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( Originally Published 1924 )
Amongst objects of domestic utility, few have so rapidly increased in value within the last few years than those made in Sheffield in a period which extended down to 1790, and known as Sheffield plate.
There was, in the eighteenth century, a demand for objects of beauty for the table less costly than solid silver and better in appearance than pewter, and at the very moment when this demand existed, the discovery was made by Bolsover in 1742 which led to the manufacture of Sheffield plate. By it, he was able to produce an imitation silver, beating out a thin layer of the precious metal, placing it on a copper foundation and fusing the two metals together by the action of heat. This was the starting-point for what presently became a great and prosperous trade.
In referring, however, to Sheffield plate I want to confine my attention to what is known as the "copper mount " period, which extended to about 1790, and have nothing to say about the later work, which was known as the silver mount period. Fine Sheffield plate of this first period is distinguished by extreme beauty of design and, provided it has not been tampered with, it has a full resemblance to silver.
It is entirely different to what is known as "electro-plate," but unfortunately the two things are often combined. A piece of Sheffield plate which has sustained a great deal of wear, so much so that the copper foundation shows through, is often electro-plated with lamentable effect, because the importance of the piece is ruined, and the electro-plating is never satisfactory, for the marks where the original silver has worn away are always apparent in time.
There are certain ways by which real old Sheffield plate can be known, and the principal test for it,as Veitch has pointed out in the chief work on the subject, is the "seam test," for there are always seams on all good pieces of Sheffield plate-marking where the joining took place. The seams are not conspicuous, and have to be sought for, but if the piece has been electro-plated all these seams are covered up.
Then, again, the depth of the silver applied to the copper is a test, and if a piece of doubtful Sheffield plate is scraped very gently on the foot or in some place where the damage does not matter, if the first scraping or two reveals the metal the piece is almost certainly a forgery. The real expert claims to be able to detect Sheffield plate by its colour; and such is certainly the case, for when one is accustomed to look at Sheffield plate, whether it is genuine or not can be detected almost in a moment.
The Sheffield plate manufacturers were fortunate in the artists who designed their work, and I am inclined to think that some of the most beautiful things ever made in England were the jugs, baskets, candlesticks and cruet frames that were produced by these manufacturers.
Amongst the rarest pieces of all are those which were produced by wire work, when thin sheets of silver were attached to drawn copper wire, and from this wire salt-cellars and cake-baskets, sugarbaskets, muffineers and mustard-pots were made, and, above all, the wonderful epergnes which are occasionally still to be found, with their smaller baskets hanging from them. The wire was sometimes made circular, sometimes flat, occasionally three-sided, or even square, and from it were prepared the cruet-frames, baskets and mustardpots about which collectors are now so enthusiastic. From 1775-85 was the very best period for Sheffield plate, and particularly noticeable at that period are baskets that were intended to have glass linings, generally blue or red, and were to contain sugar. Sometimes they are on an oval foot, sometimes on three upright pieces. They are to be found urn-shaped and both oval and circular. Frequently they are perforated so as to show the glass through; and they are almost invariably of delightful classic shape.
Then, again, there are the hot-water jugs, for which there were several very good designs, resembling classic vases and moulded on the same sort of lines as those used for Adam decoration, with the pendent swags of drapery upon them which add so much to the charms of that particular sort of design.
Fortunately, a few of the original makers' catalogues have survived, notably a very fine one issued by Nathaniel Smith & Co., in which there are all kinds of illustrations showing the various objects which this firm was producing. There are four delightful sugar-basins or creambowls, some charming cruet-frames, and frames for soy bottles, a whole series of different saltcellars, some fine inkstands, those interesting bottle-stands known as wine-slides, decanterstands or coasters, some of which were mounted on wheels, several tea-pots and tea-caddies; and of all these we know not only the design, but the price at which they were made, and that they were actually produced, so that a collector, having this catalogue before him, may hope, some day or other, to be able to obtain some of the beautiful objects it represents.
Candelabra were the subjects of very special care on the part of the Sheffield plate makers. It was the period, it will be remembered, for candles, and at important tables there were two or three candelabra, each holding two candles and, in some cases, on the removal of the central ornament, capable of holding three. Great pains were bestowed upon the design and manufacture of these candlesticks, and they are frequently objects of extreme beauty, graceful and delightful in design.
We do not exactly know what the escallop shells were made for, but there were a great many of them turned out by the manufacturers, so that they must have been very popular in their time, and we have no particular use nowadays for the taper stands oval, openwork cases of wirework which contained the wound-up green taper.
These must have been very popular in their day, for they are often referred to, but they are not very easy to obtain nowadays, and collectors have to be particularly careful in purchasing them as so many modern reproductions have been made.
The candlesticks were very seldom loaded with lead, but the modern reproductions almost always are so loaded. The original ones were loaded with pitch, finished at the base with a thin piece of wood, which was covered with green baize.
The common remark that parts of Sheffield plate work are in silver does not apply to the best kind of Sheffield plate. It does apply to the second period, when many handles and feet and knops and sockets were made of silver; but the finest and best pieces of Sheffield plate belonging to the earlier period were entirely composed of silver beaten on to copper, and have no lumps of solid silver upon them. Some of the most beautiful pieces (and incidentally some of the rarest) are what are known as " potato rings," because they were used on the table to hold the wooden bowl in which potatoes cooked in their skins were served up in Ireland. The makers' name for them was " dish stands," and the genuine ones were always different in size top and bottom, so that they could be used for holding dishes of varying sizes, according to the positions that they assumed on the table. Their use for the wooden potato bowl was only one of their uses, and not perhaps the chief one, although it has given them their name; but in the days when polished tables were almost invariably in use, it was important that the hot dishes should be kept away from the table, and hence these table-rings were introduced, upon which the dishes could be set.
There are very attractive two-handled cups ; there are tea-caddies, both upright and square and octagon ; there are tankards and dish-crosses, on which dishes were supported, very much in the same way as the potato rings supported the dishes, only sometimes these crosses are provided with a lamp in the centre that the dishes might be kept hot. Then there are the salvers and winecoolers, what are known as argyles, in which there is a receptacle for hot water in order that the gravy may not be cooled down by the use of the cold ladle ; sauce tureens, pepperpots, stands for spoons, and, perhaps as beautiful as anything, cream jugs with tall wire handles. These jugs are very often exquisitely graceful in design, and particularly precious.
Some people say that they would prefer, when they are purchasing objects of this kind, to pay more money and have solid silver. Such an idea is, no doubt, an agreeable one, but many of the beautiful designs in Sheffield plate are not to be obtained in silver at all, although no doubt they could, given time and opportunity, be copied ; but the finest pieces of Sheffield plate, in good condition, are not only as beautiful as silver, but represent an important English industry of the eighteenth century, examples of which are becoming increasingly rare, and are more pleasant for use on the table than silver by reason of their greater lightness, their extreme daintiness in design, and for the fact that, moreover, they are Sheffield plate, and are therefore not interesting to the ordinary thief or burglar. He is not going to waste his time over pieces of Sheffield plate, however important they may be. He prefers solid metal that can be quickly melted up for his own purposes.
Perhaps the best collections of Sheffield plate in existence were those belonging to Mr. Veitch, who has written so much about it, to Viscountess Wolseley, and to Mrs. Johnson Brown. A great many of the best pieces are marked, and by the marks it is possible to find out in many instances who were the manufacturers, and in that way to identify the actual date.
The number of the collectors of Sheffield plate is rapidly increasing, and, as might be expected, this increase in collectors has led to a similar increase in faking, so that far greater care must be taken in purchasing examples of Sheffield plate than was at all necessary a few years ago.