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British Silver: The Wealth of a Nation
May 15–January 20, 2013

Exhibition Location: Wrightsman Exhibition Gallery, first floor

British silver has a distinctive character that reflects the diversity and resourcefulness of its silversmiths. The largest number of silversmiths were based in London, where international commerce, the court, aspiring merchants, landowners, and artists came together. British Silver: The Wealth of a Nation, drawn from the Metropolitan Museum’s outstanding collection of silver, explores some of the key ingredients that made the English silver trade such a vigorous success over two centuries. The installation focuses mainly on silver from London and includes approximately 80 objects, ranging in date from the mid-16th to the mid-18th century, many of which have not been on display for decades. In addition, the exhibition includes several outstanding loans from private collections.

Since sterling silver was the “coinage of the realm,” a silver dinner service was, most literally, worth its weight. But the display and use of silver meant more than riches. Silver was an expression of a patron’s taste and education, designed to celebrate his achievements and complement the architecture of his house. Parliament recognized the importance of the silversmiths’ trade to the economy, and worked to encourage an environment conducive to vigorous commerce. Innovation—stylistic, technical, and commercial—was highly valued too, and the silversmiths who succeeded in business had to be responsive to fashion and opportunity.

In England, as in Continental Europe, a rich display of silver was essential to the expression of power. Government officials and emissaries dispatched to foreign courts were expected to entertain in a style that reflected the dignity of the English crown. To ensure that they could set an impressive table, an ambassador or other official was issued a silver service from the Jewel Office, the division of the royal household responsible for precious metals and jewels. A gilt sideboard dish (1717) by Lewis Mettayer on view in the installation is characteristic of the substantial, meticulously finished wares issued on such occasions and was probably made for Secretary of State Joseph Addison.

The Metropolitan Museum’s collection also includes superb examples of silver and gilt silver made during the reign of Elizabeth I, notably a group of five Chinese porcelain vessels mounted with elaborately wrought fittings of gilt silver. Until 1888, they were preserved in Burghley House—built by Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, William Cecil (1521-1598)— perhaps the grandest of the surviving Elizabethan houses in England.

The 17th century is represented in the installation by gifts from the great New York collector Judge Irwin Untermyer, among them a pair of large fluted dishes made in 1664/5. The economy of design of these dishes takes full advantage of the reflective quality of the metal and draws the eye to the engraved Brownlow arms at center.

Although the court was an important source of orders for silversmiths, it did not support workshops of its own, and makers broadened their market by serving the growing professional and merchant classes as Britain’s international trade grew in the 18th century. The Metropolitan Museum’s collection is rich in such domestic objects—handsome, conservative in design, and beautifully constructed. Several works by Paul de Lamerie (1685-1751), perhaps the most successful of London’s 18th-century silversmiths, are on view in British Silver. De Lamerie and his workshop produced both useful domestic wares of conventional design and extraordinarily original rococo pieces. The lyrical curves of the 1717 sauceboats, as well as the rich ornament on a kettle made for the Franks family of Philadelphia and his great rococo coffeepot of 1738, represent the range of de Lamerie’s production.

By the 1760s, many silversmiths began to turn to architects for designs that were intended to be part of a comprehensive interior scheme. Among the Neoclassical pieces included in the exhibition is a pair of candlesticks made for Croome Court. Based in part on designs by the architect William Kent (1685-1748), they are an early and inventive experiment in a style that transformed both architecture and interiors.

The contribution made by silversmiths who had been trained on the Continent—many of whom were anonymous, yet whose technical and artistic training were more rigorous than that of their English counterparts—is evident from the 16th century on. Prevented from registering their marks, the work of these artisans is evident in the elegant precision of die-stamped borders, animated grotesques, and the delicate engraving of their pieces. The extraordinary chased ornament on a pair of flagons of 1646 was almost certainly executed by a silversmith trained on the Continent, though it was a native English silversmith, Richard Blackwell, who took the flagons for testing and struck his mark on the base.

British Silver: The Wealth of a Nation is organized by Ellenor Alcorn, Associate Curator in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts.

Gallery talks will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition. The installation is featured on the Museum’s website at www.metmuseum.org.

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May 14, 2012

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