The Gilbert Vintry wine taster is thought to be the earliest surviving English silver wine taster after the Bordeaux model. It is also a rare work by the Colchester and Ipswich silversmith Lawrence Gilbert. In the 16th and early 17th century Bordeaux was the main source of wine imports into England. This type of wine taster, with a domed centre to allow the colour of the wine to be inspected, is named after the town. The 17th century painting on the previous page depicts two Amsterdam merchants, one pouring wine from a pipette into a similar wine taster, presumably to be sampled by the gentlemen seated in the foreground.
This wine taster pre-dates the earliest fully marked Bordeaux example by almost a generation. A wine taster on loan to the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery from Lacock parish church dates from 1603 and the next oldest example is one of 1631 in the Jackson Collection, National Museum of Wales. Another taster, similar but with fluted sides and with a bunch of grapes chased in the centre, was sold from the Noble sale at Christie's on 24 November 1943, lot 68. It was struck with the Norwich maker's mark of a trefoil dated to the 1570s.The Little/Gilbert wine taster can also be dated by its maker's mark attributed to the Suffolk goldsmith Lawrence Gilbert. He was born around 1545, one of four brothers whose father Jefferye was a goldsmith in Ipswich. In the 1560s Gilbert is thought to have been working in Colchester making communion plate for a number of parish churches. Two of his communion cups survive in the environs of Colchester; one dated 1569 and another 1567, the year his workshop in Colchester received an inspection from the wardens of the London Goldsmiths' Company. During that period he used two different marks; one consisting of the letter G pierced by an L in a shield and a similar incuse mark without a shield. The mark here is very close to the first, but with a circular rather than a shaped shield. For further information on the Gilbert family of silversmiths see B. Inglis, The Silver Society Journal, 'An ostrich egg cup by Lawrence Gilbert of Colchester', London, no. 9, 1997, pp. 57-2.
It has been traditionally held that this wine taster was discovered on the banks of the Thames near the Vintry or Three Cranes Wharf, in close proximity to the Vintners' Hall. The roughened texture of the surface confirms this and it is not be the only wine taster to have been discovered in the vicinity of the wharf. A wine taster of 1634 was dredged up in same location in 1978. Now in the collection of the Museum of London, it is engraved with a Latin inscription recording its ownership to one John Downinge, later a freeman of the Coopers' Company. Rosemary Weinstein in her article 'An Early 17th Century Wine Taster' in The Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, vol. 34, 1983, p. 203, notes that John Aubrey (1626-97) the antiquary, commented on the use of silver wine tasters 'These silver boates are very common at Bristow among the merchants, who used to carry them in their pockets to Tast wine; they call them Tasters. They were first called cognes (from coggones, little boates)'. She observed that wine tasters were so much a part of the vintner's equipment that an English Act of 1477-8, prohibiting the export of gold and silver, made a special exemption clause, 'any Merchant going over the Sea to buy any Wine to be brought into the realm, as for to carry with him only a little cup called a Taster (un taster ou shewer pur vine) '.
The site of the discovery for the present wine taster suggests it might have belonged to a member of the Vintners' Company. Tantalisingly Schroder puts forward two potential owners of the wine taster - Thomas Waye, Master of the Vintners' Company in 1587 or Thomas Walker, master in 1592. The elegance of the Vintners' Hall would have been in direct contrast to the Three Cranes Wharf and the tavern close by known as the 'Three Cranes in the Vintry'. An entry from Pepys' diary from 23rd January 1661, quoted by Brand Inglis, and repeated in the Albert Collection catalogue, gives an idea of the ramshackle nature of the establishment. 'We went over the Three Cranes Tavern and, though the best room in the house, in such a narrow dog-hole were we crammed and I believe there were near forty, that it made me loath my company and victuals, and a very poor dinner it was too.' A detail from a panorama of London, published in London circa 1600 by the Dutch engraved Nicolaes Jansz Visscher (1586-1652), depicts the Three Cranes Wharf and shows its proximity of St. Pauls Cathedral and the City of London.