The human bodyThe human figure was a popular source of inspiration for silverware, and silversmiths explored a great range of different body types to adorn various objects.
Apollo and Daphne
The sensual, writhing figures of Apollo and Daphne represent the victory of chastity over desire. The candlesticks were intended for the dining table, so providing guests with a visual feast and a moral lesson at the same time.
Reliquary of St Sebastian
The agonised body of St Sebastian, slumped by a tree after being shot with arrows as a result of his faith, vividly conveys his torment. His smoothly finished body contrasts with the roughly etched tree trunk. Images of St Sebastian were believed to offer protection from plague. His figure would have served as a constant reminder to Christians of the strength of his faith.
Some wager cups tested the co-ordination of the drinker. This one required him to drink from the upturned skirt of the milkmaid without spilling liquid from her swinging pail below. It was later fitted with a clockwork mechanism so that the figure could roll upright along the table.
This beaker has been delicately engraved with a sensuous and romantic mermaid. This portrayal of the human figure is decorative only, constrained within the strong outline of the beaker, unlike the wager cup where form and ornament are combined.
Spoon with figure of wild man finial
This gnarled little figure on the end of the spoon’s handle is a wild man of the woods, or 'wodewose'. He carries a club and was sometimes seen as a symbol of fertility.
On this dish winged children (putti) have been cleverly worked into the floral frieze and also act as supporters for the coat of arms. These chubby, angelic figures were seen as messengers of the gods, sent to guide people through life. They have a highly polished, shiny finish to emphasise the smoothness of their skin, in contrast to the detailed engraving of the surrounding foliage.
Silver has always been used to impress, whether at home or in public displays of wealth or power. How people used it in order to look good varied greatly.
Not only does the frame of the mirror look good, with its shagreen (shark skin) covering but it could reflect a good-looking owner if he or she were properly preened! John Paul Cooper, who designed and made this service, described shagreen as 'a material possessing some of the qualities of both mother of pearl and leather. Its little nodules of concentric rings give one, when the skin is particularly translucent, the feeling of looking deep down into a pool of sea green water'.
One way in which wealthy men and women could preen effectively was by using soap, despite the fact that in the early 18th-century soap was a smelly mixture of fats and alkali. Soap was normally shaped like a ball, hence the spherical box.
Lace was used to decorate dressing tables and costume - in February 1671 the tailor William Watts sent Charles II a bill for 'a pink culler lutestring coat smeared all over with silver lace' for Nell Gwyn.
This is a larger, heavier and harsher reminder of power, designed not just to impress but to intimidate. Ceremonial maces evolved from medieval metal clubs topped with at least four arc-shaped blades designed to tear armour. By 1500 the warhead disappeared, replaced by a round or flat ended knop. The mace turned 180 degrees and over the next 300 years the former handle, now facing up, grew into a large ornate head expressing the mace’s civic or legal purpose. This mace was set out at the hearings of the Court Leet of St Andrew, Holborn.
In the 19th century, displays of athleticism also earned men public acclaim and the winner of a horserace could be rewarded with such a cup. Its winner would have been proud to have been affiliated with overt Englishness elaborated in no uncertain terms on the cup’s decorative scenes: victorious battles, plentiful arrangements of oak leaves and acorns, all topped patriotically with the figures of St George and the Dragon.The post race presentation was as much a part of the theatre of sport as the competition.
No self-respecting rider would be seen with an untidy horse. This Dutch curry comb of about 1770 has a series of sharp, serrated blades underneath for grooming a horse’s coat.
Silver has always been used in the pursuit of good health. Silversmiths made containers for medicine, amulets to ward off evil spirits and mounts for cups carved from materials simply believed to make you feel good.
The body of this tankard is made from serpentine, a hard stone which comes in a variety of colours. Such hardstones were believed to possess miraculous powers to protect against poison. This tankard would have been highly prized. Encasing serpentine in a precious metal like silver emphasised how much one’s health was treasured.
This baby’s silver rattle is mounted with a teething ring of bone at one end. The other end has a loop for a ribbon or string and terminates in a whistle. Such teething implements, usually sticks or rings, were not only practical aids, helping the baby’s teeth to come through the gums. They were also seen as examples of sympathetic magic. Traditionally made of red or white coral, they symbolised either blood or bone respectively. The use of animal bone or tooth was also thought to confer the strength of the animal to fight off the pain of teething.
Box and lid
This exquisite lidded box would have served as a container for medicine or a lady's cosmetics. It was made during the Tang dynasty (618-907), an era when China was in close contact with the Middle East and the West and trade flourished along the famous Silk Road.
During this period Chinese craftsmen made a great many gold and silver objects, many of them inspired by arts and crafts of other cultures. This circular box, however, is not influenced by foreign design. Its fine workmanship makes it a precious object in its own right.
Chrismatory for ritual oil
This chrismatory is made up of 3 compartments containing holy oils used in the Catholic Church for ritual anointing: Oleum Infirmorum used for the sick, Oleum Catechumenorum used at baptism and Chrisma used for confirmation and ordination. A priest would carry a chrismatory with him when visiting a sick member of his community.
Silver pill boxes over the past fifty years have become more of an accessory than a necessity. Functional items in silver have become rarer as silvermithing has become more sculptural. The domed lid of this box, however, is not only stylish but fits perfectly into the palm of the hand making the lid easy to open.
