Might & Magnificence: Silver in the Georgian Age

Posted in Art Market by Editor on June 12, 2014


Pair of Sheffield Plate tea caddies, ca. 1800/1810,
of earlier rococo style.

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Press release from London’s Silver Vaults:

Might & Magnificence: Silver in the Georgian Age
The London Silver Vaults, Chancery Lane, London 2 June — 4 October 2014

Curated by Philippa Glanville

The summer selling exhibition at the London Silver Vaults, Might & Magnificence: Silver in the Georgian Age, will display a wide variety of Georgian silver design, drawn from all 30 Vaults shops, encompassing the major design trends of the period, from the effusively embellished rococo to the restrained neo-classical. With added curating expertise from Philippa Glanville, silver historian, author and former Keeper of Metalwork at the Victoria & Albert Museum, key pieces will be selected that demonstrate the finest Georgian design and craftsmanship. All items are for sale, offering an opportunity to acquire a beautifully crafted piece of design history from this elegant era.

In the Georgian period silverware gradually ceased to be the exclusive preserve of aristocrats, diplomats and bishops. A new middle and merchant class was emerging in Britain, wanting to buy impressive objects for their new homes. Throughout the Georgian period silver remained one of the most popular expressions of taste, style and innovative manufacturing techniques. Ingenious designers ensured a flow of novel objects for these new consumers, in Britain and overseas. England was already a rich country by the early 1700s, and in the 120 years spanning George I’s accession in 1714 to the end of William IV’s reign in 1837, the country went through an explosion of commercial growth, technical development and social improvement. Silver design and manufacture reflected these changes.

Until the 1760s most silver was entirely made by hand, the alloy hammered into shape and raised or chased to form decoration so the pattern was shown in relief on the exterior. Cast elements, like handles and feet, were soldered on. These purely hand-decorated pieces were quite heavy, making silver a super-luxury product that only the very wealthy could afford. Retailers sold silver mostly by weight, with an extra charge per ounce for workmanship and more for any engraved heraldry. In the 1750s a London goldsmith would charge £50 for a new set of eight cast candlesticks, essential lighting for the dinner table. This is a large sum, as much as a portrait or the year’s wages for a smart French chef. (An English cook was paid half as much.) In 1765 the young Duke of Portland bought a complete Wedgwood creamware dinner service for £13, but in silver that would have bought a single sauceboat. Pre-owned silver sold well too, by weight, as the ‘fashion’ or workmanship charge was reduced.

Silver Design Styles

There were two contrasting style trends of the Georgian period: that drawing on classical Greek and Roman architecture and decoration (baroque, Palladian, neo-classical) and anti-classical, unrestrained styles such as rococo, gothic and chinoiserie.

At Queen Anne’s demise in 1714, silver was either heavy, plain and ornamented only with heraldry in elaborate cartouches or with cast applied motifs, drawing still on Renaissance and Baroque style, or fairly simple and inspired by Dutch and French forms, influenced by printed designs that arrived here with the late Stuart court. Simpler forms, with a minimum of added ornament, continued through the entire Georgian period, sometimes referred to as Queen Anne style.


Rococo boat-shaped dish in a cast wickerwork design,
serpentine-shaped scrolled border, 1755.

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By the 1730s a new anti-classical, ornamental style was arriving from the Continent—the rococo. Using asymmetrical curves and pictorial fantasy, rococo was the antithesis of classical order. Rococo is defined by scrolls, C- shapes, shells, and elaborate naturalistic outlines. Marine motifs, flowers and fruit were also incorporated. Rococo first appeared in England in silver designs by immigrant artists and craftsmen including Huguenot refugees from France. An essential element of British rococo was the acanthus leaf.

Other anti-classical styles that appeared in the mid-18th century were gothic and chinoiserie, natural partners to the rococo that peaked in popularity in the 1750s, although less prevalent in silver design than the rococo. Since medieval times gothic design had been revived; it was popular in the Jacobean period, and again in the 1750s when Horace Walpole used it at Strawberry Hill. Chinoiserie, inspired by the fashion for Eastern imports (lacquerware, silks, porcelain), evoked an imaginary China, copying motifs and scenes from imported goods and applying them in a European manner. However these styles whilst taken up by leading silversmiths, had limited availability, as they were costly to produce by hand.

