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Some collectors consider silver as a kind of Emperor of the Antique World, serenely shining in confident supremacy over such things as clocks, porcelain, pictures and even furniture. Others find it, despite its beauty, a somewhat too monotonous material to form the basis of a large collection.
This is a matter of personal taste, and certainly for my own part I have never been drawn to silver to the same extent as to other forms of antique. But it has a handsome solidity and splendour of its own, and the gleam of old silver in the firelight undoubtedly gives a beautiful and comforting touch to a collection of other antiques. Indeed, no dining-table decoration ever devised can compete with a pair of fine silver candelabra set with crimson or emeraldgreen candles, and no object ever made for ordinary domestic use can vie in civilised charm with a graceful French eighteenth-century silver coffee pot, or an old silver spirit kettle complete with tripod and spirit-lamp, all in the same lustrously lovely metal.
And silver has, of course, a tremendous advantage over many other materials, such as porcelain and woodwork, in that it is virtually undamageable, at least with anything like ordinary careful use. Admittedly, it involves cleaning and this, with a large collection, can be a trial at times. But the reward of the cleaning effort can be considerable, and to watch the emergence from grimy dullness of that soft radiance such as only antique silver possesses is a special kind of joy which perhaps no other antique can provide.
Every antique collector will, in fact, be certain to want at least a few pieces of silver or fine silver-plate in his collection, and if he finds genuine old silver rather too expensive to begin with he can take consolation in the fact that there is plenty of really lovely old silver-plate available which often fetches quite modest prices in shops and at sales. Much of it will be only Victorian or Edwardian and may have the name of the manufacturer impressed on the base. But a lot of it is very attractive, and of course fine pieces of genuine old Sheffield plate are themselves of considerable value since they can hold their own quite splendidly even in a collection of good quality silver. Every now and then there are bargains to be picked up and I recently saw an excellent two-handled oviform Sheffield-plate sugar-basin, with a cover and high-quality arabesque engraving, which had been bought for only $9.80 and was certainly a marvellous bargain. It was probably Edwardian, but it had a subtle and grave dignity of its own which made it well worth a collector's attention.
Not so long ago I picked up, on a market stall, an old French silver-plated coffee pot, elegantly chased and with a grace of line quite worthy of the `grand siecle.' I got it for $2.10 and as it was very dirty indeed I had little hope of ever restoring it to its pristine brilliance. But taking the chance brought its reward and gradually, with a patient succession of careful cleanings, it has emerged into the beautiful object it is today and I saw almost the exact fellow to it last year in a museum, prominently displayed among other eighteenth-century treasures.
Interesting silver and silver-plated souvenirs can often be bought when travelling abroad and several of my own pieces have been acquired in this way. They are not antiques, but they blend very well with my other pieces. One is a little silver cup made by a Christian Arab who was working at his door in Basra one morning as I passed by. It is a traditional design of a kind which has been made in Arabian countries for many years and has incised in black a series of delicate little pictures, one showing the Great Arch of the ruins of Ctesiphon and others with Iraqi dhows and palm-trees, the whole having a remarkable artistic feeling for the essentials of the Arabian landscape.
Another of my souvenirs is a quite sumptuously elaborate model of St Mark's Cathedral at Venice which is remarkably detailed and shows not only the famous Byzantine fažade with the great domes behind but even the mosaic designs in the tympana of the entrance doors and the four bronze horses over the central portal. With the Italian genius for elaboration in these things it has also a built-in musical mechanism which plays Bach's `Ave Maria' on winding with a key. And a dealer recently showed me an exquisite little French silver box, beautifully chased with a design of cupids, from which, on the pressure of a spring, a gorgeously plumaged and incredibly diminutive mechanical bird emerged, flapped its tiny wings, pirouetted and sang a complete little song, after which it vanished in a trice into its box again. The price of this small treasure was $154 and certainly one might spend $154 in less attractive ways.
Objects of this kind, however, are the exotics of silvercollecting, but they help to give variety and charm to the more sedate array of candlesticks, trays, teapots, spoons, cream jugs and kettles which form the bulk of the antique silver stock-in-trade. The sterner type of collector no doubt views them as mere toys and trinkets, but there are times in collecting when even toys and trinkets have their appeal.
