An A–Z of metalwork

With a collection as vast and varied as Metalwork at the V&A, where do you begin? Here's an alphabetical run-down of some beautiful, quirky, ingenious, dangerous and, quite frankly, scary objects to get you started. 

A is for Articulated

Gauntlets (left, detail of top; right, detail of underside and lining), unknown maker, about 1614, Madrid, Spain. Museum no. 1386&A-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These are not Tommy Cooper's gloves. They are armoured steel gauntlets decorated in gold with laurel wreaths, palm branches and trophies of weapons and would have cost a small fortune when new.

Armour commissions were some of the most expensive outlays for the Renaissance nobleman: for a full ensemble, or garniture, of high-quality armour he would have to pay the equivalent of between one and two million pounds today. Such armours were made-to-measure, finely-engineered, lined snugly with fabrics and decorated in the latest fashion. According to Spanish writer, Luiz Zapata, during the 1580s, a good armour should fit "like a cape or smock. It was most unseemly for a jouster to move about in armour rattling like kettles".

How much more so for a prince whose parade armour turned his body into a work of art – its only purpose to project his image, rather than protect his body? These gauntlets are from one of three identically-decorated parade armours made for the sons of Phillip III of Spain and still contain their 400-year-old silk linings, stitched with gold. Articulated like an armadillo's back, each finger has up to 13 overlapping plates with a further ten on the back of the hand that enable the gauntlets to flex back and forth smoothly and silently – perfect for gripping a ceremonial sword or waving to a mesmerised crowd. But not good for magic tricks.

B is for Believable (or not)

Spur 'from the field of Agincourt', about 1915, England. Museum no. M.484-1927. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Would you be convinced by the inscription on this object? Fixed to a tree root, which appears to have grown around a medieval iron spur, is a metal plaque that says, 'FROM THE FIELD OF AGINCOURT FOUGHT ON THE DAY OF CRISPIN CRISPIANUS 25TH OCT[OBER] 1415'. The spur is a genuine 15th-century spur and would once have been fixed to a 15th-century foot. But did it really fall at the Battle of Agincourt, only to have a tree root grow around it over the next 500 years? It had convinced the museum when we acquired it in 1927.

Later V&A curators became suspicious, however, when a similar spur set into a similar tree root with a similar plaque mentioning a similarly famous battle was sold at auction in 1962. With the help of our neighbours, the Natural History Museum in London, they identified the wood as most likely spruce. Oops! An unscrupulous and sadly anonymous antiques dealer from 50 years earlier had been rumbled as spruce is not known to grow near Agincourt. The root appears to have been softened with water and bent around the spur. A possible date for this little deception may be 1915 – the 500th anniversary of the battle.

C is for Challenging

'Brouhaha', vase, by David Clarke, 2007, London, England. Museum no. M.3-2007. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is the stretched limo of metal teapots. The artist, David Clarke, has taken a Britannia Metal teapot from the 1860s, sawn it in half and inserted angled lead panels to turn it into a vase. Britannia Metal was an industrial metal consisting mostly of tin and was used for inexpensive teapots and tankards throughout the 19th century. Lead is cheaper still and best kept away from bare hands as it is toxic. Joining them together has breathed new life into an old teapot and created a vase of much greater commercial value.

The vase is perfectly in keeping with David Clarke's playful character and the witty, often surprising objects he creates to test artistic convention. He called this vase Brouhaha, a nice pun on the teapot's former role in brewing tea, but more presciently, to anticipate the response to his treatment of the teapot. It worked. The museum would not normally advocate sawing a 150-year-old teapot in half, so this object presents something of a challenge.

D is for Delicate

Pair of doors, 1200 – 1300, Gannat, Auvergne, France. Museum no. M.396-1924. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What makes the appearance of these bulky wooden doors more delicate is also what gives them their strength. The iron straps and hinges have been elaborately wrought by hand, heating and hammering the metal into crescents, scrolls and flowers, which not only make the door beautiful, but also hold the panels of wood together.

