Many years ago my great friend and colleague at Mallett, Piers Woodnutt, introduced me to a field of collecting that I knew very little about. Since seeing and handling the first Dunhill Aquarium lighters, I have been spellbound by them ever since.
They cross the divide of a functional luxury object combined with a quirkiness and uniqueness that makes every one of them special. They all have their merits and distinctive features, and they are all unique. Combine this with a limited supply and voila you have a strong collecting field that is fuelled by enthusiastic collectors and dealers aspiring to have the best collections!
The mastermind behind these extraordinary lighters was Ben Shillingford. He worked for Dunhill after the war from 1949 and perfected the art of carving and painting lucite panels to resemble miniature aquariums. The panels were hand carved with reverse intaglios using dental tools and drills. The scenes were populated with ever more ambitious designs of varying depth and complexity.
The themes not only included the fish aquariums but also, sporting, historic ships, cruise liners, birds, racing cars, and outdoor pursuit hunting scenes.
The lucite panels were engraved then painted and applied to the Dunhill half giant lighter bodies in four sections. The bodies themselves were available plated in gold, silver, and chrome. Each with a curved lift arm stamped ‘Dunhill’ with a satisfying sprung catch and a registration mark on the back. The flint locates in front of a sprung screw that runs parallel to the lift arm, ready to spark across a petrol-fuelled wick primed to ignite. The flame safely despatched by the sprung arm that provides a satisfying clunk on closing.
Dunhill half giant Aquarium Lighters are big, heavy and fabulous! So big, (at 450 grams – without fuel) they were designed to live on a tabletop and were the perfect accouterment to the rocking 50’s. The Giant Size (which is twice as large) was available but very rarely with lucite panels. One Giant lighter was sold at Bonhams.
Among Dunhill’s great clients was Sir Winston Churchill. He was a great cigar smoker and enthusiast for Dunhill aquarium lighters.
Chartwell is home to Churchill’s rare large Dunhill aquarium box with intaglio panels painted in vibrant colours NT1101753. By repute, he even gave aquarium lighters as gifts including to Liaquat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan. Although this is not recorded in the National archives as an official gift, it may well have been a personal one.
Lucite was developed in World War II and used by the American and Royal airforce as an alternative to glass. Lucite would not shatter when under fire and was thus in high demand for airplane windshields, bomber noses, and submarine periscopes among other uses. Following the war, the lucite stock that remained found its way into artists studios, designers workshops and Jewellery makers.
Its versatility was that it could be carved, painted and polished resulting in highly decorative sparkling objet d’art.
Together with Margaret and Allan Bennett, Ben Shillingford was able to produce some of the most sought after and desirable collectible petrol lighters of the 20th century. Nicholas Wells Antiques is proud to have handled some of the greatest of them, a few of them, past and present shared with you in this article.