Coconuts were, from the 15th century, treasured for their healing properties. Silversmiths were frequently called upon to mount coconuts in silver to make tankards, goblets and elaborate covered cups like this one. Drinking from a coconut cup was believed to cure all sorts of ailments such as fever, kidney failure and tapeworm. They were not only restorative. They were also thought to have the added power of being an aphrodisiac!
Tea, coffee & chocolate
The arrival of non-alcoholic hot drinks in England sparked major changes in the way people socialised. A whole series of intricate ceremonies sprang up around the drinking of tea, coffee and chocolate, with accessories to match.
When this coffee pot was made, drinking coffee was still very much a new and exciting thing to do. Coffee houses were springing up all over the city of London, so that men could sit together, discussing the issues of the day while drinking coffee.
Coffee was an equally popular drink in the 20th century, and the style of pot is still of great importance. In the 1960s this pot won a competition for a modern silver table service designed specially for use in British embassies around the world. However, the only two embassies that actually had a set were the ones in Warsaw and Mexico City - the other sets were cancelled because the enterprise was too expensive.
This teapot was designed as a solution to a storage problem: how to store a large number of teapots without breaking off spouts and handles when catering on a large scale? The answer: create a cube shape that could be easily stacked. This teapot was meant to be purely practical but ended up as a bold modernist design.
This Australian teapot is a mixture of silver and coloured aluminium, in vibrant pink and blue.
Chocolate pot, London, 1714-1715, Silver with wooden handle. Museum no. M.1819-1944
Chocolate cup and stand
Compared with tea and coffee, chocolate was quite difficult to prepare and serve, but cups like this were used a lot. Chocolate was served scalding hot, with sugar and spices added for extra flavour.
This milk jug was designed to be deliberately simple and functional. This jug would have stood out when it was made in the 1880s. The fashion at the time was for silver that imitated historic styles.
Kettle with stand and lamp
Pear-shaped teapots were a standard feature of English silver from the late 17th century, and remained the dominant form until the late 1720s. They are generally quite plain, which makes the applied leaves on the domed cover of this example quite unusual. Simon Pantin (born about 1680; died 1728), the maker of this set, was a leading Huguenot silversmith working in London, and the applied leaf decoration may reflect something of the Huguenot stylistic influence.
Fun & games
Not all silver objects were for serious purposes. Silver could be used just as effectively to reflect sporting success, challenge others at drinking games or to make toys for children.
Long winter evenings need not be dull with a windmill cup in your collection. The drinker would blow into its pipe, spinning the sails of the windmill, and would then aim to drink the contents before the sails stopped.
Tankards like this were marked inside with a series of pegs and would have been filled with wine or beer and passed around, each person having to drink until the next peg was showing. Given the size of the tankard and each measure, it would have been no mean feat to stay sober. This tankard is finely decorated with trees, flowers, birds and the figures of a man and a child. It might have been a christening present for Olle Jensson Bruun, the name inscribed on it.
Weymouth Regatta trophy
This grand trophy, presented at the Weymouth Regatta in 1828, has exciting scenes of yacht-racing around its neck. Such scenes were transferable and established silver firms like Barnards and Elkingtons, advertised cups which could be ‘embossed for any sport’.
These chess pieces are miniature sculptures in their own right. Each king, queen and horse's head has been carefully moulded to look realistic; the queen even has a slightly haughty expression on her face!
Nature has always been a great source of inspiration for designers. Animal depictions in silver range from mortally wounded horses falling in dramatic battle scenes to novelty drinking cups in the shape of birds, bears and cows.
Bird of prey cup
Drinking vessels in the form of owls and birds of prey were popular in German-speaking lands during the 16th and 17th centuries. On this example, the coconut shell has been carved with feathers and the silver mounts have a similar naturalistic effect.
This delicate pair of tongs would probably have been used either as nappy tongs or to thread delicate ribbon through baby clothes. The pincers are constructed as a witty pun on the stork’s snapping beak.
Cow cream jug
The silver cow, with its tail as a handle, makes an amusing container for cream. Almost all the cow creamers in existence have a comic, almost cartoon-like appearance and were made by John Schuppe, a Dutchman who settled in London. Another animal form, a wildly out of proportion fly, appears as a handle on this cow’s back. The creamers appeared in a variety of finishes. This one has the cow’s hide etched onto the surface of the silver.
This salt holder shows the impact of naturalism on 19th-century design, which reached its height in the 1850s. The mould in which the silver was cast was taken from a real sea-urchin. The love of nature had romantic and religious resonances, the writer John Ruskin commenting that 'all noble ornamentation is the expression of man's delight in God's work'.
Plaque from a cabinet
The hind quarters of the horse on the left stick out of the plaque, catching the light and directing your eyes straight into the scene in a clever trick of perspective. Other horses, pulling a chariot containing a victorious Roman emperor and general, have been compressed to appear further away.
It takes great skill to produce high relief decoration on an essentially flat object like a plaque. The design for this plaque would have been pricked out on the surface of a flat sheet, then the sheet turned over and the basic pattern hammered out from the back. The detail was worked in from the front using a variety of hammers and punches, with the sheet resting on pitch to hold it steady.
The Director of the V&A, Sir Roy Strong, commissioned this cup for Lord Carrington, the Chairman of the Museum’s Trustees. The mythical beast that supports it is a gryphon, with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion. This creature was carefully chosen. It was a guardian of treasure, and Lord Carrington was a guardian of the wealth of treasure that is the V&A’s collection.