These doors, which are 2.6 metres high and 12 centimetres thick, are likely to have come from an important building. Iron was expensive during the 13th century and is also heavy, so its selective use on wooden doors and chests provided extra security and a nice decorative flourish, without making the door too heavy to be practical. Of course, iron facing out into the street was exposed to rain and the risk of rust – these 800-year-old doors are therefore a very rare survival.

E is for Electricity

Teapot, designed by Christopher Dresser, made by James Dixon and Sons, about 1879, Sheffield, England. Museum no. M.6-2006. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A week after the Great Exhibition in London closed in October 1851, Charles Dickens asked the writer and social reformer, Harriet Martineau, to head to Birmingham to see a new alchemy in action in a factory in Newhall Street. Elkington & Co.'s demonstrations of electroplating at the exhibition had attracted huge crowds and their factory was equipped to meet the increased interest. A public viewing gallery in the factory enabled Martineau to observe dozens of small items in cheaper metals like copper and nickel-silver being dipped in a tank containing a chemical solution of silver or gold and, with the aid of an electrical charge, given a thin but convincing veneer. Martineau wrote up her findings for Dickens' weekly journal Household Words, and called it appropriately, 'The Magic Troughs of Birmingham'. Within a decade, railways, hotels and shipping companies were serving tea in electroplated teapots and electroplate had become a middle class aspiration. This was one of the first commercial shoots of the electrical revolution, after Michael Faraday had published his laws of electromagnetism in the early 1830s.

Fast forward two decades and the man often referred to as Britain's first industrial designer, Christopher Dresser, was lauding electroplate not simply as a means of creating simulations of other metals, but as an industrial aesthetic in its own right. Dresser embraced industrial production. The plain geometrical forms of this teapot drew on his experiences travelling in Japan in 1876 – 77 and answered his call for designs that championed mass production with a clear focus on function.

Dresser was a trailblazing, independent designer whose name was on the books of manufacturers including Hukin & Heath and Elkington in Birmingham and James Dixon & Sons in Sheffield. This design appears in the Dixon costing book for 1879 as design no. 2277 and is described as 'English Japanese'. Even today it looks very modern.

F is for Fraud

Ewer, workshop of Paul de Lamerie, 1736, with London hallmarks for 1944-45, London, England. Museum no. M.16-1954. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Paul de Lamerie is regarded as the Rembrandt of British silversmiths and his stunning silverwares fetch eye-watering prices at auction. He was not averse, however, to a bit of dishonest practice. He is recorded as having once hosted a goods inspector in a London tavern, his generosity lasting just long enough for a consignment of untaxed silver to leave the docks.

From 1720, when new English silver was taxed by weight, producing a magnificent ewer like this generated a large tax bill for De Lamerie. So, in 1736, he found a naughty work-around to reduce the charge on the 3.6 kilograms of silver from which it was made and it was only in 1943, when the ewer came up for sale, that De Lamerie's ruse was spotted.

The hallmarks were found up under the base of the ewer, an unusual place to put them. Although they had been stamped on, they left no imprint on the inside of the bottom of the ewer. Removing the foot revealed that De Lamerie, or one of his employees, had taken a much smaller item, such as a watch-case, to the Goldsmiths' Company for testing and weighing, paid the duty on that, and then took it back to the workshop where the hallmarks were cut away and put up under the much heavier ewer. The ewer was branded a 'Duty Dodger' and new hallmarks for the year 1944 – 45 were put on to make it legal for sale.

G is for Gratitude

Snuffbox, about 1768, Berlin, Germany. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.346-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The year is 1762. You're a well-respected English doctor and politician, recognised in London society and the medical community for your success in developing inoculations against smallpox – a highly contagious disease which can cause blindness and is often deadly. Your reputation reaches the ears of the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, and she invites you to her Imperial Court to personally inoculate her, her son the Grand-Duke Paul, and 140 prominent members of the Russian court.

