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Collector and author John Wilson.

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John Wilson is a collector of illuminated addresses. They are gifts, usually given to individuals as a thank you for a service rendered. They were popular in Victorian times but fell out of favour after the mid-20th century.

He has recently written a book on the topic to “share a wide variety of addresses and explore who each address was presented to, and why”.

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Example of illuminated address from John Wilson's collection (to Alderman James Hellyer in 1942).

ATG: How did you get the collecting bug and how long have you been collecting?

John Wilson: I have been collecting things since I was a boy. Like many others, I collected stamps, trade cards and coins. I was also taken by my parents to jumble sales, and collected heraldic china (which we referred to as Goss china). My father enjoyed antiques and his interest passed to me. I had seen illuminated addresses in stately homes and noticed them particularly about 30 years ago. It was probably 20 years ago that a proper collection developed.

What drew you to illuminated addresses primarily?

I saw some in a stately home and admired them. I particularly liked them as they seem to combine both great beauty and interest. The beauty comes from skilled calligraphy enhanced with bright surrounding designs and pictures, often using gold and silver. They were created to be impressive. Each one is unique and represents a person and place at a point in time. They give the opportunity to explore the social history surrounding an occasion.

Can you remember your first item?

I can’t remember the first, but one of the early ones that I really liked was to Sir James Ritchie, bought from Gorringe’s [auction house] in Lewes. The artistry was fabulous.

What elements do you look for when considering a purchase?

I look for three things. Firstly, the quality of the design. Some illuminated addresses were created by amateur artists, and the quality of the calligraphy and artwork can be poor. Secondly, I look at condition. If the paper has been handled a lot, or if it has been left near the sun or dampness, then either the surrounding mounts or the address can be damaged by browning, spots or dirt. Thirdly, I judge the price. Prices can be very variable. I would expect the price to increase depending on the recipient (fame and title increasing the price), the quality and the condition.

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Example of illuminated address from John Wilson's collection (to Thomas Hayes in 1909).

How do you display the items and where?

Most illuminated addresses come in the form of a book and they live on a bookshelf with other books. Some come as scrolls so live in tubes. The remainder are single sheets. Some are framed and hang on the wall and the rest are kept in a picture folder. It is always a challenge to find space on a wall for a new one.

Where do you find items to buy?

Mainly auctions (I am a big user of thesaleroom.com), book dealers and antiques dealers.

What is the most you have spent on an item for your collection?

About £400.

How large is your collection?

I have about 170. However, I also like original fine calligraphy in other forms.

Have you considered selling any items from your collection?

No, not yet, but the time is likely to come, if my children continue to show no interest.

Is there one you are still looking for?

No, but like most collectors, I am drawn to seek new items. I am particularly drawn to auctions of the contents of stately homes. Every Victorian or Edwardian grand house would most likely have one or more illuminated address.

Which is your earliest one?

From 1844, to Sir Thomas Wilde from the London Vinegar Makers thanking him for helping to avoid a tax on vinegar, as he was a lawyer. I don’t know exactly when illuminated addresses first began.

Do you have any royal illuminated addresses?

Yes, I have addresses to The Duke of Connaught and Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, two of Queen Victoria’s children, and other relatives such as Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter.

When did you get the idea for your book?

I have felt for some time that it is a shame that beautiful items often sit in collections or museum vaults never to be seen. Progressing my book idea seriously began in 2019 and the writing, photos and design took place in 2020.

The book, Beauty in Letters: A Selection of Illuminated Addresses, was published by the Unicorn Publishing Group on April 29. This was my first book. Whether I write any more is likely to depend on how successful this one is.