The present tea-urn represents an outstanding example of the English goldsmiths' interpretation of the French classical style of the Regency period. Inspired by recent archaelogical discoveries and artefacts brought to England and France from the Grand Tour, no less than Napoleon's campaign on the Nile, a hybrid form of decoration for silver and furnishings arose. This included Roman, Egyptian and ancient Greek references and a sense of formality, proportion and balance as contrasted with the asymmetrical and scrolling rococo. Napoleon adopted the classical style to further his Imperial identity and increase his perceived links with Republican Rome.
In England, the classical or Regency style developed in parallel with the French Imperial style and remarkable similarities may be seen in contemporary pieces. The influence on English silver of French style at the highest levels of craftsmanship may be illustrated by the designs of Jean-Jacques Boileau and the work of Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot and Henri Auguste. The latter's work was well known in England and collected by such principal antiquaries as William Beckford. Boileau was brought to England to assist in the decoration of the Prince of Wales' Carlton House, and his designs provided inspiration particularly for the Royal Goldsmiths' Rundell Bridge and Rundell. A. Phillips and J. Sloane, Antiquity Revisited, English and French Silver-Gilt from the Collection of Audrey Love, London, 1997, pp.7-8 discuss a silver-gilt tea-urn by the same makers and of the same date as the present one, subsequently in the Al-Tajir Collection which displays characteristics strongly linking it to a design by Boileau for a wine-cooler. In particular the winged demi-female monopodia supports, masks and serpents display Boileau's interpretation of Egyptian style. The present tea-urn also has an outstanding characteristic noted by A. Grimwade, op. cit. as: 'a very unusual feature... i.e. that the gadrooned shoulder is hinged diametrically at front and rear, so that it can be raised to semi-circular handles for carrying the urn. I do not recall having met this feature in any similar piece.'
The Spencers were one of the wealthiest families in England, the Hon. John Spencer (1708-1783) having inherited not only the estates of his father, the eminent statesman the 3rd Earl of Sunderland, but also a considerable fortune from his maternal grandmother, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. George John Spencer, Viscount Althorp and later 2nd Earl Spencer, K.G. (1758-1834) was educated at Cambridge and, following a Grand Tour, he was returned as Member of Parliament for Northampton and later, in 1782, for Surrey. He was affiliated to the Whig party by birth and also by the marriage of his sisters respectively to the Duke of Devonshire and the Earl of Bessborough, and during the short Rockingham ministry he was one of the junior Lords of the Treasury. He married Lavinia Bingham on 6 March, 1781. At the time she was described as 'the most beautiful girl in fashionable life.' Her mother, Margaret, Countess of Lucan, was a well regarded painter of fashionable miniatures who counted Horace Walpole among her admirers. The couple, leading figures in London society, were painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
George John succeeded his father as Earl Spencer in 1783. After the French Revolution and the declaration of war between England and France he joined with Edmund Burke and supported the policy of Pitt. In 1794 he was nominated a Privy Councillor, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, and then First Lord of the Admiralty for six years from 1794. It was under his direction that the battles of St. Vincent and Camperdown were fought and won, and he was largely responsible for Nelson being singled out for independent command and sent to the Mediterranean where he won the battle of the Nile. With the resignation of Pitt in February 1801 Spencer left office. He was later Home Secretary during Fox's administration but increasingly devoted himself to literary and scientific pursuits at Althorp, his home in Northamptonshire. Lavinia died on 8 June, 1831 and Spencer in 1834.