31 March 2010 Afternoon
After visiting the Dulwich Picture Gallery in the morning and enjoying a lovely lunch with a split bottle of French champagne at the Gallery’s new restaurant, my friend H____ and I travelled to Chancery Lane in London proper to descend into The London Silver Vaults. I had read about the Vaults and looked at their website online, but nothing could quite prepare me for the sheer magnitude of silver all located in one place for my perusal and delectation.
As regular Great Within readers know, collecting antique silver is one of my great passions. I mostly collect 19th century American flatware and holloware in both sterling and silverplate particularly aesthetic pieces inspired by Japanese art and more classical turn of the 20th century patterns with a shell motif. I do have a few pieces of English sterling silver (no flatware) mostly from the Edwardian period of 1901-1910 and up until the end of The Great War. I also have a superb plate English coffeepot circa 1880-1890, a candelabra dated 1884 and a pair of handsome plate sauce boats roughly of the same date as the coffeepot or perhaps a bit earlier. My favorite English sterling piece is a lone silver salt by Horace Woodward of London from 1912. I love the cauldron shape with a crenellated edge, shell feet and a pristine gilt interior. The wonderful thing about collecting English sterling is that all silver pieces are meticulously hallmarked with a maker’s mark, a city of origin mark (where the piece was assayed) and a date letter. In this way, it is very easy to know exactly what you are looking at, who made it, where it was made and when it was made. This system of silver marking gives great comfort and confidence to the collector.
H____ and I descended a long flight of stairs below street level to reach The Vaults. When you reach the bottom of the stairs you enter through a pair of massive steel safe-like doors with large, thick tumbler locks into something that resembles a bunker- long, antiseptic corridors covered in industrial tile, fluorescent lighting and no windows. The maze of corridors were filled with thick steel doors, some open, some not which led into each particular dealer’s space of varying sizes.
I entered the first space and felt weak in the knees. I don’t even remember the name of that dealer. I have never seen so much silver in one place. Vitrines to the ceiling were filled with it all shining and gleaming. Tables were stacked with pieces of all shapes, sizes and styles. It was like entering Aladdin’s Cave or finding the buried treasure of an 18th century pirate or given the surroundings, it was if massive quantities of silver were secured underground by the government because of some national crisis or war. My mouth went dry. This experience would be a different caliber of looking, collecting and buying.
Before I went to The Vaults, I had an idea of the type of silver pieces I would be looking for while there. There are certain types of silver items such as claret jugs with silver mounts, biscuit barrels and mustard pots that seem more ubiquitous in English silver rather than American. I would love a claret jug with silver mounts to use as a water or wine pitcher at one of my silver soirée or a Victorian plate biscuit barrel to put on the table at dessert filled with short bread or cookies or an elegant little sterling pot with a cobalt glass liner to serve mustard at a lunch party.
But of course I am a collector on a budget. In the end, it is a good thing that I cannot buy whatever I want. Having a monetary restriction makes you even more selective, discerning and fosters a more difficult, but ultimately more pleasurable hunt. The acquisition at the end is more special and more meaningful.
Years ago I had an obscenely rich client who would decide seemingly on a whim to change her decor. Usually, a new collection of something (once it was old mercury glass) was needed for this stylistic change and she would just acquire it whole- no searching, no real collecting, no passion just one gulp and there it was on display- mercury glass. The women’s favorite word was “gorge” which was her abbreviation for gorgeous. She didn’t seem to realize her Freudian slip; she was indeed gorging on things without any connection to their meaning, their provenance or their intrinsic nature.
So, in the first shop I looked at biscuit barrels and claret jugs with silver mounts. The barrels started at around $450 even for silverplate and the claret jugs with sterling mounts were over a $1000 and even ones with plate mounts cost around $500. The prices were fair; the pieces were exquisite, but obviously The Vaults was not a place for bargains, but for quality and the serious collector.
I decided then standing amidst these myriad of shimmering tea sets, punch bowls, candlesticks, candelabra, toast racks, biscuit barrels, vases, wine coasters, vesta cases, fish servers, salvers, bon bon dishes, tureens, sauce boats, salts, pepper pots on to infinity that I would continue to look undaunted and if something caught my fancy I would then consider price and go from there.
The next dealer I visited was I. Franks and I immediately remembered that over a year ago, I had emailed them a question regarding my Horace Woodward salt and they had kindly emailed me back the information. Having an “in” I introduced myself and thanked them for assisting me in the past. Mr. Daniel Franks was quite welcoming and we had a brief discussion how no one sets a nice table anymore even though it is quite simple.
As I looked at all of the impressive silver, I noticed a pair of small bud vases about 5.25 inches tall with fluted opening and an intricately hand chased decoration of flowers, swirls and cherubs. On the front of the vases there is a framed blank area for monogramming. Above this area sits a little putti who appears to be saying “Quiet” through the gesture of his finger to his lips. Above and to the left and right of this small angel are 2 other putti who appear to be flying while holding a ribbon in their hands which swirls around them. Below them 2 other cherubs sit near the simple base of the vases. Gorgeous. I bought them for a good price and Mr. Franks even gave me a slight discount. Polite friendliness goes a long way.
