Materials & Techniques

English Silver (mid 17th-early 18th century)

In 1660, after a decade of somber Puritanical rule, the English welcomed the return to monarchy under King Charles II with an outpouring of joy and new wealth and thirty years of extravagant Baroque style. A change of silver design from simple forms and plain surfaces to more exuberant, ampler shapes, and elaborate cast and engraved repoussé ornamentation inspired by continental European prototypes reflected this new era. The use of silver for vases, chandeliers, andirons, wall sconces, mirror frames, toilet sets, and even, as at Versailles, sheeting for furniture was evidence of court extravagance. The wealthy heaped their cupboards and sideboards with large silver tankards, plates, bowls, and cups. However, with the exile of James II in 1686 came the sober Dutch Protestant influence of William III. Economic belt-tightening as well as a shortage of silver resulted in a taste for plain, smaller scale silver objects. Often architectural in form, they frequently lacked any ornamentation other than molding, knobs, and the glimmer of light reflecting on their facets. This simple style persevered through the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14) and into that of George I (1714-27).

The special beauty of silver objects made during the early years of the 18th century is partly due to the high content of silver in the metal used. During the silver shortage of the late 1690s, unscrupulous persons took to clipping slices from silver coins, which were 925/1000 purity, and selling them to silversmiths. To discourage coin clipping, a 1697 decree by Parliament raised the standard for silver objects from 925 to at least 950 parts pure silver in 1000. This was the Britannia standard. The law remained in effect until 1719 when the silver supply from the Americas was plentiful and England prospered. Brittania standard silver has a subtle softness and warmth that combines beautifully with the simple elegance of Queen Anne design. Later, during the reign George II, English taste in silver changed again. The richness and elaborateness of the French Rococo affected silver partly due to the continuing contacts between London's Huguenot silversmiths, such as the great Paul de Lamerie, and their continental cousins.

Adapted from

Dallas Museum of Art. The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1985), 179.