Mr. Uniacke’s Snuffbox

This autumn a fresh breeze swept through the galleries of Canadian Art. Since late October, visitors have been admiring a new layout of rooms devoted to the display of early Canadian art from the Maritimes and Upper Canada. The new presentation provides an ideal occasion to highlight recent acquisitions such as the Snuffbox of Richard John Uniacke (1811—12), by Alexander James Strachan. In excellent condition, this is the first piece of British silver with a connection to Nova Scotia to enter the collection. It is a significant work given the role that silversmiths who emigrated from the British Isles, as well as objects imported from England, played in the development of silversmithing in this country by keeping artists and patrons abreast of European developments in this medium.

Alexander J. Strachan, Snuffbox of Richard John Uniacke (1811–12). Silver and gold, 1.2 x 3.7 x 2.5 cm. NGC

Designed to keep powdered scented tobacco airtight, snuffboxes were a popular accessory among men and women at all levels of European society for the century that spanned 1730 to 1830. While more modest snuffboxes were made of affordable materials, inventive silversmiths and jewellers competed with one another to lavish examples using gold of various colours, tortoiseshell, lacquer, porcelain, enamels and gemstones, and working these materials with the most sophisticated techniques. French designer Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier provided artists with models for snuffboxes. They were such an important fashion accessory that some merchants announced new creations at every change of season. Snuffboxes also became popular as diplomatic gifts. The oldest samples in Canada were imported, the most refined being the Snuffbox of Monseigneur Jean-Olivier Briand, dating to about 1755. It was created by Jean Ducrollay, one of the best-known jewellers in 18th-century Paris, who also worked for Madame de Pompadour. Snuffboxes first appeared in the repertoire of Canadian silversmiths in the late 18th century. Although they became widespread, this example has unique prestige owing to its association with Richard John Uniacke.

A lawyer, public office holder and politician, Uniacke was a legendary figure in first third of the 19th century in Nova Scotia, where he exercised considerable influence in several spheres of society. With his fees as Advocate General of the Vice-admiralty Court during the Napoleonic wars and the War of 1812, Uniacke amassed a sizable fortune, which he devoted to the education and establishment of his twelve surviving children, building a large house (now demolished) on Argyle Street — at the time, the most fashionable artery in the city of Halifax — and gradually acquiring 11,000 acres of land that would become Mount Uniacke. At the heart of this vast country estate he built a large neoclassical villa that stands to this day and still contains most of its original furnishings. It is open to public tours during the summer. The rich collections housed inside the villa suggest that Uniacke was an influential and exuberant man who possessed a deep love of life. The imposing sight of Richard John and his sons, all more than six feet tall, walking through the streets of Halifax was remembered for generations. 

In 1811, the Nova Scotia legislature assigned Uniacke the task of acquiring more than 80 pieces of furniture and accessories in London to furnish the recently completed Government House. It is in all likelihood during this trip abroad that he acquired this snuffbox. When furnishing Mount Uniacke a few years later, he turned again to London. Of the more than 50 pieces of Regency furniture at the villa, 11 bear the label of the cabinetmaker George Adams, a rarity in the history of cabinetmaking, however one can assume that the entire group comes from his workshop. Uniacke also acquired fine porcelain and silver tableware from overseas. Yet the portraits of him, his son Richard John and daughter Alicia now on view at Mount Uniacke — all dating from the same period as the snuffbox — were entrusted to Robert Field, who painted many members of Haligonian high society.

Besides the usual hallmarks, the gilded interior of the snuffbox bears an inscription with the owners' name and place of residence, coat of arms, crest and motto engraved in a scroll: FAITHFUL AND BRAVE.

When Uniacke selected his snuffbox, he did not choose one made by just any silversmith. Alexander James Strachan was a renowned specialist in crafting small containers. The outstanding quality of his work made him the most important silversmith producing this type of object in London during the first quarter of the 19th century. The artist was furthermore the main supplier of such items to the firm of Rundell, Bridge and Rundell. The three splendid boxes presented to the Duke of Wellington by the cities of London, Liverpool and Bristol after his historic victory at Waterloo, all now at Apsley House in London, came from Strachan’s workshop, which also produced the box King George IV presented to the South American statesman Simón Bolívar in 1825. Works by Strachan are featured in the Royal Collection at Windsor and Chatsworth, and in the Rosalinde & Arthur Gilbert collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On examining the fine workmanship of these objects, one can easily see why the British silver historian Arthur Grimwade called Strachan “the ‘Paul Storr’ of gold boxes.”

Although more modest than the works mentioned above, the oblong Snuffbox of Richard John Uniacke does honour to Strachan’s talent: its fine, regular guilloche pattern brings the entire surface to life; a frieze of stylized leaves catches the light, enlivening the cover’s edge. The interior gilding contrasts with the exterior and protects the silver from abrasion by the powdered tobacco.

This acquisition by the Gallery is significant in various regards. The snuffbox, together with the Christening Mug of Robie Uniacke — Richard John’s grandson — made in Halifax by Peter Nordbeck, which entered the national collection through a generous gift a decade ago, illustrates a high point in the development of silver in Nova Scotia. Never before shown in public — the snuffbox had been in a private collection in British Columbia for many years — it is fitting that it should also take its place in the reinstalled Canadian Art galleries.

The Snuffbox of Richard John Uniacke is currently on display in Canadian Art Gallery A104a of the National Gallery of Canada.

Share this article: 

About the Author