27 Feb Onward Britains Soldiers
Written by: Laura Nell Burton
Photography by: Christin Gish
Antique soldiers, handed down from my father-in-law, Byron (a.k.a “Guy”), are arranged in dioramas that guard our bar.
I am deeply fond of my father-in-law. His favorite hobbies are the weather (channel) and architecture then versus now. An attorney by profession, in his personal life he loves English mysteries, a Southern meal doused in Tabasco, and the perfect Grey Goose martini on Christmas Eve. I love that he gave his name to his son, who gave it to my son.
Three generations of the J. Byron Burton family captured by Langmore Photography.
Most of all, I love that he affirms my gifts. When he visits, he makes it a point to speak life over what I hold dear—my home, my passion for entertaining and preparing meals that nourish body and soul, the way I love his son, and his three grandchildren.
At the age of six, Byron fell in love with Britains soldiers, after seeing a Vogue magazine photo spread on Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s collection of 3,000. He also idolized Winston Churchill’s collection. Three years later, Byron had already amassed such an impressive collection himself, that at age nine, the Corpus Christi Caller Times interviewed and photographed him for an article published on July 19, 1951.
Half a century later, his beloved soldiers lay in original boxes collecting dust in the attic, until I convinced him it was time for the next chapter of the story to begin. I will hold dear all my life the exhilarating day my husband and I climbed up that attic ladder to uncover lost treasure and meet Byron’s lead comrades for the very first time.
While Britain’s Limited began sometime after 1860, the miniature soldier market was completely transformed in 1893 when William Britain invented the process for hollow-casting lead. Britain’s hollow-cast system involved pouring molten lead into a mold that was turned as the metal cooled, with a small opening allowing for excess lead to escape. The finished product was a 1/32nd scale hollow figurine considerably cheaper and lighter than earlier designs. Britains carefully researched the correct uniforms, drill positions, and historical backgrounds of all models produced. Mistakes were rarely made. Production slowed and then halted for a year during WWI, so sets are characterized by curators as prewar (set numbers 1-1920) or postwar (set numbers above 1920). After 1966, Great Britain prohibited the manufacture of lead soldiers because of the material’s toxicity, jump-starting the collector’s market. Today Britains are made of solid-cast pewter composite metal bases and also available in plastic with the metal alloy bases.
The resident expert on Britains is Joe Wallis, whom I consider my friend. He is a founding partner of the Old Toy Soldier magazine, and has also written two books, the latter of which, Regiments of All Nations, was my holy grail as I worked obsessively for months spread out over our rent house kitchen counters to carefully determine appropriate groupings, lineups and source missing pieces from a short list of reputable dealers, eBay, and other sources I discovered and befriended online.
To learn more and purchase his books, you can visit his website. In our hometown we also shop at Kings X and the Texas Toy Soldier Show every May at the historic Menger Hotel. You can buy new Britains online and even join the worldwide William Britain Collectors Club. As a club member, you’ll receive their quarterly magazine, annual club figures, entry into certain club events, and the opportunity to purchase exclusive special edition sets and figures only available to members.
As for Britains today, the 124-year-old brand was acquired in 2016 by The Good Soldier LLC, located in Holland, Ohio. This new company is owned and operated by toy and model figure collectors dedicated to a continuing commitment of quality and authenticity.
Next came turning over hundreds of soldiers for framing. Known for framing some of the most unusual items imaginable, I cherish the team at Art Incorporated who, collaborating with me and my very dear friend and gifted interior designer Michele Stevens, guided me through sizing and placement of the dioramas in our bar as it was under construction, and provided master craftsmanship and a thoughtful handle on budget and timing. They are an absolute delight to work with in every way.
This special project was a joyful labor of love, with the greatest reward finding my father-in-law, once a young commander of lead armies, now in our bar spending contented time remembering old war stories with his antiquated troops. God bless you, Guy, we are forever grateful, and love you with all of our hearts.