Specially-made pieces of fine silver have always been highly prized by aristocratic patrons of the arts, and there are some wonderful examples of the silversmith's art which can only be looked at in the great country houses for which they were made. Specimens include the vast Queen Anne silver cistern, used as a wine-cooler, which is at Burghley House, and which, weighing 3,400 ounces, is reputed to be the biggest in the world. There are also the wonderful silver fireplaces, also at Burghley, masterpieces of Caroline and Georgian silverwork unsurpassed in all Europe. (Silver, incidentally, was often luxuriously combined with other materials in some of the wonderful `museum pieces' which have survived; rock crystal, mother-of-pearl and even porcelain were employed in conjunction with gorgeous silver mounts, and some of the `double cups,' `globe cups' made fashionable by the growth of world travel at the end of the fifteenth century, and richly decorated silver caskets of the Elizabethan age reached a height of magnificence hardly ever surpassed in later times.)
From the collector's point of view, however, these expensively produced miracles of the art of silver are things he must be content to worship from afar without hopes of acquisition for himself. All those magnificent silver and silver-gilt Renaissance table-centres known as `salts,' those sumptuous sixteenth-century Strasburg, Nuremburg and Augsburg cups and embossed ewers, salvers, and precious objects designed for the Pontifical court and attributed to Benvenuto Cellini are for admiration in their own setting. The small collector must be content with his coffee pots and candlesticks.
Still, there is no reason for confining your interests entirely to what you can possess; antique collecting should always be regarded as an educative process which is infinitely more important than the mere increase of one's own possessions. Even when you come on to the later periods of silver (from 1660 onwards), in which specimens are far easier to get, you are not likely to acquire examples of the work of world-famous silversmiths like Paul de Lamerie, but it will certainly be of value for you to study the styles of Lamerie's superb oviform tureens and his richly decorated rococo dishes. Fine illustrations of some of his wonderful pieces are now available in some recent specialised monographs on silver, and these in themselves will be a surprise to those who may possibly think silver a slightly monotonous form of art.
It is the same with ecclesiastical silver. Only very occasionally will an antique silver chalice or altar crucifix or pair of sanctuary candlesticks be offered for sale to the general public. But the study of church silver is none the less of absorbing interest, even though one may never be able to acquire a single specimen of it, and the amount still left in English villages, despite the spoliations of the Reformation, is astounding. Dr Pevsner, in his books on The Buildings of England, lists most of the important extant specimens, and it is usually possible to get permission to see any pieces which are of special interest to collectors.
Now, as with all forms of antique collecting, a little knowledge can be frequently dangerous, and the collector who embarks on the study of antique silver must realise that it is a highly complicated subject, demanding close and specialised attention if expensive mistakes are to be avoided. So much faking of old silver has been practised, even to the extent of removing genuine hallmarks from damaged or unimportant pieces and grafting them on to costly modern reproductions, that the utmost caution is needed before making a purchase of what calls itself `old silver.' Generally, and this rule applies of course to other antiques besides silver, a knowledge of the various historical styles of design is much more important than a reliance on hallmarks or names, which are the easiest of all things to fake. If, for instance, you have an unerring instinct for the forms and engraved patterns of the reign of Queen Anne you are not likely to be deceived into paying a lot of money for what is merely a later copy of the genuine object.
Even so, a knowledge of hallmarking is indispensable to the collector, and reference to some of the larger books on silver is essential if the system is to be properly understood. From the year 1300 it has been obligatory for all English silver to be marked, and the history of the marks and of the `date letters' which were subsequently added by the various silver-manufacturing towns is of great interest.
London had its own system (having begun the practice as long ago as 1478) of changing the date-letters in a cycle which uses all the letters of the alphabet except J, V, W, X, Y, and Z. Other centres, or `assay offices' as they are called, such as York, Norwich, Chester and Hull, followed at much later dates than London. But the greater part of Old English silver which has survived bears the London mark and the most prominent feature of this is the famous Lion which has been used since the reign of Henry the Eighth, though up to 1821 it was a `Lion passant-gardant' (head looking left) and from 1821 onwards it has been a `Lion passant' (head looking front).
A representation of the sovereign's head will also be found on all English plate manufactured between December 1784 and April 1890.
It should be noted, however, that, as with porcelain, quite a number of genuine specimens of old silver have, for various reasons, no marks at all. It seems that, although the various laws passed in connection with both silver and gold were specific and strict in their application, there was a general understanding that if a customer had work made to his own order it was not legally necessary to mark it. So it does not follow that a piece of silver which looks genuinely old must be spurious merely because it bears no mark. Neither must it be genuine because it bears the correct marks, since they may have been removed from another example and deliberately fused on.
