Collecting vintage marine lighting

Well-travelled ship’s lamps and rare lighthouse beacons are now illuminating industrial-chic interiors, says Jenny Dalton

c1900 Davey & Co copper and brass oil lantern, $1,695 from Lannan Gallery
c1900 Davey & Co copper and brass oil lantern, $1,695 from Lannan Gallery | Image: Lannan Gallery & Boston Harbour Auctions

This is a seriously sexy light,” says nautical design dealer Larry Lannan, who runs Lannan Gallery in Boston. He is talking about a British-made Davey & Co oil lantern ($1,695) that more than 100 years ago would have sat atop a boat’s bow, lighting the ship’s way through the night and alerting seafarers to its presence with red and blue side lenses. In gleaming copper and brass, and pristine condition, the c1900 lamp is one of the current gems of Lannan’s antique marine offerings.

1950s copper and brass cargo light, £485 from Any Old Lights
1950s copper and brass cargo light, £485 from Any Old Lights | Image: Any Old Lights

Today, richly historic pieces like these are often not destined for further voyages. Although some are re-engineered for boats, says yacht builder Paul Spooner of Fairlie Yachts, well-travelled ship’s lamps are increasingly finding new homes on land. The practical, non-ferrous materials, chosen because they didn’t rust at sea, chime with contemporary interior trends that veer towards “real” materials with a natural character. “Bronze, brass and gunmetal develop a beautiful patina over time,” says Peter Bowles, owner and MD of Davey Lighting, which owns the archive of Davey & Co lights, manufactured since the 19th century and used aboard the Titanic. “Each vintage lamp has a unique appearance, even though they may be the same design. These are character items that you can tell have been handmade.”

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The industrial-chic appeal is not lost on interior designer Martin Brudnizki, who used 19th-century ship’s bulkhead and well wall lights from Trinity Marine near Exeter (alongside “new antique” Davey lamps) in his schemes for Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s restaurants. This large-scale lighting plan was created with numerous vintage pieces, possible because shipping salvage is plentiful.

Early 1900s brass Perko port and starboard lights, $3,195 for the pair from Lannan Gallery
Early 1900s brass Perko port and starboard lights, $3,195 for the pair from Lannan Gallery | Image: Lannan Gallery & Boston Harbour Auctions

One enthusiast who has used ships’ lighting extensively in his home is Philip Anstey, a distributor of Chinese medicines who lives above Fowey harbour, Cornwall. Charles Darwin and Lord Tennyson both stayed in the historic home that today Anstey shares with his partner, interior designer Paula Coffey. Here, 1950s bulkhead lamps light the garden, while a large brass lamp that would have originally graced the decks of 1960s cargo ships now provides a striking focal point in a wood-panelled living room. “We needed lights that were consistent with the style of house. Every detail on the lamps, from the screws to the chains, is just wonderful,” he says of the pieces he bought from local firm Any Old Lights, which has a selection of similar brass pendants (from £285).

Early 1900s copper and brass lighthouse beacon, $31,500 from Lannan Gallery
Early 1900s copper and brass lighthouse beacon, $31,500 from Lannan Gallery | Image: Lannan Gallery & Boston Harbour Auctions

Earlier lamps by a handful of marques are considerably rarer and more valuable: British brands such as Davey, Meteorite, Eli Griffiths & Sons and RC Murray, while in the US, Perko is the top find. But since they are often found at decommissioning yards and are not engraved, provenance can be hard to define and buyers should ensure there is a maker’s stamp before paying a high price. A pair of c1900 copper lanterns marked Meteorite and converted to electrical operation are priced at £8,812 by Golden & Associates in South Carolina. It also has an attractive c1910 US brass ship boarding lamp with red glass in an unusual rounded shape for £2,575.

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The best examples, says nautical auctioneer Charles Miller, range from the 1880s, when Fresnel lenses with their concentrated beams were first used in marine lighting, to the 1940s. Lannan has a 60cm 1924 Davey masthead lantern in steel and brass for $2,295, and a pair of early-20th-century brass Perko port and starboard lamps for $3,195. Pairs are popular, as they are often used to light the entryway to a home; Cornish specialist Clipper Maritime Antiques has attractive 1940s copper Alderson & Gyde port and starboard lamps for £350-£400 per pair.

Another area of marine salvage that strikes a chord is searchlights and signalling lamps. Trinity Marine, which salvages from ships including the SS France and the RMS Windsor Castle, has a c1950s Royal Navy wheelhouse searchlight (£1,080) that was found at a famous old Clydeside ships’ chandlers. Polished and pristine, it is supplied without modern fixtures, so the buyer can create their own lighting effect. “The mirrors do a good deal of the work, so even a small light source has a big impact,” says owner Mark Jameson.

Rarer still are the lights linked with lighthouses. “They’re so sturdy, rugged and heavy,” says Lannan, who has a large early-1900s copper and brass beacon for $31,500. “Prices can be double those of ships’ lights.” A pair of rare c1890 British-made range lights, thought to be from the Northern Lighthouse Board, are £1,500 each at Trinity Marine, while a beautiful metre-tall copper buoy beacon (£3,600) was recovered from Trinity House, the commissioner of lighthouses in the UK since the time of Henry VIII.

“All these designs are very clean,” says Bowles. “They’re practically and solidly made, with no fancy detailing, which makes them very modern.” They are also much more impressive in the flesh than in pictures, adds Nick Griffiths, co-owner of Any Old Lights. “I’ve only worked with these lights for two years and have become a little obsessed with them. I never expect customers to come back because these lamps were made to last. But they often do return – to buy another one, or two.”

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