British Silver: The Wealth of a Nation

Works in the Exhibition

Featured Media

The Usefulness of Magnificence: Silver and the English Court

Program information

Ellenor M. Alcorn, Associate Curator, Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, discusses how in England, as in Europe, a rich display of silver was essential to the expression of power. Discover how English sovereigns from Elizabeth I to George III and their courtiers competed culturally on the international stage, commissioning silver and other luxury goods to establish their stature. Presented in conjunction with the exhibition British Silver: The Wealth of a Nation, on view May 15, 2012–January 20, 2013.

Recorded October 12, 2012


British Silver

The Wealth of a Nation

May 15, 2012–January 20, 2013

The production of silver in Britain was understood to be the embodiment of the country's prosperity—an outward expression of political stability, taste, and industriousness. This exhibition explores some of the ingredients that made the English silver trade such a vigorous success in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Drawn largely from the Museum's collections, it also includes extraordinary loans from private collectors, including Paul de Lamerie's great rococo coffeepot of 1738 and the justly famous Maynard Dish belonging to the Cahn Family Foundation.

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.

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 office holder or ambassador was issued a silver service from the Jewel Office, the division of the royal household responsible for precious metals and jewels. Several examples of silver made for ambassadorial use are included in the exhibition. 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.

Among the issues addressed in the exhibition is the important role played by artisans who were trained on the Continent. By the mid-1500s, the London silversmiths had a well-established trade that attracted buyers from the English court as well as noblemen, merchants, and diplomats from abroad. Behind the scenes, the silversmiths' workshops were highly specialized operations. Although guild regulations discouraged foreign workers, the business was in fact dependent on the skills of makers from the Low Countries, Germany, and France, whose technical and artistic training was more rigorous than that of their English counterparts. Prevented from registering their marks, these artisans mostly remain anonymous, but their skills are evident in the elegant precision of the die-stamped borders, animated grotesques, and delicate engraving.

The exhibition includes approximately eighty objects ranging in date from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century. Most of the silver in the exhibition was made in London, where international commerce, the court, aspiring merchants, landowners, and artists came together.