A brief history of decorative silver in 13 objects
From an intricately worked 15th-century spoon to an elegantly simple Georg Jensen jug, via a Rococo sugar box made by the greatest silversmith of the 18th century. Harry Williams-Bulkeley, International Head of Silver, is your guide
Although early spoons are now rather rare, it was once common for any wealthy British person to own their own silver spoon which they would take with them on their travels. Because of the intrinsic value of the metal, outmoded or damaged examples were routinely melted down to be used in the making of other objects. This was particularly the case during England’s Civil War (1642-51) and Commonwealth (1649-60) periods, so that very little British silver pre-dating 1660 remains.
This Henry VI-era spoon is a very rare and very early example that once belonged to Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who excavated the ancient palace of Knossos. It came to us from the Benson Collection, which Christie’s sold in 2013. What makes this spoon particularly special is the Wodewose finial. Wodewose is the Middle English term for a man of the woods, also known as a wild man or a green man. The archetypal figure is often seen in wood carvings and engravings, but this is a very early example as a finial.
If you look closely you can see the hallmark — a small head of a leopard — stamped into the bowl of the spoon, which gives us an idea of the object’s date. The hallmarking process was introduced in 1300 and the leopard’s head was used as the king’s heraldic device.
This engraved communion cup is typical of Elizabethan silver, and is impressive for its craftsmanship. Rather than being cast from a mould, it would have been raised from a single piece of sheet metal — a large circle or lump of silver, which the silversmith would have planished (flattened) out, before slowly hammering it up into a bucket shape. This would then have been heated until it was white hot, plunged into acid to soften it, and then hammered again. The process would have been repeated thousands of times.
The final stages would have seen it hammered more carefully and smoothed down with what’s called a water-of-Ayr stone — a very fine pumice stone. It's a method that is still in use for the production of hollow pieces today.
The Tudors had a fascination with exotic materials such as ostrich eggs and coconuts, both of which were great rarities. The extraordinary thing about this particular object, known as the Whitfield Cup, is that it was sold alongside a painting by Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraten of around 1670, which depicted it in a traditional still life.
The finest objects were treasured by the Tudors almost as relics — the cup would have been displayed at a banquet as an expression of wealth, but probably would not have been used. It's a complete contrast to the Elizabethan communion cup (above) in its extravagance. It is gilded, which would have been an additional expense — silver-gilt was often used to give the impression that a piece had been fashioned from gold, which was in reality too soft and too costly to be practicable.
To achieve the desired finish the silversmith would create an amalgam of gold and mercury, paint it onto the silver, and then fire it. In the furnace the mercury would evaporate and the gold would fuse with the silver. It was a poisonous process, and is today illegal.
Although the Charles I ewer below was dug up from a field in Dorset in the south of England, it was discovered in an extraordinary state of preservation and in need of only slight restoration. Its clean, almost minimal form is representative of much of the silver of the Commonwealth period.
It also serves as a reminder that silver itself is currency. The ewer might easily have been converted into cash if it had been taken to a moneylender, who would have paid out according to its weight. Had its owner commissioned something more ornate, the expense spent on decoration would have been lost when it came to be traded and melted down.
With the restoration of the monarchy in England in 1660, people became more inclined to spend money on ornamentation again. This porringer (a two-handled vessel from which one could drink soup or eat stew, and an everyday object of the time) crafted in silver is a particularly fine example.
Its decoration is typical of the period, being heavily influenced by the Dutch style — a consequence of Charles II’s court having being exiled in the Netherlands. You can see this in the wonderful chased and repoussé decoration of tulips and foliage.
Made during the reign of Queen Anne (1665-1714), these silver wine coolers were loaned to Robert Benson, 1st Baron Bingley, who was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary to Spain in December 1713. The monarch’s representatives were provided with silver as emblems of their nation’s wealth. Benson never visited Spain, and returned most of his silver to the Royal Jewel House some years later.
The wine coolers, or ice-pails, were reissued in 1724 — once the arms had been changed to those of George I — to Horatio Walpole, younger brother of the British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, when he was appointed to the British embassy in Paris. Walpole was allowed to keep them.
Paul de Lamerie was from a family of French Huguenots who sought refuge in London from religious persecution, and is regarded as the greatest silversmith to have worked in England in the 18th century. Besides members of the British aristocracy, his clients included Tsarinas Anna and Catherine of Russia, and King John V of Portugal.
This silver sugar box is a beautiful example of rococo decoration, its depiction of exotic landscapes and foliage evidence of the fashion for Chinoiserie that developed as a result of the opening up of trade routes.
Toward the end of the 18th century the influence of Neoclassism began to take hold — the Rosebery wine cistern, made for the third Earl of Rosebery, is one of the greatest examples of this style. It’s an object that is considered to be slightly out of period because silver wine cisterns on this scale were very much a late 17th/early 18th-century form.
Traditionally a wine cistern would be filled with ice in order to cool bottles, although Queen Victoria was known to user hers as a punchbowl. At 34 inches (86 cm) wide, this one is very large, and architectural in style, with restrained ornament confined to the spirally-fluted foot and the drapery swags applied to the shoulders of the elliptical bowl.
What really sets Regency period silver apart is its quality. It was a period that saw the advent of vast workshops employing up to 1,000 workers using new manufacturing techniques, and a strong French influence. The masterpieces of the time are hugely heavy, often gilded and very sculptural, such as this candelabra depicting Hercules and the Hydra.
It was made by Edward Farrell for the Prince Regent’s (later George IV) brother, the Duke of York. Together the British royals were the most influential collectors and patrons of silver in the first quarter of the 19th century.
It’s difficult to choose a single object to represent Victorian silver because the period produced such an eclectic mix of styles. The industrial revolution brought new manufacturing techniques, which made it possible to create both larger and smaller objects more economically. Heralded by the development of Sheffield plate in the 18th century by Matthew Boulton, and the use of electroplating by Elkington & Co. in 1840, silver became more widely available to all.
A great number of extraordinary trophies were commissioned during this period, such as the Queen’s Cup, above, designed by Edmund Cotterill using the American West as a theme. The elaborate composition featuring Native Americans hunting bison allows the artist to show off his skills in creating what is essentially an Italian Renaissance form topped with a Victorian sculpture.
Christopher Dresser was an extraordinary, incredibly forward-looking designer who completely re-evaluated objects, stripping away meaningless decoration and ornament, as exemplified by the jug below.
There was a multiplicity of influences at play in the design of silverware during the 19th century — Gothic, Medieval and Renaissance Revival, another Rococo Revival, and sometimes all of these mixed together. In that context, this unusual example of form following function seems even more remarkable.
The Georg Jensen jug below is another example of form following function, in this instance within the broader context of modernism. Henning Koppel (1918-81) originally trained as a sculptor but became one of Georg Jensen’s leading designers after joining the company in 1946. Blending strict functionalism with organic shapes, he made it his mission to make everyday objects beautiful as well as practical.
Rauni Higson is a part-Finnish silversmith who works in North Wales, and whose work Christie’s has sold online. Her highly sculptural work is characterised by organic forms and a focus on surface texture.
Higson’s work is in the collection of the Goldsmiths' Company as well as private collections. She was also commissioned to produce a Royal Wedding gift for the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.