By the later 1750s, partly in reaction to rococo which was thought ‘OTT’ by many (Hogarth satirized the style), neo-classicism or the ‘antique manner’ as it was known at the time, became fashionable. In England the style was led by architect and designer Robert Adam. Fanned by news of the exciting archaeological discoveries at Herculanaeum, people avidly read books illustrating these ancient Roman antiquities such as engraved gems, vases and sculpture. They captured the imagination of a society that still held a strong interest in the classical. Two forms in particular became a design mania—the vase and the tripod—appearing in endless variations by the new manufacturers such as Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton as well as silversmiths of the day.

Robert Adam’s version of neo-classicism set off a revolution in style, and it translated well in to silver design. By distilling a modest number of ancient classical decorative devices—the floral and leaf-patterned swag, the face or ‘grotesque’, small repeat patterns such as dots or beading, fluted columns and geometric shapes—these were easily replicated on silver in low-relief applied decoration or by ‘bright cut’ engraving. Typical designs used polished plain surfaces accented with narrow bands of decoration.

Sheet metal technology, developed to improve munitions for wars, was used to roll silver to a delicately thin finish. This new technique and the invention of Sheffield Plate made silver more affordable to a wider market. Sheffield Plate cost between one third and one fifth of solid silver. A pair of Sheffield ‘New Pillar Candlesticks’ advertised by one retailer in 1797 cost a modest one pound seventeen shillings, whereas in solid silver the price would have been at least eight pounds. Now termed Old Sheffield Plate, it was produced for around 100 years from the 1740s. By 1780 neo-classical design was quite the rage, and for the first-time ever, the growing number of Georgian ‘consumers’ were able to acquire a completely co-ordinated look for their homes.

In the last few decades of the Georgian period, a number of styles re-asserted or claimed their influences on the imagination of the elite, jostling alongside one another for the rest of the 19th century. New influences came from travellers in Egypt; the Palladian manner, Greek and rococo were revived. Another interpretation of the medieval took design towards the gothic again as Victoria came to the throne.

Silver and Society

As in earlier centuries, silver was used to display might and magnificence; it was the practice among the elite and ruling classes to exhibit vast silver chargers, ewers and wine coolers on a sideboard (the buffet) whenever important dinners or social functions took place. The monarch would provision their diplomats and courtiers with splendid silverware from the royal collection to assert England’s growing importance on the international stage.

The peace afforded by a secure monarch, established since the arrival of George I, allowed the country to prosper like never before. Britain became wealthier through trade—with China and India, and through the West Indies. Growing commerce and developments in manufacture provoked local creativity. Britain was to become the most successful European economy of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Towns grew in size, and with them the availability of goods sold in shops. A proliferation of periodicals and makers directories illustrating new fashions and homewares allowed greater access to the latest styles and design ideas. As people acquired wealth they aspired to ownership of objects, houses and equipage that reflected their standing in society. Silver, along with the more affordable Sheffield Plate, was just one of the decorative arts that proliferated in response to these new consumer demands. Magnificence supported the elite, and major silver items would always be commissioned by the aristocracy, but for those lower down the social scale, the demonstration of taste restrained them from decorating above their station, and yet they were now able to shop and acquire to their hearts content.

Shopping Lists!

Setting up home upon marriage was one of the major periods of shopping in a Georgian’s life. Women tended to acquire smaller silverwares, particularly relating to tea, as the taking of tea dominated feminine society. So, teapot, tea kettle, tea tray, sugar basin, tongs and teaspoons, strainers and tea caddies were essential items to be bought from the distaff purse. In parallel, the rise in popularity of wine and fortified wines generated a wide variety of gentlemanlike accoutrements associated with alcohol such as decanters and wine jugs, wine funnels and labels, coasters for bottles, punch bowls and wine coolers. Georgian society expected the respectable couple to entertain at home; dancing was an important social pastime and required dinner to be served. Table decorations for the dining room and a profusion of candelabra in the drawing room displayed your social status, wealth and taste.

Individual accessories carried about the person included snuff and spice boxes, walking canes with silver tops, vinaigrettes (for smelling salts) and calling card cases. Travellers required their own set of portable kit, from compact cutlery sets to tooth brushes. At the (his and hers) dressing table, essentials for the toilette were silver pots for pins, potions, powder (for wigs and face), perfume and beauty spots.

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