, “Brandy” and “Sherry” on the stoppers, sold for £1,650 at Guinevere Antiques on London’s King’s Road. And Elise Abrams Antiques of Great Barrington in Massachusetts is currently offering a pair of showstopping cobalt-blue Rodneys for $4,800. Dating from the late 19th century, they have all the signature features as well as being decorated with a fetching facet-cut ray pattern.

A trio of c1850 decanters with engraved stoppers, sold for £1,650 at Guinevere Antiques
A trio of c1850 decanters with engraved stoppers, sold for £1,650 at Guinevere Antiques | Image: Nat Davies Photography

Values vary considerably, and ornate 18th and 19th-century decanters with interesting provenance can be worth in excess of £10,000. Examples with direct naval connections are, however, few and far between, with some of the most significant pieces – such as the Berkeley magnum once owned by the celebrated 18th-century admiral Sir George Cranfield Berkeley, and another linked to the 100‑gun ship of the line, the Royal George – held in anonymous private collections.

But pleasingly for new collectors, good examples from the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be had for just a few hundred pounds. So while a pair of decanters from 1810, cut with an interesting “slice and diamond” pattern, are priced at £5,000 at Fileman Antiques in West Sussex, a pair of early-20th-century Regency-style cut-glass vessels from Worcester dealer M Lees and Sons is £325. And although values fall dramatically if a piece is damaged or repaired, it is acceptable for a decanter to be fitted with a replacement stopper, as few have retained their originals. 

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“The shape of a ship’s decanter allows wine to breathe better than standard ones,” says Butler. “And they are also among the earliest decanters to have star-cut bases, which refract light so that the depth and colour of a fine wine can be fully appreciated.” One collector who enjoys the usability of 18th- and 19th-century ships’ decanters is engineering company chairman Ian Calder. “I began collecting ships’ decanters in 1980 and now have 35, of which 23 are at least 200 years old.” 

It was while sailing through a “horrendous storm in the Bay of Biscay” on a cargo ship that Calder was struck by the “simple and elegant solution mariners of the 17th and 18th centuries created to keep their wine or port upright on the mess table. 

“The favourites in my collection are a classic 18th-century piece in wonderful condition and an especially fascinating one that commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar and is decorated with swags, shields and medallions. It cost me £1,950, but you don’t have to spend anything like that to buy a really attractive example.”

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