As one of the finest collections of early English silver comes to Christie’s, specialist Harry Williams-Bulkeley reveals the remarkable stories from its turbulent Civil War past
During the English Civil War (1642-1651), looting was rife and indiscriminate, with both sides — Royalists and Parliamentarians — needing funds to support their expanding armies. When one Royalist supporter led a party to pillage the houses of the rich, he was told only to plunder those of the Roundheads. In that case, he retorted, ‘We will make every man a Roundhead that hath anything to lose’.
What the raiders hoped to find was silver, which could be melted down in one of the many emergency mints that had sprung up across the country. ‘As a result,’ says Harry Williams-Bulkeley, International Head of Silver at Christie’s, ‘there are virtually no pre-Civil War silver pieces left in the country today. What little has survived is either church plate or can be found in certain Oxbridge colleges influential enough at the time to have hung on to it.’
Which makes it all the more remarkable that in the early 1990s, David Little began building one of the finest collections of early English silver in the country.
‘It is difficult to explain just how ambitious the undertaking was,’ says Williams-Bulkeley. ‘Today you have to look to the Armoury Museum in Russia for great 16th-century silver, rather than in England, as it was often given to the Tsar as a diplomatic gift.’
On 3 December, The David Little Collection of Early English Silver will be offered for sale at Christie’s in London. According to our specialist, the collection is representative of all the major forms of silver that a wealthy household in the 15th or 16th century would have owned, from apostle spoons to fruit baskets.
Comparable examples of the pieces offered in the sale feature in Old Master paintings. One such example is Still Life with a Turkey Pie (1627), below, by the Dutch painter Pieter Claesz, which depicts a Charles I ewer on the left hand side, similar to one acquired by David Little.
‘Today we only ever see these objects behind glass cases in museums,’ says Williams-Bulkeley. ‘We think of them as incredibly precious, yet in the past they would have been used every day. Although they were costly, they were also integral to the running of a household.’
The discovery of an Elizabeth I silver wine taster on the banks of the River Thames close by Vintner’s Hall is a good example of such an item. Merchants used these small silver cups to sample wine, as illustrated in the Dutch Master painting Governors of the Amsterdam Wine Merchants Guild from circa 1570-1580, below, by Ferdinand Bol.
The taster is inscribed with the initials T.W., and documents reveal that there are two potential owners who were masters of the Vintners’ Company in the late 1500s — Thomas Waye and Thomas Walker. ‘It is easy to imagine one of them climbing back into their boat after a good dinner and, in a slightly drunken state, dropping their wine taster into the Thames,’ says the specialist.
Other notable dining pieces in the David Little Collection include a pair of silver dishes from the celebrated Armada Service, a 31-plate Elizabethan silver service which was found buried in a potato barn in the village of Brixton in Devon in 1827. The discovery caused an almighty feud between the land’s occupier, Mr Splat, and its proprietor, the Reverend Richard Lane, erroneously named Mr Bastard in one local bulletin.
National newspapers, eager for salacious details, began to romanticise the treasure’s provenance once it was discovered that the service bore the coat of arms of Sir Christopher Harris, who had been closely acquainted with the privateers Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.
Drake had delegated Harris to escort his New World treasure to the Tower of London in 1580 while Raleigh, as Vice-Admiral of Devon, had entrusted Harris to distribute booty taken from the captured Spanish ship the Madre de Dios — the single greatest prize of the Anglo-Spanish War. The revelation gave rise to the romantic idea that the dishes were cast from silver seized from the Armada.
The service was inherited by Harris’s great-nephew, John Harris, who served as Royalist Commissioner of Array in Devon during the English Civil War. When fighting threatened his home of Radford, the silver was buried to avoid it being looted by Parliamentarians.
‘There is another, slightly more prosaic possibility,’ admits the specialist. ‘Harris had debts when he died, and his family may well have simply hidden the dishes to avoid paying a £200 bill.’
Today, the majority of The Armada Service is held by the British Museum. It is thought that these two dishes were retained by the family until they were sold in 2009.
The story serves as a reminder that the 16th century was a golden age of culture and exploration, as pioneered by the likes of Drake and Raleigh, who brought outlandish curiosities back from their adventures.
‘Another theme running through the collection is exotica,’ says Williams-Bulkeley. ‘It was fashionable to mount shells, coconuts and ostrich eggs in precious metals and display them as a sign of your cultivation.’
Such far-flung objects can be seen in the mysterious circa 1660 Flemish painting The Paston Treasure, above, which boasts a glittering hoard of curios brought back by the legendary collector and traveller Sir William Paston from the Middle East.
Painters also depicted these exotic artefacts in allegorical works. A coconut cup similar to the James I silver-mounted coconut cup offered for sale at Christie’s (above, right), is featured in Still Life (1652) by Willem Claesz. Heda (below). The painting is a vanitas: the cup is depicted alongside an hour glass and a box of earthly delights, which are reminders that life is fleeting and death inexorable — and treasure cannot be taken with you.
‘It serves as a nice parable for the entire collection,’ says the specialist, ‘because so much of it survived the conflict by being buried or lost. No longer used, but preserved to be valued by future generations.’