The vases are hallmarked London 1902 and their elaborate, Rococo inspired design recalls the just ended Victorian period. The maker is William Comyns, a highly respected and good quality London silversmith. Generally, items made in London a bit better in quality and crisper and sharper in their decoration. I absolutely adore these vases and relish the putti interspersed amongst the undulating curves of silver.
Having made my first Silver Vaults purchase, my knees were no longer weak and I regained my confidence. Next, I found 2 napkin rings in a large basket filled with them. One is hallmarked Chester 1902 with a lovely embossed grape vine with fruit and leaves. It is engraved RIN Dec 24 1905 in the cartouche. Was it a Christmas present? Who was RIN? I love monograms and how it connects one to a specific yet virtually unknowable past. The other ring is Victorian, marked London 1871 with a crenellated edge and an engraved vine of what appear to be grape leaves. These 2 odd rings will go well with my other 2 sets of rings which are also English sterling- one pair marked Birmingham 1919 and the other marked London 1909.
The last shop I visited at The Vaults was owned by an extremely elegant gentlemen, Mr. David Shure. He was smartly dressed in a dark pinstripe suit with a pale, pastel shirt with cufflinks and a dark tie. His shop seemed to me more dimly lit compared to the others which not only seemed fitting for the bunker atmosphere of The Vaults, but also made the cases of silver along the walls that were more well lit, shine more brightly. In this way, the objects within in them seemed more rare and special.
Looking around I noticed a tea strainer with an under bowl in which to place it when not in use. Although Regency in style, it was made in the 1970’s which in my mind was just too “new”. I asked Mr. Shure if he had other strainers and he directed me with great gentility and panache to another vitrine. I was enamored with a good size strainer with bead decoration around the pierced bowl, a simple and sophisticated handle with a corresponding, yet more delicate beaded edge and a reticulated, almost crest-like part opposite the handle. The piece is hallmarked Sheffield 1935 by a good maker Walker and Hall. This date appealed to me more than the first strainer I saw and I decided to buy it.
Now, a tea strainer is not necessarily a needed table implement like for example, a fork or a knife or a spoon. When serving afternoon tea, the strainer is placed on a porcelain cup and the tea is poured from a nice pot through the strainer. In this way, the strainer will catch any loose bits of tea which are better off in the strainer than floating menacingly in the cup of your guest. My new tea strainer for me conjures up languid afternoon teas with cucumber sandwiches and petite scrumptious cakes. It suggests the fantasy of a time before the 24/7 access of cell phones and computers, before the harried rush of 21st century life, before tea was put into bags around 1903-04 to enable one’s cup of tea to be faster, neater, more efficient, less time consuming, but decidedly less graceful.
Beyond its function and its signification of times past, the strainer is also a pretty object to look at and admire. As Mr. Shure said to me, “And when you are not using the strainer, you can place it on a lovely cup in your cabinet and it will look lovely.” Sigh…my thoughts exactly. He obviously knew from the look of me that I indeed had a “cabinet.” I was truly relishing his accent and demeanor. In a sense, I wanted to be Mr. Shure with his smart outfit, his intriguing accent and surrounded by impeccable silver.
While there I also noticed a “pair” of small about 5 inches tall candlesticks in a Georgian style, but Edwardian in date. I have been looking for a small pair of candlesticks to use when I have 4 people at my round dining table. When I have 2 or 3 people I can use my large 16 inch 4 light candelabra. It is a Horace Woodward plate piece from 1884 in a classic reeded design. It is too obtrusive to when there are 4 people at the table, blocking eye contact and such.
I inquired about this “pair” of sticks to which Mr. Shure replied in an informative tone, yet as if he was telling me a secret, “Well, you see they are not really a pair. One was made in 1904 and the other was made in 1905.” “Oh,” I replied, “I did notice that one stick was slightly taller than the other.” To which Mr. Shure replied, “Quite perceptive.” I had to try my hardest not to laugh. I was not laughing at Mr. Shure; he was just so fabulous, a real gentlemen, civil and witty- everything I always try and want to be. He captured my imagination.
Ultimately, I did not buy the sticks as the price which I thought was for the “pair” was just for one. Alas, it was not meant to be. After leaving The Vaults, I spent the rest of the day (okay, the rest of the week) reenacting my encounter with the antique silver dealer. It was lovingly intended as an homage to him and his smart elegance.
All in all though my visit to The Vaults was a great success and memorable experience. I acquired 4 new pieces of silver for my collection and I made 2 important contacts, Mr. Shure and Mr. Franks, for not only my own collection, but also for my antique personal shopping service which hopefully will be up and running online in May. Stay tuned.
My friend H___ and I ended our day of silver and art at Ye Olde Mitre, a pub established in 1546, where I enjoyed a hard cider with ice and regaled my friend with my Mr. Shure encounter until I am s(h)ure she was blue in the face.