This is what happened to Thomas Dimsdale, when in 1768 he travelled to St Petersburg with his son, Nathaniel, to treat the Empress and her entourage. The potentially dangerous process proved to be a success for all of Dr Dimsdale's Russian patients.

So, how did Empress Catherine and Grand-Duke Paul express their gratitude? Dimsdale received works of art, the princely sum of £10,000 (and more in annuities), and a Barony of the Russian Empire. Nathaniel did not go home empty handed either – they gave him this beautiful gold snuff box, encrusted with diamonds.

Upmarket, jewelled gold boxes came into fashion in the early 18th century. A supreme luxury, they were exquisitely crafted by master goldsmiths across European cities using precious and exotic materials, from varicoloured gold to ivory, mother of pearl, diamonds and hardstones. Most gold boxes were functional: many were designed to contain snuff, a powdered tobacco that was snorted up fashionable noses in salons, courts and aristocratic circles across Europe.

H is for Hound

Door stop, designed by John Bell, made by Stuart and Smith, about 1848, Sheffield, England. Museum no. M.6-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is no Fluffy, the three-headed dog prone to falling asleep to the sound of music in Harry Potter & the Philosopher's Stone. This is the fearsome Cerberus, cast in iron for use as a doorstop.

Cerberus was a creature in Greek and Roman mythology who guarded the gates to the underworld. The three heads of this particular Cerberus are of a bulldog, a bloodhound and a deerhound, breeds favoured as both hunting and guard dogs throughout the Victorian period. Cerberus is often depicted wandering the banks of the River Styx, preventing the dead from leaving the underworld, a habit alluded to in the inscription on the brass banner: 'Welcome to come but not to go'. You'd think twice before entering.

The doorstop was designed by John Bell (1811 – 95), a British sculptor and close friend of Sir Henry Cole, the founding Director of the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). Bell is one of the very few artists to have embraced the use of cast iron for his sculptures exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

I is for Illusion

The Dolphin Basin, by Christiaen van Vianen, 1635, London, England. Museum no. M.1-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If you search our collections database for 'dolphin' well over a hundred items from the metalwork collection will appear. Dolphins decorate corkscrews, firebacks, snuffboxes, and chandeliers, often as symbols of faith, stability or playfulness. Perhaps the most well known are those on this basin made in 1635 by Christian van Vianen who worked for Charles I and Charles II. Charles I displayed this piece in his own private cabinet.

The Dolphin Basin is an astonishing piece of silversmithing. It has been raised, or hammered, from a single sheet of silver and creates an illusion of movement, especially when performing its original purpose of catching water poured from a jug for washing hands. The dolphin in the centre pounces on a fish, while the two dolphins that form the sides of the basin join together to create a grotesque mask from whose mouth the water appears to gush in a torrent. This was 17th-century CGI: water flowing into this dish under soft light brings the whole scene alive.

In 2013, the V&A commissioned the silversmith, Miriam Hanid, to commemorate the Dolphin Basin by creating a companion piece called Union Centrepiece, inspired by the watery brilliance of Van Vianen's work.

J is for Journey

Astronomical compendium, by Christopher Schissler, 1561, Augsburg, southern Germany. Museum no. M.165A-B-1938. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London M.165 to E-1938

If ever you fancy taking a journey across northern Europe during the 16th century, you may need one of these. This astronomical compendium is the navigator's friend. Its map includes Amsterdam, Brussels, Lucerne and Krakow, with a dial for assessing distances enroute. Its sundial has a table of latitudes for the places on the map, and its quadrant measures angles and heights. Its astrolabe plots the positions of the stars, while a set of tables gives the phases of the moon according to age.

