Collector finds inspiration in antique travel cases

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 April, 2015, 6:28am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 April, 2015, 9:26pm

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Modern-day travel is an organised affair. Toiletry regulations, luggage weight restrictions and a streamlined aviation system are a ubiquitous experience for travellers from all walks of life.

Yet in 18th to 20th century Europe, travel was profoundly different experience, and far less sophisticated. While travel today only takes people a few hours of flying, the journey back then stretched over several days across uncomfortable, bumpy roads and heaving oceans. Slower modes of transport combined with poor infrastructure meant travel was an expensive and logistically challenging affair reserved only for society's elite.

Attending to bodily needs, such as grooming, eating and drinking, required ingenious solutions. This challenge brought about a unique class of travel accessories that the French called nécessaire de voyage.

Literally translated to "travel necessities", these travel cases were once an essential to maintain aristocratic decorum across difficult conditions. They stored utensils for eating, drinking and grooming in small, compact cases. Made in a series of precious materials such as silver, gold, porcelain and crystal, they are engineering feats and embodiments of meticulous European craftsmanship.

Dr Jaap Kamp, chairman of Amsterdam's Museum of Bags and Purses, has a passion for these objects, and recently gave a lecture about them at Liang Yi Museum, where several models were on display. He and his wife collect these historical items and together have published a book in Dutch about their cultural and social significance.

"My wife and I are impressed by the ingenuity of the cabinet makers, silversmiths and porcelain makers who made these travel cases. Different artisans must have worked together to make these beautiful things, so, from a technical point of view, we are impressed by what we see."

One example of their obvious beauty is a model created by French travel case maker Pierre-Dominique Maire, which was originally owned by one of Napoleon Bonaparte's officers. Encased in mahogany and brass, the case measures 18cm x 33cm x 23cm and houses more than 50 utensils for dining, drinking and writing. These instruments include shaving brushes, porcelain cups, mirror, washing and shaving basin and combs.

One of the earliest models of the nécessaire de voyage can be traced back to the late 17th century in Augsburg, Germany. The city was famous for its silversmiths, and was also a destination where sovereigns would historically meet once a year. It was this communion of travelling sovereigns which motivated silversmiths to create elaborate travel cases to suit their travels, and thus the new accessory category was born.

The people who could afford these objects were very rich
Dr Jaap Kamp, chairman, Amsterdam Museum of Bags and Purses

In addition to its utilitarian value, these cases, as Kamp notes, also played an important social and diplomatic role. "The type of people who would travel and could afford these objects were very rich … there was definitely an element of needing to impress those they were travelling with, and those who they were visiting." French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte showed that when he travelled to Germany in 1808 to meet Russian emperor Alexander I. The two figureheads met for the purposes of peace negotiations, where by chance the Russian Czar expressed his admiration for Napoleon's travel case.

Two weeks later, an identical travel case was delivered straight from Paris to Alexander himself. The story illustrates the cases possessed an inherent ability to woo the recipient, and demonstrated the wealth and cultured upbringing of the giver.

Today, these objects appear outdated. But Kamp hopes to eventually breathe fresh life into this unique category.

"We want to create a competition where designers can create modern-day versions fit for today's travellers, and attach a couple of these models in a show next to the antique ones. It would help people learn more about these cases and give them a modern touch."