In my quest for ever more arcane use specific utensils and holloware in silver, I recently acquired an English silverplate biscuit barrel by the Sheffield maker James Deakin & Sons which opened in 1871 and closed in 1939. The biscuit barrel was an essential table item of a more genteel time (well that is of course a fiction, but one can dream). It uniquely appeared in England around 1860 and remained fashionable until the late 1930’s. The barrel was made out of a variety of materials- silver, both plate and sterling as well as china, crystal and glass, many with silver mounts. They were used to serve biscuits at tea time, luncheon or whenever the occasion called for it.
It is often quite difficult to date silverplate unlike English sterling with its rigorous hallmarks. The maker’s mark on my barrel indicates a date of 1871-1897. Yet, also judging by the style of the piece which combines both aesthetic and classical elements, I would venture to say that the date of the barrel could be narrowed down to 1880-1890.
My piece is, indeed, a barrel shape mounted on four cabriole legs with an overarching handle that attaches to the lid. The lid opens ingeniously by simply lifting it by the finial and then sliding the entire lid and handle back in order to reveal the opening to the goodies inside. Here is the lid in action:
The body of the barrel is decorated with an asymmetrical engraved design of no less than 6 types of foliage which surround an open area meant to be used for a monogram. I can identify ivy leaves at the bottom right, maiden hair fern on the left edge of the monogram space from which also emerges fern fronds. I am sure the other leaves could be identified as well given time and inclination.
This naturalistic interest in plants is a hallmark of the aesthetic style. It reminds me of designs on aesthetic pottery such as this large platter in my collection by Copeland in a pattern called Kew and dated to 1884:
In contrast to the aesthetic and naturalistic design of the front part of the barrel, the sides are embellished with stylized acanthus leaves in a very symmetrical and classical pattern like a piece of 19th century molding. This motif is repeated in the lid of the biscuit barrel. The cabriole legs of the barrel with claw and ball feet and lion masks at the “knees” of the legs evoke the 18th century and Chippendale furniture as does the shell motif located between the legs.
So, in this piece of silverplate there is an oscillation between tradition and the fashionable aesthetic style of the moment of its production. This movement is not disruptive, but fairly harmonious. Stylistically, it holds together quite well.
Perhaps this form and it more 18th century decoration was an older model that was made over a long period of time and then updated with the aesthetic style engraving circa 1880. This dynamic is in part the nature of silverplate which since it is not solid silver holds no intrinsic value. The value is in the die that created the piece, an expensive process that would be used over a long period of time and sometimes sold to a new manufacturer when another went out of business.
This past Tuesday, my new biscuit barrel graced my table for the first time for a silver dessert soirée; it was filled with shortbread and proved to be quite a visual and tasty treat for my assembled guests.