The best pieces of antique English silver are sought after for the inventiveness and exuberance of their designs, as well as for the exquisite craftsmanship they embody.
That’s the reaction most people have when they see a large array of splendid antique English silver. That “Oooooh” is rarely said out loud, happening purely at the lizard-brain level of thinking, and it has a different meaning now than it would have when the pieces were newer, but truly great English silver provokes delight just as well as it did centuries ago.
Displayed on the sideboards and the table of the dining room of a great English estate, a fabulous silver display left guests awestruck and told them, in no uncertain terms, how wealthy and powerful the homeowner was. By the 19th century, silver had transcended its function as a tool and a status symbol to became collectible. The “Oooooh” still burbled forth, and the silver still advertised the owner’s wealth and power, but that wealth and power had to do with the owner’s strengths as a collector.
Antique English silver must pass tougher tests in the 21st century. We don’t need egg cruets or muffin cups or toast racks anymore, and we can get by just fine without many of the other silver accoutrements of ages past. But the long-since-antique pieces of English silver that draw forth an exclamation now are the same ones that have always done so. Invariably, they are the pieces that bear the marks of the best English silversmiths, they display the finest, most sophisticated workmanship, and they have survived in good to excellent condition.
“Anything unusual or different tends to be most sought-after, and people will fight over it,” says Todd Sell, vice president of silver, furniture, and decorations at the Doyle New York auction house. Mark Antebi, owner and president of M. Antebi and Son Silver & Antiques in Atlanta, Ga., concurs. “The extraordinary always commands a good valuation and good prices,” he says. “The ordinary is no longer being sought, and that’s true across the board. It takes something special.” Spencer Gordon of Spencer Marks, a 30-year-old dealership in Southampton, Mass., accepts how things have changed. “What’s good is that people are freed up from the rules of what you’re supposed to buy, and they buy what they like.”
Naturally, some of the finest works of English silver belong to institutions. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond has hundreds of objects from masters such as Paul Storr, who was active from the late 18th century to the early 19th century. They include Hebe, a solid silver statue of the cupbearer to the Greek gods. Made in 1829–30, it weighs 303 ounces and depicts its subject bare-breasted and raising a pitcher. While Hebe is a natural choice of theme for a grand 18th-century English table setting, it probably wasn’t a standard Paul Storr offering. “A large, expensive piece like that would not have been made on spec. It’s complicated and sophisticated, and would not have been undertaken without a client in mind,” says Mitchell Merling, Paul Mellon curator and head of the department of European art at the VMFA. “It’s also got clarity of design. It’s really clear, it’s really bold, and it reads from across the room. You see it and you know what it is, and you know it’s perfect.”
Basket-form centerpieces were perennially popular, but few English silversmiths could execute them at the level of virtuosity and finish that Storr did in 1813 for an example that now belongs to the VMFA. “It’s definitely a show-stopper. Usually baskets are a bit more functional. This is a tour-de-force, characteristic of a collection that has powerful pieces in it,” Merling says before launching into a new chorus in singing its praises. “It’s not just a good example of grand Regency silver, it’s the best. It’s designed to impress, and it impresses aristocrats [of the time] as much as a row of John Nash townhouses in Carlton Place,” he says, referring to the architect who served the future King George IV and designed and built Carlton House Terrace in London in the late 1820s and early 1830s. “Everything is thought through, and every detail is perfect, but the whole design is not sacrificed to the parts,” Merling says.
Storr’s work survives in larger quantities than that of other prized England-based masters, such as Paul de Lamerie, the go-to silversmith for the elite of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, simply due to timing. Silver played such a large role in the lives of the well-heeled English that it was vulnerable to changes in style. Sending a service back to the silversmith for periodic “refashioning”—tweaking it so it conformed to prevailing tastes—was a common practice. Tim Martin, president of S.J. Shrubsole, a 105-year-old Manhattan dealer that specializes in English silver from the 14th century to about 1750, recalls seeing a house ledger kept by a butler that tracked decades upon decades of silver maintenance. “You can read back and see it [the silver] being refashioned from generation to generation. I want to weep, because if it was left as it was in 1735, it would be the most precious silver in the world. But they [the family] didn’t. They were too rich. They had everything melted down and refashioned. Their silver is impressive, but not as impressive as if they left it as it was in 1735.”
