Belton and the Brownlow Tankards
John Brownlow (1659-1697), later called 'Young' Sir John to distinguish him from his great-uncle, inherited the estate and old manor house at Belton on the death of 'Old' Sir John, in 1679. 'Young' Sir John had married his cousin Alice Sherrard in 1676. She was his aunt's daughter and the adopted daughter of his great-uncle. 'Old' Sir John had managed his affairs well and the young couple inherited an estate which provided an income of £9,000. They additionally inherited £20,000, no doubt partly made up of the sixty-six sacks of coins which were saved from 'Old' Sir John's house in Drury Lane during the Great Fire in 1666.
The young couple immediately bought a new London house in Southampton Square and began planning the new building at Belton. Work started in February 1684 with the clearing of the site and the gathering of materials. The first stone was laid on 23 March 1685 and work progressed quickly to designs now attributed to the soldier-architect William Winde (d.1722). This was overseen by the mason-contractor William Stanton (1639-1705). It is thought that the shell had been roofed by the autumn of 1686, about which time the Brownlow Tankards would have been commissioned.
Sir John and Lady Brownlow took up residence in November 1688 and an inventory was drawn-up at the time (see Lady Elizabeth Cust, Records of the Cust Family, Series II, The Browlows of Belton, 1550-1779, London, 1909, p.160-166). Sadly the silver is not listed apart from 'two Silver Gilt Skonces' on the East Staircase and 'one wrought Silver dressing box' and 'two Silver candle Sticks' in 'My Ladys Closet'. The bulk of the family plate was perhaps still being stored at their new Southampton Square house. However, the inventory does give a facinating insight into the contemporary furnishing of the house and the tastes of Sir John and Lady Brownlow. What is evident is their delight in the then current fashion for all things Oriental.
The chinoiserie tankards would have been displayed in interiors containing oriental porcelain, lacquer furniture and tapestries. The 1688 inventory records no less that seven 'Jappan' tables, eight stands, a dressing glass, ten chairs, three boxes and a punch bowl with frame. These are found in the Great Parlour, the Drawing Room next to the Parlour, the Drawing Room next to the Dining Room, Sir John Sherrard's chamber, the Best Chamber, the Velvet Room and in Lady Brownlow's closet and chamber. The collection of porcelain which remains in the house today includes Japanese Imari and Chinese porcelain from the late 17th century.
In 1691 Sir John commissioned a magnificent set of Chinoiserie tapestries from John Vanderbank (d.1727), who had just completed a set of four 'Indian' tapestries for Queen Mary. The tapestries use similar perspective conventions to those of the silver-chasers, with small islands of figures unrelated to the other surrounding figure groups.
The perspective within the scenes is more developed, with much of the subject matter derived from Indian miniatures.
Lady Brownlow remained at Belton after the death of Sir John and the probate inventory taken on her death in 1721 gives a full picture of the plate collection. The list amounts to some 8,900 ounces of silver and silver-gilt, valued at £2,422. This already magnificent collection was greatly added to by the later members of the Brownlow and Cust families, most notably the 4,000 ounces of plate acquired by Browlow Cust when he was appointed Speaker of the House of Commons in 1761.
The plate collection at Belton was always admired, as shown by a newspaper report of a ball at Belton in 1833, 'The decorations of the table were exceedingly beautiful and the display of costly plate superb', A Tinniswood, Belton House, London, 1992, p. 43. When The Brownlow tankards were sold in 1968 they fetched a remarkable £54,000, then a world record price for silver sold at auction.
The Identity of the maker John Duck
The mystery of the identity of the goldsmith, whose mark of a duck or goose in a dotted circle, which is struck on the Brownlow tankards and lot 15, was solved by John Culme and published in the Jaime Ortiz-Patino sale catalogue, The 'Goose in a Dotted Circle'; a Mystery of the Seventeenth Century Investigated, Sotheby's, 1992. A number of very high quality pieces bear this mark. Gerald Taylor first suggested that a likely candiate was John Duck in a paper he gave at the Silver Society in 1983. John Culme carried these researches forward and through the detailed and careful study of the records of the Goldsmiths' Company and contemporary marriage and death records, he established that John Duck was the apprentice of Roger Stevens (d.1673) and then his widow Katherine Stevens, becoming free in 1677. In 1678 he married Stevens' daughter Hannah, and took over the workshop. This coincides with the dates of the surviving pieces which are struck with the 'goose in a dotted circle' mark. However no piece is found after 1693 and John Duck is recorded to have died in 1746. Culme established that following his marriage to his former master's daughter he ran the workshop until 1693 when he was appointed assistant to the Deputy Assayer Nathaniel Bowles. He was then appointed Deputy Assayer in 1700, a post he held until 1717 when he resigned due to ill-health.