Butterfly Wing Pictures.. A Short History

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Updated May 2012. I wrote this in 2006 after reading the warning report on fakes in another Ebay guide..  
I'd been fascinated by these evocative and beautiful pictures for some time. I tracked down the descendants of the people who registered the UK original patent no 202213 on the 16th August 1923. The patent was registered to 3 people, Albert Emily Shipton, Caroline Emily and Amy Marie Shipton. The company Shiptons, is still in business in it's original premises in Birmingham, England. I contacted them and the current Managing Director and grandson of the Shiptons, Mr. J. May, very kindly agreed to let me visit. On entering the building, one enters a wood panelled building in a time capsule. Shiptons now (and then) make Jewellery and to my uninitated eye, seeing the production techniques of yesteryear was fascinating. I had taken some of my own collection with me and Mr May showed me some of his pieces. I was able talk to Mr May about his memories of the time before WW2 when they were produced. He showed me prizes won for the pictures at, I think, exhibitions in the 1920's in Glasgow, South Africa and Paris (possibly New York but I'm not sure). He then took me through to a 1st floor back extension to the building. He pulled back a floor-to-ceiling curtain and, as my eyes became accustomed to the dim light, I could see a dusty workbench, covered in debris. I soon realised the debris was remnants of frames and half finished pictures. I was astounded, it was a real Marie-Celeste moment, the workbench is as if, the artists had left to go home on a Friday 70 years ago and never returned. I since heard from a reseracher who visited Shiptons in early 2008 that a serious fire in the adjoining premises has possibly damaged the workshop and that the survivng pieces have been moved internally for safe keeping. Whilst walking back thru the building, Mr May reached up on top of wooden cabinet and brought down 3 x boxes, like large cigar boxes. Inside, he brought out folded sheets of newspaper. The newspapers were German and dated from 1915, inside the folded sheets were the butterfly wings, as they were received all those years ago ! They must have come into England via a neutral country as we were at war with Germany in 1915. Never used, being in the dark and undisturbed, the wings were as vibrant now as then. There still exist all the remnants of the production process up to and including labels ! Quite an experience for an unsuspecting collector. 
I had (and still have, if anyone is interested in getting involved ) the idea of publishing a slim reference book on these beautiful and evocative pictures as nobody else seems to know much about them and , as far as I'm aware, there is still no widely available ref info other than this guide....any way I digress. In our discussion, Mr May told me that that the most common pictures were traced from blocks and then reversed painted on glass, then backed with the wings, glassed and framed either wooden or silver. In addition, they manufactured butterfly jewellery eg pendants, rings, broaches as well as powder compacts. He is not certain where the idea came from but we thought that the Shiptons would have seen the butterfly trays that came back with the sailors from South America from about 1880 onwards. Somewhere they got the idea to combine the iridescent colours and the form of the wings with hand painted reverse glass pictures and they patented the method in 1923. Mr May thought that the total production of pictures was a 'few' up to 'several' thousand over the period 1923 - 1939 when production stopped on the outbreak of WW2. So perhaps 4 - 7000 of these pictures were produced. I think now in 2012, that more than this were produced but have no real way of quantifying a number and, in any case, how many survive ?  At most there were 3 people producing them at any one time...the high stools they sat on are still there..or were when I visited in 2006. The United States patent was granted in 1924, which, while I have no details, caused problems to Shiptons. Apparently, Mr May's Grandmother was in New York in 1939 with half that years collection with her brother. I think she sold them both there and in San Francisco. Her brother went to Canada and joined the RCAF. The most common pictures seem to be ladies in crinolene dresses, noblemen in the 18th century style and Dutch boys fishing. The rarest and now, oh so expensive, are the classic art deco scenes of elves and fairies, flapper girls and the like. The other rare ones are scenes of England, coastal resorts, valleys and streams. In silver frames and if signed by any of the 3 main artists (Dorothy Buckley, Daisy Smith plus ?), even more so. Shiptons had (and still do) jewellery shops in several English coastal resorts and the English scenes were developed for this market. I'm told by a fellow collector that at their shop in Hastings is a collection of pictures on display. In addition, they made pictures and ashtrays to be either sold or given if you were travelling 1st class on the ocean liners both plying the routes and generally. For example I have one of the Queen Mary. I had thought these were not by Shiptons but there was an example. in the factory. These shipping pictures continued to be made for a short period after WW2, particularly for Cunard. These later pictures are identifiable by their metal frames whereas the pre war pictures seem to have wooden frames. The largest I have ever seen was a beautifyl fairy in woodland setting in a silver frame about 12" x 12". 2 other firms also made butterfly pieces Thomas L Mott and Henry W King, both of which Shiptons purchased.  I'd be happy to hear from anyone who knows anything. I've tried to contact the writer of the fakes warning for more info but no reply. My guess is that the trays and other south american scenes (religious pictures, parrots,scenes of rio de janeiro) might still being made in south america as the morphos butterfly is not protected under CITES. 
I wrote the guide in 2006 approx. It's now 2012 and i've been contacted by many people either wanting to know more, seeking a valuation and sometimes offering more info. A reader has a picture signed Upton, so perhaps this is the third artist..maybe there were more ?. 
I've come across some advertising material showing some of the original range. I think the catalogue dates from the 1920's and shows about 20 different butterfly wing picture designs, all in wooden frames, and ranging in price from 10/- to 30/- (thats shillings in old money). Also illustrated are pictures that were 'Easel Frame Mounted' with an ElectroPlated art silver finish. These retailed for 23/-. Illustrated is an example ashtray and example powder compact which if in hall-marked silver retailed for 34/-. Other butterfly wing ranges , examples of which, i've never seen are:
'My Lady's" range of cases for book matches made of 'best nickel plate' with 'delightful effects of 'Sun-Ray' produced by engine turning the background of sky and water with hand painted pictures in 12 different scenes, together with a larger 'ladies' cigarette case.
Butterfly wing pictures with 'Tear off Engagement Tablets'. They look like a little tear off diary by week that might have sat by the telephone. Given their disposible nature, I'd be very surprised if any of these survive .
Prices of the rarer fairies, titled locations, views , buildings, monuments, bridges and the other more one-off pictures and any freehand signed pictures, not included in the catalogues, have risen over the years and recently I saw a Fairy picture sell on Ebay for what I think is a new world record. The more usual designs, whilst still more than they were 6 years ago, are much more static in price. 
As before, I'm happy to hear from anyone and hope you find this info helpful.
Copyright by writer. All rights reserved.2012. No reproduction without author's permission.

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