The Arts Society The Arts Society

A Member Society of THE ARTS SOCIETY


Day of Special Interest 7th February 2012

Silver Day

Lecturer: Ian Pickford

What a privilege it was to have such an interesting and informative day with Ian Pickford of Antiques Roadshow fame.  His lectures focussed on silver in the social context, which gave us a fascinating insight into domestic and social life through the ages.  We saw illustrations created at the actual time that showed us life as it really was and not a Victorian interpretation.  Ian stressed how important it was to really look at the detail in paintings.  An image in the Bayeux Tapestry depicted people sitting on one side of the table being served from the front and that is how it was done. We viewed a rare depiction of a drinking horn dating from about 1100 A.D. The horn was the most common drinking vessel in medieval times, its capacity was half a gallon and the entire contents were drunk at one go.  In a 15th century depiction we saw windows with no glazing open to the elements.  It was normal for birds to fly in and out and as a consequence all vessels had lids to prevent the entry of bird droppings.  We saw the King John cup which was an elaborate lidded standing cup. When people retired at sunset  all chambers were provided with silver flagons and plates of bread for the long night ahead.  By the 1300’s food was served on square, silver trenchers for the high born. Hence the expression “a square meal”.

Spoons were of huge social significance. By about 1380 a spoon would be presented at the baptism of a child. Knights and above qualified for a silver spoon and this became the origin of “being born with a silver spoon in your mouth”. When visiting you took your spoon with you.  Salts were also very important socially. The hour glass form is the earliest dating from 15th -16th centuries. The principal salt was very big and placed in front of the host and principal guest.  The highest status object, a beautiful silver ship called a “Nef,” was placed in front of the monarch and we viewed a fine example dating from 1515, the Burley Nef.  We also saw a superb example of the Royal Tudor Clock Salt which belonged to Henry V111.  In the 16th century there was a lot of new wealth and many expensive objects were produced for the nouveau riche of the day.  A table clock and the principal salt were therefore combined as one object, the dial facing the guests.

One candlestick per household was the norm except for the very wealthy.  We saw an example of a set of four candle sticks belonging to Charles 1.  When Charles 11 was restored to the throne he adopted the continental system of knives, spoons and forks and by the end of the 1660’s forks were in common use. Table spoons were made in sets to go on the table and were initially designed to be placed with the bowl downwards.  After 1760 they were turned over.  Silver dressing table sets became standard wedding presents from grooms to their brides and grooms received silver shaving sets.  A 1760 silver chamber pot was in use in the dining room.  When ladies withdrew the men would pass the port and pass the pot!  The development of coffee houses serving coffee, tea and chocolate saw the production of silver pots and tea caddies. When French chefs began to arrive in England silver sauce boats were produced.

In the afternoon session Ian Pickford discussed members silver that they had brought for examination and identification.  There was a fascinating variety of objects on display.  Ian made some very interesting comments and gave us some useful tips, e.g. do not put rubber bands anywhere near silver as they will do permanent damage, clean silver with a bristle brush not a nylon toothbrush.  He also told us about the Chester assay office which would have closed in the 1860’s to 1870’s if there had not been a change in the law relating to hallmarking.  It became possible to register assay marks anywhere in the country not just where the object was made.  A piece of silver registered in Chester sold better but could have been made in Birmingham.  The Chester assay office finally closed in 1962.  The Richardsons and the Lowes were well known families of silversmiths in Chester and the very last member’s piece that Ian examined bore the name of Richard Richardson of Chester, dating from 1802 and of course had a Chester hallmark.  What a wonderful way to end a remarkable and fascinating day.

 Sue Williams