The Rosebery wine-cistern is among the grandest examples of late 18th century display plate. The design re-interprets the historical form of a late 17th or early 18th century silver cistern in the idiom of the neo-classical style. The silver wine-cistern adorned the buffets of Royal and aristocratic dinners from the 1670s. Historical records show that the highest concentration of surviving cisterns dates from the early 18th century. N. M. Penzer, op. cit., lists thirteen cisterns from 1670 to 1700 and a further twenty-four between 1700 and 1735. However, there are a small number of cisterns which date from later in the 18th century. Although somewhat an anachronistic commission, Speaker Cust received a massive wine-cistern weighing over 1,400 ounces as part of his perquisite plate on becoming Speaker of the House of Commons in 1770. It is now displayed at Belton House, Lincolnshire. Another cistern from the late 18th century is in the Gilbert Collection. It bears the later arms of the Duke of Sussex (d.1843). T. Schroder in The Gilbert Collection of Gold and Silver, Los Angeles, p. 314, suggests that this example dates from the early 1770s. Although it is hallmarked for 1794 it is in an earlier style and may have been hallmarked only on resale when second hand.
When compared to the Belton and Duke of Sussex cisterns, the Rosebery cistern is more architectural in form, with restrained ornament confined to the spirally-fluted foot and the drapery swags applied to the shoulders of the elliptical bowl.
The design of the cistern is in the purest neo-classical taste. If it is assumed the cistern was commissioned by the 3rd Earl of Rosebery, it is interesting to note that he was a long standing acquaintance of the great Scottish neo-classical architect Robert Adam, having met him in both London and Rome. Adam was commissioned by Rosebery to provide him with drawings for the reconstruction of his Scottish seat, the then dilapidated 16th century Barnbougle Castle. A. A. Tait in 'Robert Adam's Picturesque Architecture', The Burlington Magazine, vol. 123, no. 940, July, 1981, pp. 421-424, discusses the commission and notes, that although the project never progressed beyond the drawing board, Adam was paid £56. 14s in 1778 (Dalmeny Commonplace Book, Third Earl, folio 117).
It is possible the Earl commissioned Adam to design the cistern for display in a neo-classical dining-room planned for the new Barnbougle Castle; Adam may have planned to employ the combination of a classical interior and a picturesque exterior as found at his later commission, Culzean Castle.
Although the use of the wine-cistern had reached its apogee in the early 18th, century Adam employed a pair of cisterns from his patron's collection in his design for the west end of the dining-room at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire. He created this sideboard niche plan for Sir Nathaniel Curzon in 1762. Around this date he also produced silver designs for the Earl of Bute, including one for a cistern, later incorrectly labelled as being for a tureen, illustrated in C. Hartop, op. cit., 2010, p. 21, fig. 22. The Rosebery cistern is both massive in size and detail. It relies on strong architectural forms rather than on both structure and ornamental detail as visible in the silver designs and extant objects created for the Welsh landowner Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn in the 1770s.
One of the great masterpieces of silver design created by Adam was his drawing for the Richmond Race Cup, which he produced for the Dundas family in 1764. Parallels can be drawn with the Richmond Race cup design and the Rosebery cistern. Each exhibit fine spiral-fluting and acanthus foliage on the lower body. Similar spiral-fluting paired with acanthus foliage appears on Adam's design for a candlestick of circa 1766 (see above). Daniel Smith and Robert Sharp, the makers of the Rosebery wine-cistern, created the first Richmond race cup and a number of later cups including the 1766 cup, The Wentworth Sale; Christie's, London, 8 July 1998, lot 15. They were also the silversmiths of the set of three neo-classical condiment vases made for the 1st Lord Harwood, whose Yorkshire seat was designed by John Carr and Robert Adam. They produced silver to the designs of Sir William Chambers (1723-1796) such as the Fitzwilliam tureens of 1771.