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Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Massacre of the Innocents, c.1565-7

Close examination of objects in the Royal Collection reveals unexpected details

Indian

Antimony holder c. 1875

RCIN 11231

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Sometimes the form of an object disguises its function. This silver and gold fish was designed for storing antimony, which when crushed becomes kohl and has been used for centuries as eyeliner. Antimony is also thought to be a coolant which strengthens and protects the eyes from the sun. A stopper in the fish’s mouth unscrews, and the eyeliner within is applied using a small, silver-gilt rod on a chain.

The body of the fish is carefully constructed, allowing it to move from side to side as though swimming. Articulated fish-shaped vessels were also made to hold perfume or documents. These fish were the particular speciality of metalworkers in Bengal in the late nineteenth century.

This antimony holder was presented to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), when he visited Agra in 1876. It was a gift from the Nawab of Tonk, who would later exhibit a similar piece at the 1883 Jaipur Exhibition, which was awarded first prize for its ‘purely Indian work’. Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales kept his own metalwork fish with other South Asian works of art in his London residence, Marlborough House.