So with a crash course in mathematics, astronomy, astrology and geography, you could use the various dials, tables and maps to plan journeys, predict the time of sunset in many towns in Europe, make astrological forecasts, measure the heights of stars, and configure the positioning of the stars for any time in the past, present, or future.

The astronomical compendium was the 16th-century satnav. This one was made in 1561 by one of the most celebrated scientific instrument makers of the time, Christopher Schissler of Augsburg. He supplied precision instruments of exquisite quality to an international clientele. In 1571 Schissler travelled all the way to Dresden to show August I, the Elector of Saxony, his latest scientific gadgets. The best advertisement for them would have been for him to arrive on time.

K is for Keepsake

Cup, 1690 – 1700, Spania Dolina (formerly Herrengrund), Slovakia, Museum no. 796-1891. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

On this little souvenir cup, made in about 1690, sits a tiny miner hammering away at a cluster of iron pyrites. He is working the iron from a famous mine at Herrengrund (now Spania Dolina), high up in the mountains of Slovakia.

A natural alchemy performed at the mine attracted tourists from all over Europe. The water near the mine has such a high copper content that when iron slabs are placed in hollows over which the water flows, copper deposits itself onto the iron, and gradually dissolves it. This metallurgical miracle is described on the gilded rim of the cup: 'I come from iron but the power of the water has turned me into copper in a mine in Herrengrund'.

It is sometimes easy to assume tourist souvenirs were a 20th-century invention. Not so. From the late 17th century, tourism drew travellers, archaeologists, artists, inventors and chemists to sites of interest all over Europe. For industrialists and metallurgists (those who study metal and its uses), visits to mines and factories offered the chance to compare notes and steal secrets as they sought to unlock the scientific mysteries of metalworking.

This mining memento may well be a working souvenir. The inside of the bowl is plain and the miner in the middle prevents it being used for drinking. Scooping the cup into the water at the mine may have encouraged copper to deposit onto the iron being worked by the miner.

L is for Laugh (or not)

Sealing wax case, made by Thomas Madin or Maden, 1656, Sheffield, England. Museum no. M.149-1922. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Sealing wax box, made by Thomas Madin or Maden, 1656, Sheffield, England. Museum no. M.149-1922. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As jokes do not always travel well from one generation to another how much would one tickle us from the 17th century? This brass case, dated 1656, contained wax for sealing important documents. Pricked on the side is a pun that throws up a smokescreen about its maker's identity and gender: 'I was in Sheffeild made & many can Wittnes: I was not made by any man'. The most likely maker was a man called Thomas Madin or Maden which sounds a bit like Maiden. Maybe you had to be there...

Take a closer look however and perhaps Madin's reticence was understandable. All the surviving sealing wax cases that Madin made in brass were made in the 1650s. This was during the Commonwealth when the crown had been overthrown and Royalists were at risk. Some of Madin's boxes, like this one, have hinges formed as very subtle crowned portraits of Charles I, suggesting he may have been supplying them to Royalist sympathisers.

M is for Modern

Anglepoise lamp 1227, designed by George Carwardine, manufactured by Herbert Terry & Sons, 1938, Redditch, England. Museum no. M.23-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ever felt like you are being watched? The Anglepoise Lamp was inspired by the muscles of the human body and can be easily flexed and contorted into a whole range of positions to peer over your desk and better light your work.

The Anglepoise Lamp on a desk shouts 'modern office!', so it is perhaps surprising to learn that it was invented in the 1930s. It has become an icon of 20th-century design and variations are still in production today. It was designed by George Carwardine, an automotive engineer whose business, Cardine Accessories, produced suspension systems and moderators for cars. He was fascinated by spring-based mechanisms which allowed weighted objects to be moved freely into any position whilst remaining balanced. So, in 1932, when working on new mechanism for a car, he spotted the potential it could have for lighting design.

