Found by Nottingham auctioneer Nigel Kirk in a barn at a country house earlier this year, the box was bought by the Houses of Parliament with the help of London dealer Martin Levy.
Against a £1000-1500 estimate, it was knocked down at £4200 (plus 20% buyer’s premium) at a Mellors & Kirk auction in July (see ATG No 2400).
Levy said he was thrilled the Palace of Westminster was able to make this “significant acquisition”.
Melissa Hamnett, head of heritage collections and curator of works of art at The Palace of Westminster, said: “Our restoration experts are in the process of ensuring that the letter box is in excellent condition.”
The box will be added to the Historic Furniture and Decorative Arts collection in the Palace of Westminster and will soon be on public display.
Designed by Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-52) and made by John Hardman c.1851, the 14in (35cm) wide oak and wrought iron box was used for collecting mail ready for dispatch at the newly built Palace of Westminster.
Pugin was a prolific collector of fragments of medieval stained glass, wood and metalwork that he used to inform his own designs. The mounts to the box are thought to have been inspired by a 15th century oak cabinet door with its iron lock now in the V&A. They incorporate the crowned lion of England with a postman’s satchel to one side of the lid and two curved tripartite hinges to the other.
Falcons, an inkwell and pen, as well as an inscription, are carved in the woodwork.
In a letter dated December 27, 1851, Charles Barry (1795- 1860), the architect of the palace, informed Pugin that: “The drawings for the letter boxes were sent to Hardman as soon as I received them… I enclose a diagram which he has made of the pannels [sic] and a list of the data for their decoration; and shall be very glad, if it were not be bothering you too much, if you would give the subject your deliberate attention… That would be most satisfactory.”
The recovered box is almost certainly one of those referred to in this letter, with one designed for the House of Lords, the other for the House of Commons.
Dr Mark Collins, parliamentary estates archivist and historian, said: “It is always exciting to come across an item mentioned in our archives and especially when it appears to be the only copy in existence. We are still piecing the history of the letter box together and figuring out how it fits in with other Pugin designs in the palace.”