I Spy: Antique Silver in Paintings

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Detail of a George II Silver Soup Tureen by Paul Crespin for Lionel Tollemache
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

Dealing in antiques is a joy (for many reasons!), but one of the main benefits of the job is getting to handle objects that have such a rich and interesting history.  Antiques achieve the perfect balance of form and function with their aesthetic value equalling their useful qualities.

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A George II Silver Soup Tureen by Paul Crespin for Lionel Tollemache, 4th Earl of Dysart 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection 

One example is a pieces from our collection: a silver soup tureen made by the famed silversmith Paul Crespin in 1736 for Lionel Tollemache, the 4th Earl of Dysart.  Dysart lived at Ham House in Surrey, which is now part of the National Trust.  This piece formed part of Dysart’s extensive dinner service made of silver in the Rococo style.

To put antiques in context, and in this case silver, we have selected a few paintings showing domestic scenes that incorporate items of silver.  These paintings originate from different cultures and eras, but they all depict the way these items were used at that specific moment in history.

Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher

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Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, circa 1662 
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

As an artist, Vermeer is synonymous with the evocative and enigmatic depictions of Dutch interiors in the seventeenth century.  The above painting depicts a woman standing by a window as she holds a silver-gilt pitcher above a silver-gilt basin.  The silver catches the light perfectly from the window, streaming in from the top left corner of the canvas.  Vermeer achieves an incredible amount of detail and texture in his paintings, which is seen clearly in his varied treatment of the surfaces of the silver, carpet, and clothing.

Georges de La Tour, The Penitent Magdalen

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Georges de la Tour, The Penitent Magdalen, circa 1640
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The French painter Georges de La Tour depicts a very similar subject to Vermeer: a woman in an interior.  However, the result is entirely different.  He shows Mary Magdalen in a moment of quiet introspection with the only light coming from the flickering candle on the table.  The candle is reflected in the silver mirror behind it, and the silver is also illuminated by the flame.  The luxurious worldly trappings, including the silver mirror, contrast with the meaning of the painting, namely Mary Magdalen’s renunciation of world life for a more religious existence.

William Claesz Heda, Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware

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William Claesz Heda, Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware, circa 1635
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Travelling back to Dutch art, this still life painting by Willem Claesz Heda is all about worldly possessions, and the rarest and most exceptional ones at that.   Still life paintings served to reflect larger cultural trends, including the increasing urbanisation in Dutch society that led to a focus on personal possessions, commerce, and trade.  Heda depicts oysters, a real delicacy, along with elaborate glassware and ornate silver.

Gawen Hamilton, The Brothers Clarke with Other Gentlemen Taking Wine

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Gawen Hamilton, The Brothers Clarke with Other Gentlemen Taking Wine 
Yale University Art Galleries, New Haven

Our last painting takes us to eighteenth century England (our favourite period, and the same period in which Paul Crespin created the silver tureen for the 4th Earl Dysart at Ham House).  Along with William Hogarth, Gawen Hamilton was an artist known for his conversation pieces, which were paintings that depicted scenes of everyday life.  In this painting, Hamilton shows us the Clarke brothers with their contemporaries drinking wine together.  They dress, comportment, and setting all distinguish this image as a sophisticated gathering.  On the lefthand side of the painting, we can see a servant holding a silver tray with glasses and further classes and silver on the table next to him.  This image is an ideal representation of silver in use demonstrating its importance as a functional piece along with its aesthetic value.

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