This lamp is the new and improved 'model 1227' launched in 1935 for use in the home and office. Advertisements demonstrated its aptitude for a variety of tasks and touted the lamp's ability to decrease eye fatigue due to its focused illumination and low-wattage bulb. The basic design has continued to evolve over time but the spring mechanism became the company's blueprint. The lamp is a good example of commercial product design, a key aspect of our Metalwork collections.

The Anglepoise Lamp is a loyal and constant desk companion. Long after your colleagues have switched the office lights out and gone home, on a lone desk the Anglepoise breaks the gloom, leaning forward and watching over you. Just you, your desk and the lamp, beautifully lighting a project whose deadline has long-since passed.

N is for Novelty

Fork, by Richard Crosse, 1632 – 33, London. Museum no. M.358-1923. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Imagine being laughed at for using a fork at the dinner table. Such was the lot of Thomas Coryate, a slightly eccentric English travel writer. His 1611 book Crudities records his astonishment at how Italians used a little fork for eating meat, a practice almost unknown in England to that point. Most forks in Italy, he said, were made of iron or steel but occasionally silver "for a Gentleman". Forks stopped fingers coming into contact with food which, "transgressed the lawes of good manners".

So Coryate, on his return home, demonstrated his own new fork with his own new Italian manners, and was dismayed at the "merry humour" it generated in his good friend, Laurence Whitaker, who guffawed in astonishment and called him 'furcifer' (a rascal).

Of all the items in the V&A's vast cutlery collection, this fork from only 20 years after the visionary, ahead-of-his-time Coryate made a fool of himself, remains a novelty. Dating from 1632 – 33, it is the oldest hallmarked English silver fork to survive.

O is for Ouch!

Surgical saw, about 1665, northern Italy (possibly Brescia), handle possibly Indian. Museum no. 1393-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It is hard to imagine ever being pleased to see this nasty instrument heading your way, but if you should find yourself lying on an operating table in the 1660s, feeling a little woozy from the ale or wine with which you have tried to shield yourself from the next five minutes of your life, it may console you to know your surgeon is using only the finest, most expensive equipment. The cut steelwork of northern Italy, especially around Brescia and Milan, was of exceptional quality.

Hard-wearing tools, guns, caskets and cutlery that were both functional and beautiful were often chiselled into elaborate shapes with high-relief ornament (decoration that is raised out of the background). The back of this amputation saw is decorated with tightly bound leaves and flowers and the tip terminates in a comically snarling dog's head. The ebony handle has ivory and amber inlays that form the head of an animal with its tongue poking out. You might have to hope that you are as blissfully unaware as the surgeon that bacteria will be forming in the recesses of all these ornamental flourishes. Surgeons rarely washed their saw blades as water may have made them rust.

The surgeon that owned this terrifying saw most likely served a high-ranking aristocratic or military clientele, and this may have been part of a matching boxed set containing all his tools of the trade.

You can uncurl your toes now.

P is for Prison

'Trenckbecher', beaker and lid, made by Ernst Jakob Kopcke, engraved by Friedrich Baron von der Trenck, October 1763, Magdeburg, Germany. Museum no. M.148-1930. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

'Love Unites Us', claimed one of the 18th century's most infamous mercenary soldiers, Friederich, Baron von der Trenck (1726 – 94) who used the motto among dozens of scenes and captions he engraved all over this pewter beaker.

Sadly for the romantic Baron, Frederick the Great of Prussia did not share his view, especially given the rumour that the Baron had attempted to share his love with the King's sister, Princess Amalie. Baron Trenck found himself locked up, first in a prison in Glatz (was in Prussia, now Poland) and later in Fort Etoile in Magdeburg, Germany, denounced by Frederick as a spy.