The collector should also realise that, just as there was a taste for `Gothicising' classical buildings in the earlier nineteenth century, so there was a tendency to have some of the earlier and plainer pieces of silver prettified with elaborate engraved ornamentation at about the same time. It is thus quite possible to find a fine piece of Queen Anne silver which has had its sober surfaces smothered in a riot of wellmeaning but misguided Victorian elaboration; the collector must then decide for himself whether he thinks the piece has been irredeemably ruined or not. (Who knows, perhaps `Victorianised Queen Anne' pieces may one day come into their own again, and be as much admired once more as, presumably, they must have been when it was decided to `improve' them?)
Most of the antique silver which the collector is likely to encounter will be subsequent to about 1660, and the reign of Charles the Second makes a good starting point for his study, at all events of English silver. The Dissolution of the Monasteries had caused a vast number of the earlier pieces to be melted down, and the Civil War saw a second great holocaust; this is why, for practical purposes, collectable English silver dates from the second half of the seventeenth century.
Even that of the Caroline period is difficult to get and specimens from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are what will be most likely to come your way.
The designs and engraved patterns of silver of these centuries provide an interesting commentary on the history of taste from Caroline to late Georgian times. The influence of French ideas is apparent throughout, though in the `Queen Anne' period (which really means about 1700 to 1730 English silver had a beautiful dignity of its own, relying much more on the chaste splendour of the metal itself and a noble simplicity of design than on that elaborate ornamentation associated with the traditions of Versailles.
A little later, however, French rococo designs began to invade the silversmiths' pattern books everywhere and gradually all forms of silver, candlesticks, coffee pots, teapots, epergnes, cream jugs and wine-coolers, assumed the riotously flowing curves which are ultimately traceable to the ideas of the French craftsmen of the court of Louis the Fifteenth. That stately classical dignity which had been preserved even in the late seventeenth century and the `Queen Anne' periods gave way to a sort of writhing voluptuousness, a flamboyance of outline and asymmetrical engraving and embossing. Silver coffee pots, for example, no longer seem to sit sedately on the breakfast table as a sober preparation for the business of the day; they seem to utter a call to the sensuous pleasures of a life of idle elegance, an entrancing round of frivolous delights in lace and brocade:
In fact, eighteenth-century silver of the `Rococo' period (i.e. from about 1730 to about 1770 when a change begins to be apparent) suggests a kind of invitation to a vast and now long-vanished Fete Galante in which all European specimens seem to be paying tribute to the overpowering sumptuousness and elegance of that wonderful France which inspired them. But the classical style, with its insistence on restraint and `good sense,' was by no means dead, and when, in the 1770s there was the beginning of a general reaction against Rococo voluptuousness, silver starts to reflect this just as much as furniture or porcelain. The revived interest in genuine classical art, which had powerful results in the work of the brothers Adam and other architects, begins to show in silver also. Classical Urn shapes were adapted for silver cups and sugar-baskets, and beautiful examples of these, dating from about 1771, can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
With the coming of the Classical Revival, in pottery and porcelain (the `Wedgwood' era), and in sculpture, we notice that great artists like Flaxman and Paul Storr were producing wonderful pieces of silver. There is a fine two-handled wine-cooler of this period, also in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which seems a direct translation into Silver of some great piece of classical pottery of two thousand years ago.
By this time the Regency Age and the nineteenth century were at hand, and some silver collectors consider this the sunset-period of the artist-silversmith's craft. The year 1830 is, in silver as in other forms of antiques, the general date from which it used to be customary to reckon the decline in taste which the Machine Age of Victoria ushered in. But Victorian silver, along with other Victoriana, is now being reconsidered by collectors and no longer passed over as meretricious and decadent. Anyone, however, with an interest in silver-collecting can still do well at a fairly small outlay with a collection of Victorian silver candlesticks, spoons, epergnes, menu-stands, watches, tea services and tea trays, silver-mounted scent bottles and mirrors. Even silver photograph frames are worth watching for as some of the Victorian and Edwardian examples were very pretty indeed and can still be often picked up for next to nothing at sales.
Edwardian silver is also worth watching for. It has indeed already begun to come into its own again, and of course anyone who has begun a collection of Edwardiana in other fields, porcelain, furniture, etc., will naturally want to include a few pieces of Edwardian silver also. Lovely Edwardian candelabra and tea services can be purchased very moderately, and charming Edwardian silver bedroom candlesticks, complete with elegant little candle-snuffers, seem to be still quite plentiful on market stalls and at general auctions.
Silver, then, can be a most rewarding branch of antique collecting, with many delightful little surprises awaiting in unexpected places. But it is, perhaps, along with glass, the branch where the most traps and disappointments abound, and the collector cannot be too strongly urged to study some of the larger and more specialised works on Silver before he begins his buying, or at least to take expert advice on any purchase involving more than a few pounds.