In the days when knights used to joust, their warhorses were decorated with plumes, cloths and elaborate harnesses.  In due course, working horses of all kinds had their leather harnesses embellished, this time with decorative brasses


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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Decorative Arts > Expert Tip: Horse Brass

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You can tell a great deal about the age of a horse brass from the quality of its manufacture. Victorian brasses for use on working horses were cast in solid brass and have a flat back. They are well crafted and well finished. Wall brasses, die- stamped from a thin brass sheet, are lighter.

Place named brasses are generally later than 1930.


Horse Brass


 Collecting horse brasses first became popular in the 1920s and there are now several thousand designs to choose from.

 In the days when knights used to joust, their warhorses were decorated with plumes, cloths and elaborate harnesses.  In due course, working horses of all kinds had their leather harnesses embellished, this time with decorative brasses.

 Original horse brasses, which were perhaps made as early as the 16th century, were hand hammered from sheets of brass, using a hammer, a punch and a file.

 From 1830 they were cast in sand moulds that were created from patterns skilfully carved in close-grained pearwood. And from 1870 to the present they have been produced by die-stamping designs into a thin sheet of brass. 

Apart from the fact that they are attractive and enhanced the look of a horse, there were other reasons why they came into use. Some were certainly used for identification purposes, bearing the coat of arms of the horse's owner or a name with some kind of decoration.

 In time the ornamental side became more important.  By 1900 some 2000 different designs appeared on Britain's horses. 


 There are those that argue that horse brasses have a deeper significance.  Certainly they have long been regarded as lucky charms.

 Those that incorporate crescents and stars may relate to ancient worship of heavenly bodies and a wish to ward off the 'Evil Eye'.

 Whatever their origins, horse brasses were being widely used on harnesses by the 19th century.

 Cast brasses were filed and polished by hand before being sold.  Short stubs on the reverse, that allowed the brass to be held in a vice, were filed off but traces of them can still be seen on some brasses.

 The colour of the brass might be altered in several ways.  A sequence of immersions in acid solution mellowed the colour.  Other brasses were coated with lacquer which altered the colour and stopped oxidization.

 Polished horse brasses, whether displayed on a leather harness or hung singly, look very good against a beam or on a white wall.


 Horse brasses are relatively inexpensive but if you want to collect genuine Victorian ones, that were actually used on horses, you will need some experience of looking for the correct signs of wear from the harness.

 Such real horse brasses are usually well finished on the inside and show signs of having been frequently polished over the years. The majority of brasses on sale have been made since 1920 and have always hung on a wall.


 The lacquer or varnish that protected antique brassware is usually worn away now. A slow oxidizing process takes place on the surface of brass, and if the oxide is very old, a caustic solution will be needed to remove it. This is is a job for the professional.

  Acetone, however, will remove old cellulose, the commonest lacquer.

 For general cleaning of brass yourself, a piece of lemon dipped in fine salt is as effective as any of the proprietary spirit based cleaners - if a little messy!

 To polish your brasses use one of the manufactured liquid or paste polishes or impregnated non-scratch wadding. Apply polish with a soft brush and baff the brass with a soft duster.

  Brass is a soft metal that can be scratched by fingernails so wear rubber gloves or soft gardening gloves if you want to prevent this.


 Simple repairs to brass objects can be effected with silver  or lead solder, but anything complicated should be carried out by a professional.

 Members of the British Artist Blacksmiths Association are well qualified to carry out excellent restoration work on valuable antique pieces.

 Remember that reproduction brassware is almost always made from thinner sheets of brass. This is easily dented, which can give a false impression of age.


 Antiques shops and bric-a-brac shops usually have a selection of brasses.  They are the sort of thing that can also be picked up at car boot sales, street markets and jumble sales.

 Part of the fun is in hunting them out and, if this proves thirsty work, you can always pop into a pub and check out their collection.



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