‘He welcomed wet days because on them he could stay at home without pangs of conscience and spend the afternoon with white of egg and a glue-pot, patching up the Russia leather of some battered quarto.’ – Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham
Russian reindeer hide has become something of a mythic material in luxury shoemaking; a rare and precious skin – which it is now both illegal and almost impossible to source – the only way to get your hands on the stuff is to unearth a supply of vintage material, of which very few if any are now thought to exist, bar one.
There is a twist though, because what remains of this hallowed stash resides at the bottom of the sea, off the South Coast of England, in an unstable and unsafe shipwreck, which it is becoming increasingly difficult to reach. The ship in question was called the Metta Catharina, and it was only four years old when, on the night of 10th December 1786, coastal winds proved too strong for the Danish brigantine, despite it being anchored at both bow and stern. It was on its way to deliver hemp to the corderie in Venice, where it would be made into ropes and lines for a fleet of sailing ships, then to deliver the rest of its cargo – a stock of Russian reindeer leather to Genoa. Why would the Genoese want leather from Russia when there was so much available a great deal closer to home? The answer wasn’t the leather itself, but rather the way in which the hides were cured, which rendered them impervious water. The Genoese knew about this remarkable technique and its results because they had, until a few years previously, an outpost in the Ukraine from which they had traded with the Ottoman Turks.
Almost 200 years after the Metta Catharina sank, in 1973, an archaeological team from the Plymouth Sound British Sub-Aqua Club happened upon a ship’s bell, inscribed with the legend, ‘Die Frau Metta Catharina de Flensburg Brigantine Anno 1782’. Because the wreck lay on the Cornish side of Plymouth Sound, ownership rights belonged to the Duchy of Cornwall; by the most fortunate of coincidences, HRH Prince Charles, the Duke of Cornwall, was also president of the British Sub-Aqua Club, awarding the bell to the club and granting the archaeological team a seabed lease allowing them to investigate the wreck further.