A horse race inside a lighter?

The Royal Hunt Cup, Ascot 1955, Dunhill horse racing table lighter

Post by Daisy Watson


The blurred outline of a transparent lighter rests in the foreground of a photograph, sitting at its allocated place on a table. Its reflective raisable arm is lifted, half-lit, only just distinguishable from a black striped blazer it borders. Although out of focus, this lighter is unmistakably important. Prominent in the position it holds within the photograph, and important to the figure behind it.

Sir Winston Churchill at his desk

The man sitting behind this Dunhill aquarium table lighter is none other than Sir Winston Churchill, one of Dunhill’s greatest and most prestigious clients. A great cigar smoker and a great enthusiast for the Dunhill Lucite table lighters.

The material Lucite plays a large part in what makes these series of table lighters so unique, exciting, and desirable. Nicholas Wells Antiques ltd hosts an extensive range of the coveted Dunhill aquarium lighters, each one more staggeringly complex than the next. Yet amongst seas of fishes and ocean riding ships, a horse race catches the eye. This is Dunhill’s horse racing table lighter. The Royal Hunt Cup, a flat handicap horse race run at Ascot, serves as the source of inspiration for these carefully carved and painted scenes. Established in 1843, horses aged three years or older race a distance of 1 mile on a straight course. Held on the second day of the five-day Royal Ascot, this year’s Royal Hunt Cup will commence on the 15th of June 2022.

Sitting at a length of 4in 10cm, the lighter is plated in gold, with a raisable arm stamped Dunhill and Reg. No 737418 on the reverse side. Behind its glossy encasing the scene of a horse race in action is unveiled from alternating angles. Delicately executed limbs, tails, riding crops, and the splashing of water illustrate a fleeting moment of real action. Yet, turn the lighter around, and we are gifted with another scene; a still, stoic moment. Here is Willie Snaith riding the horse Nicholas Nickleby, the winner of the Royal Hunt Cup in 1955. In this scene, akin to the triumphant equestrian statues of the ancient Roman tradition, we are reminded of the connotations of the immortalisation of triumph. We, like the rider, are captured in this moment of victory, perhaps in the parade or the warm-up to their eventual win. A thrilling victory such as Snaith’s might have been depicted in painting, photography, or maybe even sculpture. Yet here, in this exceptionally unique and rare commission, carved and painted Lucite captures a scene like no other medium. As a functional object and artistic masterpiece, this Dunhill table lighter intimately brings the past to the present.


But with every great piece of design, comes an even greater story. Behind its Lucite panels, this lighter tells the story of an unlikely victory and the incredible work of equine vet Colin Hetherton.

It’s 1955, Christmas Eve. A crate is delivered to the door of the Hethertons. It is a gift from the grateful owner of Nicholas Nickleby. Inside the crate is champagne, the owner clearly knew Hetherton’s taste. But amongst the bottles there is another object; a box containing an exceptionally unique table lighter.

Colin Hetherton studied at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh, alongside the likes of his friend and contemporary James Herriot. As a new young vet, he was asked upon a second opinion to tend to a horse that was injured and intended for the knacker’s yard. Despite the opinions of many that the horse was irreparable, Hetherton was able to carry out a successful operation. So successful in fact, that the horse Nicholas Nickleby went on to win the Royal Hunt Cup of 1955. Onlookers, as well as the Queen, witnessed an astonishing victory, a victory that would have never happened if not for Hetherton’s defying persistence and skill. A gift such as the Dunhill table lighter was the ideal reward for such great work and effort. Privately commissioned and completely unique, this lighter embodies the retro nostalgia of the 50s with a royal twist, and perhaps even a Dickensian one too. Dicken’s great friend and confidant Charles Smithson was based in Malton, Yorkshire, where his novel Nicholas Nickleby is partially set. Coincidentally Hetherton’s veterinary practice was also based in Malton where he received the injured Nicholas Nickleby, over a century after the great novel was serialised.

Compounded with a sense of practicality and quirkiness, the Royal Hunt Cup lighter fulfils visual stimulation through its imaginative qualities. The table lighter was primarily designed to facilitate the stationery needs of homes and public establishments. Most are made from fine metals, yet as lighters developed to become more than functional objects manufacturers began to play with their design. Stylish lighters incorporated and collaborated with renowned porcelain and glass companies, others adopted wood and marble bases. The limits of table lighter designs are endless. From art-deco to pop and eccentric ornamentation. Crossing the boundary for new and explorative design took more than a cany composition. The use of Lucite was, to a large extent, able to facilitate new levels of eccentricity. Developed in World War II, Lucite was used by American and the Royal Air forces as an alternative to glass due to its resistant properties. It was also the material of choice for Dunhill lighters due to its finely polished finish. The mastermind behind the concept of the aquarium table lighters was Ben Shillingford. He perfected a method of painting and carving Lucite panels to resemble such scenes, exploiting its highly transparent and illuminating properties, creating a sparkling and surreal object d’art.

Dunhill no longer produces this style of lighter. The age of smoking has passed. Yet Dunhill’s ‘James Bond’ reputation does not wane. There is an air of mystery and nostalgia to a piece as rare as it is beautiful. These sparkling pieces of art not only please the eye, but also the mind. With a story as miraculous as Hetherton’s, The Royal Hunt Cup lighter becomes more than a functioning object; it is an heirloom, an embodiment of success against the odds, and representative of a different era. It feels fitting then that these fossil-like objects are so desirable. Each iconic lighter tells its own story, and due to their scarcity is, therefore, a very clever investment.

As we come to the end of the Jubilee weekend, and the Royal Ascot begins, no other time feels more fitting than now to reawaken our interest in Dunhill’s Lucite lighters. Especially with a story as captivating as Hetherton’s, as we mark 67 years since Nicholas Nickleby’s win, only made possible by a brilliant vet.