BASSE-TAILLE: A Technique to Mystify

Plaque, silver, right edge chamfered, decorated in translucent and opaque basse taille enamel, Christ washing the Apostles' feet and Agony in the Garden - photo by Skinner Auctioneers

Generally, Basse-taille, meaning low-cut in French, is an enamelling technique where the artist creates a low-relief pattern in precious metal such as silver and gold by engraving or chasing. The trick is that the pattern is created in a technique where its highest point is always lower than the surrounding metal. A translucent vitreous enamel is then applied to the metal to allow light to reflect from the relief, and create an artistic effect that dramatises the play of light and shadow over the low cut design. This gives the object a brilliance tone.

This style was used in the late Middle Ages and later revived in the 17th century. Basse-taille technique was developed in Italy in the 13th century, and its work enamel was very popular in Europe especially during the Gothic and Renaissance periods.

Medieval examples of Basse-taille

Medallion of the Death of the Virgin, with damaged basse-taille enamel, 14th century – photo by Pinterest | Lang Antiques

Medallion of the Death of the Virgin is a 14th-century silver plaque in Basse-taille with translucent enamels that still survive, although with considerable losses. It shows the prepared metal surfaces beneath, and the tinting that was done with different colours. Initially, the technique was found in ancient Rome but disappeared at the end of the Middle Ages until the revival in 17th century.

The medieval survivals in mint condition are very rare because translucent enamel is more fragile than opaque. Medieval examples are from Italy in the 13th century; the earliest dated work being a chalice by the Sienese goldsmith Guccio di Mannaia; that was made for Pope Nicholas IV about 1290, which forms part of the collection of the Treasure Museum of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.

The technique then spread to other regions for high-quality courtly work. In this time, the champlevé enamels associated with only the Limoges had become almost mass-produced and relatively cheap. It is in consensus that, the late 14th century Royal Gold Cup; presently in the British Museum, is an outstanding surviving example of basse-taille enamel. This is one of the only four known survivals made on gold that include both secular and religious pieces.

Reliquary Pendant for the Holy Thorn – photo by The British Museum, London

Another one is the small Salting Reliquary; also in the British Museum. The “King John Cup” in King’s Lynn (1340), a silver-gilt with transparent enamel, is the best example of basse-taille work probably produced in England. The metalwork expert Herbert Maryon describes this and the Royal Gold Cup as the “two examples of outstanding merit, unsurpassed in any collection”. However, there are doubts that most of the enamel at King’s Lynn is original.

The technique was revived or rediscovered in the 17th century but was less practiced thereafter. In a variant of the technique, translucent enamel was applied over a guilloché machine-turned metal backing by Peter Carl Fabergé on the Faberge eggs, and other pieces from the 1880s up till the Russian Revolution; this technique is still used, but usually in a single colour.

The 17th century Basse-taille

The revived basse-taille technique was mostly used in the 17th century to make the covers and faces of pocket watches, gold boxes and other similar items, but often with opaque enamel, to achieving a rather different effect from medieval forms using translucent enamel; the French watchmaker Josias Jolly frequently used it in his work.

The Technique used in Basse-taille

The Royal Gold Cup – photo by The British Museum, London

The process for basse-taille enamel started with the marking of the outline of the design, and the main internal outlines on the gold or silver with a tool called a “tracer”. The interior area was then worked; either with chasing tools, hammering and punching instead of cutting with chisels, to form a shallow recess to hold the enamel.

The more vital parts of the design were modelled by varying the depth of the surface; this produced different intensities of colour with the addition of the translucent enamel; for example in the Royal Gold Cup, the gold under folds of the drapery rises near the surface to create a paler highlight. In the example illustrated with Luke’s ox, the lowest lobe shows tufts of grass formed by cutting deeper into the background.

In most of the recessed areas made, further decoration was added by either engraving or punching. This would show through the translucent enamel or facet of the background so that reflections changed with changing of the viewing angle.

All background areas to the enamelled scenes were similarly decorated. To finish the work, the surfaces were cleaned up, made good and polished, by scraping off any bumps visible through on the reverse of the metal.

Medallion with the bull of St Luke, A 14th-century silver plaque in basse-taille with translucent enamels – photo by Musée de Cluny | Musée national du Moyen Âge

The enamel on the pieces lies flush on the gold surfaces; it involves a preparation of finely ground glass paste that was applied with great caution to the prepared recessed areas and then fired.

When the pieces had different colours of enamel meeting each other with a neat boundary; firing one colour with a retaining border of gum tragacanth before adding the next led to this result. The difficulty was mostly increased by the application of tints of a different colour to a base shade of enamel before firing, to make the added colour to blend gradually into the background colour around the edges of the tinted area; this is especially used on flux or colourless enamel in the ground areas, rocks and trees.

In the Royal Gold Cup, the flux used for flesh areas on the gold background darkens it slightly from hard to a suitable colour skin. The rouge clair; ruby glass red is used so effectively by adding tiny particles of copper, silver and gold to the glass. Here, the scientific tests have shown that copper was used. After firing the enamel, it was polished to flush with the surrounding metal, which has most likely decorated the last.

Very few types of metal objects have not been enriched with enamelled decoration. Throughout history, most jewellery has been made more colourful by the application of enamels. Similarly, arms and armour, horse trappings, and even domestic items, such as mirrors and hanging bowls were embellished with enamel decoration.

A Basse-Taille Enamel and Diamond Brooch Yellow gold-backed silver frame set depicting Raphael’s Madonna of The Chair – photo by Aspire Auctions

And throughout the Middle Ages, both secular and ecclesiastical objects, such as chalices, cups, reliquaries, caskets, crosiers; a staff carried by bishops and abbots, as a symbol of office, and spoons were elaborately enamelled.

After the advent of painted enamels in the Renaissance period, tableware was completely covered with enamel, and painted enamel panels started being used to decorate the ceilings and walls of rooms in the French Châteaus.

And following the invention of the domestic table clock and of the watch in the 16th century, enamelling became one of the most popular forms of decoration for the dials and cases. By the 18th century, items of the drawing-room such as snuffboxes, etuis, cases for small articles like scissors and needles, tea caddies, candlesticks, scent bottles, and thimbles, were usually made of enamel.

In the Orient regions, the objects decorated with enamels in East Asia included vases, incense vessels, teapots, suits of armour and sliding doors.