středa 5. srpna 2015

Silver In The Age Of Castles - Zámecké Stříbro II

The 19th century brought  much needed democratization to the use of silver which was spurred on by the industrial revolution. The use of domestic silver moved down the social ladder and became a marker of middle class respectability. Marketing became the driving force behind the new silver making industry. Whereas before the production of silver was the domain of individual silversmiths or small workshops, the 19th century saw the mass production of silver which was often produced by machines at least in part. Most often as it is still today, the basic forms were made by machines and then finished by hand. These new developments brought cities like Birmingham in the UK or Germany’s Hanau wealth and fame.

An example of a small silver plate creamer that would have been available to almost everyone at the end of the 19th century.

As this new market was driven by the middle classes or perhaps better said the “starting classes” people who had previously not been able to afford domestic silver on a large scale, they needed to be educated. Manufacturers ceased the opportunity to introduce new items and create a need for them. Especially American companies such as Reed & Barton, Gorham and Tiffany came up with ranges which counted hundreds of pieces in a single pattern.

The  sterling silver grooming set of  countess Alice Haugwitz /Vienna Austria/1934  - Náměšť Nad Oslavou  

 The most famous such “invention” was fish cutlery which was sold to the 19th century middle classes as a necessity  and has remained  with them ever since. Soon, there had to be a special utensil for each dish as table settings got bigger and bigger mimicking the aristocracy of the previous century. The new middle classes were also in part responsible for the “historicizing” aesthetic which appeared on much of the new silver as the century progressed .By using older styles of decoration which recalled the baroque, gothic or renaissance periods , the middle classes were able to buy into the idea that they maybe also had a bit of family history while sitting down for Sunday lunch. Some manufacturers went as far as adding “pseudo marks” or old assay marks from an earlier period to add a bit of age.
A detail of the grooming set
Formal dining also changed and the fashion of serving food
“a la russe” became the norm, this meant that each course of the meal was brought to the table after the previous had been finished. This left the center of the table empty to display elaborate center pieces, jardiniers and eperngnes.

A table set “a la russe”
Technological developments at the end of the 19th century also began the slow decline in sterling silver production. The invention of electroplating meant that objects made from a simple base metal could be covered with thin layer of silver or gold. The electroplated items are indistinguishable from sterling silver items making them very popular with customers. Now even the lowest strata of society could own a piece of “silver” .While retailers were happy with a broadening market the elites saw little reason to own what everyone else had. Silver had lost its cache of privilege. At the same time alloys such as alpaca emerged which also gave the glimmer of the real thing. Alpaca objects can still be affordably bought in antique or junk shops alike and give a perfect impression of sterling.

Pair of art nouveau silver-plate salad servers
  The period after WWI saw the gradual change in the status of silver, to start with almost all homes were electrified and a result the shiny glimmering effect of polished silver was no longer as apparent under artificial light. Further, the number of servants began to decrease as did the number of people who could afford to employ them. Polishing silver which had always been done by servants was now seen as quite labor intensive to housewives.

Jardinière sterling silver /mixed metal?/ Austria 1884-State Castle Český Krumlov
 In Europe the years following WWII did not help silver very much either. Postwar design was concerned with effectivity, practicality and new materials, which were not expensive to make. The new generation of designers worked with plastic, synthetic fibers and stainless steel which had been perfected by the military during the war. Dedicated dining rooms were becoming a rarity as eating, even entertaining in the kitchen was becoming the norm. As dishwashers became a standard appliance, many found that their sterling silver got damaged when washed this way.

A monogrammed ladle handle

  The USA was in a different situation, after the war there was a surge in wealth with many of the returning GIs entering the consumer middle class. But even then, most of the new patterns of silver flatware were based on historical examples with differed very little from what was made 60 years earlier.
An interwar monogram
For the parents of today’s baby boomers who were looking for a modernist aesthetic, silver simply fell off the radar. The only exception were for example, George Jensen ,Gio Ponti or designer Day Van Truex both of whom produced contemporary but upscale stuff. 

Gio Ponti, Swan For Sabattini 1978: Sterling Silver.

In communist Czechoslovakia, newly produced silver was almost unheard of, the little that was produced was either exported on destined for the exclusive hotels and restaurants. As dining on silver was viewed as a quintessentially bourgeois practice, the regime did as much as possible to discourage such „bad habits”

A set of tea spoons with original mark of the purveyor

Today most silver that exists in Czech households is mostly inherited or bought in antique shops. Considering that Bohemia was never a particularly wealthy country, most silver is flatware which unlike Anglo-Saxon silver is also never decorated. Bigger objects such as hollowware are never seen. In some cases the silver sold in Czech antique shops is brought from other countries to be sold at a higher price. A few years back it was the Russians who were main buyers of such objects. Many young people also do not see silver as very practical and prefer to keep it a box hidden away if they own any at all.

A British sterling silver-wood coffee set 1918-1919(zámek Hluboká nad Vltavou)

Image courtesy of Galerie České spořitelny
The  exhibition  not only shows important pieces of silver which were given as diplomatic gifts or prizes at contests but also looks at table silver in the context of European dining history The numerous paintings serve as examples of how items were used. Goblets and chalices are particularly well represented as they were often whimsical  and showed the skills of the silversmith.

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