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The Charm Of Georgian Silver CandlesticksBy G.L. Barker
( Orginally published October 1943 )
The glow of candlelight is never more effectively enhanced than by the sheen of silver columns, embossed, chased, engraved with all the variety of ornament that the skillful hands of the eighteenth century silversmith could give them. It is significant that the work of the silversmith set the style for makers of candlesticks of brass, pewter, glass, porcelain, wood and other materials. It may seem strange to us in this day of electricity to imagine an interior in which the wax candle represented the most modern form of illumination. It was even a novelty in the seventeenth century. The famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, wrote that on the evening of December 16, 1664, he lit his first wax candle, "to try the change and see whether the smoke offends like that of tallow." The wax candle had come to stay. Their manufacturers, the wax chandlers, were first incorporated in the seventeenth century and a charter for their guild was confirmed by Charles II. In the next century, about 1765, a project was under way to encourage bee-keeping in Ireland to secure an increased amount of wax for candles. The English government was asked to set aside one hundred pounds to further this undertaking, because it was apt to prove a national benefit. It was stated by a writer in the Annual Register that this project should be so encouraged because wax candles are "of all modern luxuries the most salutary and agreeable."
A well-lighted interior had become general, at least in homes of modern wealth. Poorer people still had no such luxuries, beyond a reed strip dipped in fat from the kitchen. But it was not before the reign of George III, which began in 1760, that this day of brighter illumination seems to have arrived. The older books of memoirs frequently speak of a .lady reading or writing in a room lit by a single candle, according to Macquoid's Dictionary o f English Furniture. Even later there was a great difference in conditions. The sculptor Nollekins, who was known for his parsimony, "used a flat candlestick when there was anything to be done," writes his biographer, Smith, in Nollekins and his Times. By careful use and putting out the candle when the company went away, a pair lasted this family a whole year. But with the prodigal Sir Robert Walpole, the master of the great house of Houghton, conditions were quite different. During the visit of the Duke of Lorraine the cost for candles was fifteen pounds every night. Between these extremes there was the dwelling of a well-to-do family whose house reflected the comfortable changes of Georgian architecture and benefitted by the new and gracious furniture designed by Chippendale. Rooms were no longer divided between great state rooms and small closets, but moderate sized rooms suited to social gatherings of an informal nature became the rule, such as those for card playing and intimate social gatherings. Writing desks began to be equipped with slides for candlesticks; card tables were made with four circular spaces at the corners, for the placing of the candlestick where it was most convenient for the players. Garnitures of silver candlesticks or candelabra flanked the clock on the mantelpiece. Candles stood on the dining room table, and on special stands, high and low, placed about the room. There was in addition the great chandelier in the center of the room, generally made of glass which provided the main illumination for the room of state, and held dozens of candles, but the ordinary chamber was lit with portable candle sticks.
The form of the stem of many eighteenth century English candlesticks is of baluster type (Fig. 2). A baluster is a vase-shaped support in furniture and architecture, generally of wood, shaped at first by turning by hand, but later with a foot-lathe. The silversmith, of course, did not turn his candlestick on a lathe, but the form was cast, and then worked upon with special tools for bringing out the design by hammering, chiseling, embossing, engraving, and other means for working the surface of the silver. This might be designed with flowers, acanthus leaves, and the popular shell of the French rococo style, or, after 1760, show the Greek motifs favored by Robert Adam, whose work in architecture influenced the whole range of decorative arts.
In the early Georgian period, about 1720, silver was just beginning to change in style after the end of the period known as the High Standard, which began in 1696. Between these two periods, silver was made of an alloy higher than sterling (then spelled stirling), in order to discourage the practice of melting down coins for objects of domestic use. As it was softer than sterling, objects had to be simpler, so that the baluster form as we find it in Queen Anne candlesticks is very severe and is quite unornamented. After the return to the standard of sterling, more ornamental forms could be made. At this time there was felt in general a tendency toward. things French, and in silver specifically there was the influence of the presence of the French Huguenot silversmiths who had come in great numbers to England following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
English silver after 1720 begins to be very elaborate and to show many graceful forms derived from the French love of floral forms, curves, and an elaborate style generally. Instead of the square base of the seventeenth century candlestick, the base became eight-sided, round or scalloped, and some of these were very elaborate with a conventionalized shell ornament as illustrated in Fig. 2. The earlier pair, by Grundy, 1753, may have served as the pattern for the closely matching pair by Cafe, in 1767, for by the latter year, the style had changed, as a rule, to the type shown in Fig. l. The vase-shaped stem began to disappear and the Greek column, generally fluted, headed by a Corinthian capital, was in fashion. The foot became square, but unlike the square seventeenth century foot, it was high, and the sloping, concave sides offered additional space for classic ornament of lion's heads, laurel wreaths, acanthus leaf, as here. "Swags", which are draperies caught up at both ends, and paterae, or rosette-shaped ornaments, are other Greek or classic forms commonly met, as on the wide part of the stem of the candlestick in Fig. 4. From about 1780, when the column is not used, the stem tapers or slopes, as in this pair by John Winter, 1781. Greek motifs remained in special prominence because the discoveries in the excavations at Herculanaeum in the eighteenth century uncovered ever more of the art of Greece and Rome and the artists of the rest of Europe were continually going to Italy to study these unearthed objects of classic antiquity. Throughout the entire Georgian period, which extends through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Greek influence was felt in successive waves until the impulse was worn threadbare.
The rest of the century saw an attempt to develop these forms and other historic styles still further, resulting in the extravagances of the Victorian period. The silver of this period has great charm for some of us. Good workmanship continued through the nineteenth century, and there is much in Victorian silver to commend it if it is chosen selectively. It is a subject which will be treated later here.