Recently we spotted a little silver tray – three legs and in good solid plate with a little copper showing through – but otherwise unmarked. It was lot 2 in the local sale so it didn’t take long to acquire. Lot 10 was a nice piece of Japanese lacquer ware so I hung around for that and took both boxes home with me – all over by 10.15am.
I wrote, just the other week, about acquiring a large silver candelabra at auction. Looking back, it was as if this started something. Did it mean simply that it turned my mind to silver as a thing to think about and therefore began to notice it amongst the plethora of other items that pass by my notice?
Or was there some greater scheme at play? I’ve noticed this phenomenon at the museum – a collection item will be gifted and then suddenly over the next few weeks others items of the same type will flow into the collection all from different sources. If that is the case this, as it turned, was to be silver month.
Strangely, until now we’ve had a little silver tray, it was Peter’s. He’d had it for years – it was stylish but it had a foot missing – so it was essentially useless (perhaps this is the moment to remind that the definition of a tray is that it has handles whereas a slaver doesn’t. Either can have feet). I finally convinced Peter to send his crippled tray off in a box lot of our own divesting.
Essentially the new tray, mentioned above, turned up the next week and so the planets seemed aligned. The other box, the one with the lacquer wall pouch, also contained a large silver teapot in the blackest state. My rule is that if its solid black the silver plate must be intact and therefore worth polishing. This again proved to be a good call and the teapot came up nicely. Looking at it, its solid squat style was rather appealing – so for a while at least it’s been dragooned into service.
The little tray cleaned up nicely. Its silver had that watery character that old plate does and its plain surface was therefore rather appealing. The chased edge is decorative but not overly expressive. We bemoaned the fact that no one was going to use it to place a calling card on and instead placed it on a little wine table in the library – where it will be used for port glasses.
With a second old silver teapot, (see Silver & Sunshine for the first one), and a little tray, not to mention the candelabra, we might have had enough silver.
Then a week later an extraordinary estate turned up at Maidens & Foster. Spread out across a number of box lots, were pieces of Chinese export ware, Georgian glass, Victorian plates etc. Best of all there was a lot of five trays – four of which where in different version of Sheffield Plate – all with good age.
Sheffield Plate is a wonderful material. It dates from the 1740s when it was cutting edge technology and spans through to the 1840s when suddenly it was over – superseded by new cutting edge technology – this time electroplating.
Sheffield Plate was created by rolling thin sheets of silver onto a copper sheet and fusing the metals together.
This made a cheaper silver – suited to the early developing middle class of the 18th century. Sheffield Plate was heavy, durable and had an excellent finish but was cheaper and therefore the objects made it in it more affordable. Pewter, previously favored, disappeared as a material for functional items and Sheffield plate was in.
The irony is that now the value of Sheffield plate is where it is worn through and you get a lovely combination of silver and copper that when polished up has a wonderful deep glow to it. One would never re-plate Sheffield – because it is an older earlier technology but because it would lose all of its appeal. The nicest of the little trays was the one that revealed its own special characteristics. It had in the middle a shield of a lion. This is in sterling silver insert that of doesn’t polish through to the copper so it shines like a spot light in the centre of the tray. Here it attracts attention the same way this mock aristocratic motif was supposed to originally.
In the same box in which Elise de Wolfe’s The House in Good Taste arrived also came a copy of The Silver & Sheffield Plate Collector, by W A Young, which I guess dates from the same period as de Wolfe’s book. We’ve dipped into it but even now as May turns into June there is distinct feeling that the lode of silver around here has mined itself out and that we probably won’t see another good piece of Sheffield for months.