To the casual observer, it is the sort of biscuit tin that would sit proudly beside cups of Earl Grey and slices of Victoria sponge at a quintessential English teatime. Close study reveals, however, that the container with a charming illustration of an Edwardian garden party is an object lesson in why it is inadvisable to cross a commercial artist.
Recently rediscovered in a Somerset attic, the tin, made for the Quaker biscuit manufacturer Huntley & Palmers, is the work of a disgruntled draughtsman who lost his job and failed to receive what he considered to be satisfactory compensation. He took revenge by concealing a series of explicit images on a lid designed to depict genteel England.
The picture, painted 24 years ago by an unnamed worker at the company's Liverpool factory, intermingled frolicking infants and prim ladies in flowing dresses with cameos of two lovers in the undergrowth and a pair of copulating terriers. He also put the word "shit" on the label of the jam jar on the table in the bucolic scene.
The X-rated additions to the lid, which was based on an illustration by Kate Greenaway, the early 20th-century children's illustrator, went unnoticed for years, until a vigilant shopworker spotted them. Production was halted immediately, but thousands of the tins had been sold.
One of the few remaining examples will be auctioned next week after being found in a collection built by a West Country aristocrat.
Richard Gold, of Lawrences Auctioneers, based in Crewkerne, Dorset, said: "The employee was a draughtsman who was fired but not given any financial help. He thought, 'I'll fix them' so he produced this nice-looking tin. He added these few touches of his own."
The tin, which is expected to sell for at least £250, was produced at the sprawling Huntley & Palmers plant in Liverpool at a time of strained industrial relations at the company, which at its height at the turn of the 20th century was the biggest biscuit producer in the world. The firm, which at one time had more than 5,000 employees at its complex in Reading, West Berkshire, had supplied its brands to 137 countries. It became renowned for its packaging to such an extent that the tin lids were designed to placed as works of art on kitchen walls.
At the time of this tin's production it had been forced to close its original plant in Reading, and was trying to cut costs at its new production centre. In 1980 the round of redundancies that included the disgruntled artist left some workers with only minimal compensation.
The worker may also have had other grounds for his act of rebellion. The company was notorious for the strict rules it imposed on employees, with smoking in the toilet and stealing biscuits from the production line deemed sackable offences.
Conduct was monitored even outside the factory gate. A rule-book from 1970 banned workers from throwing snowballs in the streets around the factory.
The illicit images, measuring less than a centimetre in height, show the naked backside of a man with the bare legs of his partner either side of him, were part of a series of limited-edition lids, which the company made a speciality.
A spokesman for Reading Museum, which has a gallery dedicated to the Huntley & Palmers links with the town, said: "The early tins had featured the manufacturer's name on the design, but it became increasingly unfashionable to use such blatant advertising in the Victorian era. From the 1880s, when the firm's name was only inscribed on the base of the tin, they became acceptable objects to use as ornaments or as storage in the home."
Quite how many of the top-shelf tins remain on the nation's mantelpieces is unclear, adding to the value of the tin being put up for auction. The container is part of a collection built up by the Count de Salis, an avid collector of biscuit tins who lived in Somerset. The 100-item collection is expected to fetch a total of about £5,000.
Huntley & Palmers, views the actions of its artistic saboteur with humour. A spokesman said: "This is an example of what happens when things go wrong in the manufacturing process. It's quite special. We have nothing else like this."
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