The losses to fashion make more sense when you consider the extent to which silver dominated the culture before the arrival of the Internet, movies, record players, radio, and electric light. Today, we sometimes call throwing a dinner party “entertaining,” and back before those many other phenomena came on the scene, hosting invitees at home was, quite literally, entertaining (or at least it was meant to be). Silver was a key part of the overall experience, and the best silver was literally entertaining, serving as conversation pieces and holding the gaze of the guests. Speaking of a Paul de Lamerie cream boat from 1742 or 1732 that Spencer Marks sold in the past, Gordon says, “It’s a fabulous thing, expensive when it was made, expensive when it was sold, and part of an extraordinarily beautiful social setting. The cow’s head on the side of the creamer was a visual pun. They [the guests] probably politely commented to the host on how fun it was.”
To hear Merling tell it, great English silver could be livelier and more interesting than some of the human guests who gathered around the table. “Light is very reflective on the silver. It dances. It moves. It’s alive. It participates in life. It takes on the quality of life around it,” he says, adding that the decorative flourishes of top-flight works in silver were often loaded with literary allusions. “Silver summoned up other worlds—the Gothic world, the Greek world, the world of shepherdesses,” he says. “You could amuse yourself endlessly with the conceits embodied in silver.”
The starkest example of silver-as-entertainment comes in the form of novelties. Rundell, Bridge and Rundell served as the Royal Goldsmith from 1797 to 1843, but that didn’t stop the firm from creating charming pieces such as a mustard pot that depicts a monkey laughing at a human hand jutting from a barrel. Dating to 1824, it sold for £26,400 ($34,858) at Bonhams London in July 2008. “They [the British] loved novelty, and they loved exotic forms and shapes,” says Aileen Ward, director of the silver and objects of vertu department at Bonhams U.S. “Even in the 1820s, a monkey was an exotic pet, and it would have made people smile.” The mustard pot still possesses that power, even though we no longer live in an age when a host’s kitchen staff was expected to create a house mustard blend and fill the charming little pot with it. “The immediate reaction is, ‘Wow, what a funny object,’” Ward says. “Then when they learn what a mustard pot is and they identify its use, it takes on a whole other realm of enjoyment and value, and the quality is pretty self-evident.”
Sometimes, the backstory of a silversmith is entertaining enough to stoke the interest of collectors. Hester Bateman made her reputation in the mid- to late 18th century and became a star among American silver collectors who loved the idea of a widow taking over her husband’s workshop and succeeding in a highly competitive field. But the romantic vision of Hester sitting at a bench and working with hot metal isn’t strictly accurate. Any English silversmith who gained prominence didn’t spend his or her days shaping silver. Though they might have started out as apprentices, their sterling reputations were rooted in their talents for business and brand-building. “We like the story of a female silversmith, though she was really an entrepreneur,” Gordon says. “The idea that she was a woman in a man’s world is true. Many did what she did in her situation. She was married to a silversmith and continued to run the business [after he died]. She was possibly the most successful. She is a woman in a man’s world—just not with a hammer in her hand, I can assure you of that.”
Nor was the English silver market cutting her slack for being a widow. Speaking of a 1786 Hester Bateman teapot on stand that Bonhams London sold for £5,000 ($6,546) in June 2015, Ward notes, “It’s really well made, with a beautiful surface and beautiful feel. It’s sculptural. She mastered the neo-classical form that was the fashion of her day. She went all-out for this one. She’s a really competent bright-cut engraver.”
The market for antique English silver is likely to chug along as it has been, with the most desirable pieces pulling farther and farther away from the mundane ones. But silver delivers an immediacy that other antiques cannot, and that might someday rekindle a wider interest in the material. “Silver is a great connection to the past,” Sell says. “It’s a tangible thing that you can handle. Dinner parties have been given with it for hundreds of years. You can participate in that tradition. Using the pieces lets you get involved. There’s nothing like holding a great piece of silver.”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley