Artists & Designers

Gorham Manufacturing Company's Martelé Silver

Under the leadership of its new, English-trained chief designer, William C. Codman, and its energetic president, Edward Holbrook, Gorham Manufacturing Company developed one of the most acclaimed lines of art nouveau silverware in the world. Gorham hoped the new Martelé _line would solidify its position as a luxury-goods producer and would add cachet to its less costly products through name association. However, _Martelé was extremely difficult to produce. Unlike the detailed designs that were generally prepared throughout the industry, drawings by Codman and throughout the industry, Martelé drawings by Codman and his fellow Gorham designers were often impressionistic and sometimes showed no ornament at all. Consequently the designer and silversmith had to work together closely during the creation of an object, adjusting the decorative scheme as needed. To train additional craftsmen capable of such work, a special "school" within the manufactory was established in 1896. The decision to produce such labor-intensive wares was a major one on the part of Gorham's management because it required substantial investment over four years before a single object was sold. Enough examples had been completed to stage an exhibit in New York in 1897; however, the new line was not commercially introduced until the 1900 Paris world's fair. It is not surprising that Gorham chose Paris as the site of the line's international unveiling, given that Martelé simultaneously embodied the somewhat contradictory concepts of a distinctive national school and avant-garde foreign design. Shown in the American section of the exposition, Gorham could present Martelé both as a patriotic contribution to the glory of the United States, and simultaneously try to please the French critics. Gorham must have felt that Parisian fairgoers and critics would be especially receptive to its styling since they lived in the European center of art nouveau. From a marketing standpoint, positive reviews in the recognized art capital of the Western world would make the expensive objects more appealing to fashion-conscious customers in the United States.

To ensure success, Codman and the firm's best silversmiths created exceptional examples of Martelé to send to Paris. The highest possible artistic and technical quality was achieved by producing entire series of objects of a particular form, from which only a few were selected for shipment to France. For example, a pair of vases ornamented with irises and tulips was made in 1899 as part of a group considered for inclusion in the fair (1991.33.1 and 1991.33.2). The fact that these particular vases do not seem to have been chosen, in spite of their outstanding quality, indicates that those items exhibited in 1900 were the absolute best Gorham was capable of producing. As a tour de force for its display, the firm created a solid silver dressing table and stool that revealed the extraordinary level of artistic and technical virtuosity achieved by Gorham (2000.356.A-B.McD). Consuming over 2,300 hours of skilled labor and 1,253 ounces of silver, the table had a retail price of $8,800; the stool cost an additional $960. Despite the sizable financial investment such objects represented, Gorham was probably satisfied with the results ofthe fait: Not only did Gorham sell the table upon its return to America, but the firm was awarded the grand prix for metalwork, being placed above Tiffany & Co. Furthermore, Gorham's president, Edward Holbrook, was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, and William C. Codman was awarded a gold medal for his designs.

The French critics were extremely impressed by the Martelé line. One exclaimed: "It is marvelous that while the taste of New Yorkers differs from ours in so many ways, the Gorham Manufacturing Co. has succeeded so grandly in satisfying us without dissatisfying its clientèle." Achieving this delicate balance was indeed laudable and had been accomplished by keeping up with current styles, adopting the basic design tenets of European art nouveau without losing sight of the American buying public's often conservative predilections. For example, rather than design the dressing table as a composition of swirling forms that appeared to grow out of the ground as a Frenchman might have done, Gorham gave it a conservative colonial revival form, complete with cabriole legs and ball-and-claw feet. By trying to "read" customer's desires, Gorham hoped Martelé would be a huge commercial success. However, the market was already becoming saturated by 1905.

Besides its high cost, part of the reason the Martelé line was eventually rejected by consumers may stem from the fact that in the first decade of the century the number of domestic servants in the country steadily declined from the peak of 1910. The dwindling supply of servants meant that it was more difficult to maintain the bric-a-brae-filled houses and complicated dining rituals developed in the previous century. As a consequence, when selecting silverware consumers were increasingly likely to choose pieces that were simple in design and therefore easy to clean. Furthermore, they may well have chosen fewer large objects like vases and centerpieces because such pieces typically sat out in the open where they tarnished quickly. Given that Martelé was made in large forms with intricate surfaces, it must have been at a disadvantage when judged against plainer arts and crafts and colonial revival-style pieces. To meet this trend, Gorham simplified Martelé designs around 1909 (1991.32). Nevertheless, sales continued to decline, although a few pieces were made as late as the 1930s. But even if _Martelé _failed to generate sufficient profits to offset Gorham's large investment in the line's production, its extraordinary quality was nevertheless successful in generating positive publicity and reinforced Gorham's image as a producer of exceptional, high-end goods during the first decade of the twentieth century.

The firm's adoption of the art nouveau taste was more than simply an attempt to garner publicity, however. The development of Martelé was directly inspired by contemporary British reformist ideology? Gorham employee Horace Townsend clearly stated this point in his essay of 1898, "An Artistic Experiment." In it he cites the English art theorist John Ruskin (1819-1900) as the founder of the reform movement that stressed "Truth and Beauty" as the principles that should underlie all creations. Gorham felt its new silverware line embodied Ruskin's ideas because it was almost totally handmade and because the designer and silversmiths worked closely together in the creation of each piece. Consequently, the hammer marks on each object represented the thoughts and skill of the maker, unlike the hammer marks of cheaper wares which were simply stamped onto the surface mechanically or added by hand as a decorative finish to machine-made pieces. To reflect this relationship between maker and object, Gorham named the line Martelé, a French word meaning "hammered."

While Gorham freely stated Martelé's links to the English reform movement and contemporary continental design, the firm also promoted the line as the embodiment of a "Golden Age" in the evolution of American silver. When describing its importance, Gorham writers repeatedly claimed Martelé represented the attainment of a new level in artistic metalworking for this country. For example, in an 1899 article in Brush and Pencil, "Martelé, A New Distinctive School: American Renaissance in Silversmithing.' Henry C. Tilden explained:

The spirit which dominated Cellini and the old masters. seems here to have been revived and in this American Renaissance in silversmithing we may well take pride... No piece or design is ever reproduced and the art lover must recognize in these distinguished productions a happy return to the principles of earlier days and hail with delight the advent of American silversmithing as a living art in design as well as in technical execution.

In 1912 Evelyn Marie Stuart claimed in the Fine Arts Journal that Gorham had initiated "The American Renaissance In Silversmithing"

Describing Martelé's place in the history of silver styles, she wrote: "Here indeed is a new school, a distinctive type, a fresh beauty as novel and as characteristically our own as our Rookwood pottery or Tiffany glass." In conclusion she asked expectantly, "What may we not hope further from such a workshop in such a country and in such an age?"

Adapted from

Charles L. Venable. Silver in America, 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art; New York, New York; Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994), 253-258.