This was one of several beakers that Trenck engraved while in prison in Magdeburg. We know this because he tells us in his autobiography, The Life and Surprising Adventures of Frederick Baron Trenck (1784). His was a topsy-turvy life of soldiery, imprisonment, escape, refuge, falls from grace, comebacks, celebrity, infamy and beaker-engraving all told with enthusiastic self-pity. "The daylight I enjoyed induced me to amuse myself by engraving satires and little drawings with the point of my nail on the tin cup out of which I drank: and I soon brought this art to so much perfection that my first attempt, though imperfect, was carried to the city". Trenck made repeated attempts to escape and was eventually chained to the wall of his cell – an incident recorded on this beaker.

During the 1780s, Trenck retired to his estates in Hungary, but was back in Paris in time for the Revolution, perhaps working as an Austrian 'observer'. Once again, he was imprisoned as a spy and this time he was sent to the guillotine. And there was no coming back from that.

Q is for Queasy

Antimonial cup with case and box, 1700 – 20, England. Museum no. 1370-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1634, Welsh clergyman and astrologer, John Evans, published a pamphlet extolling his new medicinal wonder, the 'Antimonial Cup', claiming its use would, "disperseth the Dropsie; cureth the Jaundise; procureth cheerfulnesse and gladnesse of the heart", among a long list of 17th-century miracle cures. Antimony is a toxic metal that is as potent as arsenic and lead. In The Universal Medicine: or The Vertues of the Antimoniall Cup, Evans advised that drinking a measure of wine that had been kept warm overnight in one of his antimony cups would, within hours, induce vomiting and diarrhoea, thus purging the body of the bad 'humours' that were thought to cause disease.

This was controversial stuff. Dr James Penrose wrote a furious response called The Antimoniall Cup Twice Cast in which he claimed Evans' main aim was to sell the cups that he was making in his shop in Fetter Lane in London. To use these cups to "perswade unto vomit, the most dangerous and difficult evacuation of all other" was like putting "a sword in the hand of a mad-man. I cannot but wonder at the adventurous rashness of some men, yea and women, who being unread in the rules of Physicke … dare nevertheless vexe and torment such a noble subject as Man's body".

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, even had Evans' pamphlet burned in the street, while a meeting of the Royal College of Physicians on 3rd April 1637 admonished Evans for his recklessness and cited two of his customers who died after using his products: "Sir Nathanial Kitch died of a vomit made by the antimoniall, the last summer. … The Lady Ayme Blunt died of the same medicine in Charter-house yard the same summer". Nevertheless, antimony pills, drops and powders were among over a hundred antimony-based remedies commonly used in Britain to purge the body until well into the 19th century.

The V&A's antimony cup has two protective cases to prevent accidental handling. These cups are extremely rare: only six are known to survive in Britain and all are in museums.

R is for Re-use

The Castlereagh Inkstand, supplied by Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, 1817 – 19, London, England. Museum no. M.8-2003. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gold is beautiful. Cultures across the world throughout history have used gold to express power, riches, devotion, diplomacy and achievement. Gold is the only metal that retains its value even in raw form – a trait that often consigns it to the melting pot.

On 6 March 1817, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, deposited 21 gold boxes at the workshop of the royal goldsmiths, Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, so that they could be melted down and re-formed as this magnificent commemorative inkstand. The inkstand has an inkpot, a pounce pot (for powder used to dry and smooth paper), a socket for a candle or taper and a tray for quills, all set upon an elaborate stand decorated with acanthus leaves, roses, grapes and palms.

As Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh had been instrumental in negotiating alliances and treaties that led to the defeat of Napoleon and the reconstruction of Europe. The arms engraved on top of the inkstand are those of the four great European powers in 1815: Austria, Prussia, Russia and restored Bourbon France. On the sides are the arms of Bavaria, Portugal, Saxony, Sardinia, Hanover, Sweden, Württemberg, Naples, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands. The sovereigns of each state had presented a diamond-encrusted gold box to Castlereagh. The gold was used for his inkstand and the diamonds were re-used to decorate his new Garter sword, also made by Rundells. Some of the diamonds were later used again for jewellery. The inkstand was completed in 1819 at a cost of £1135.9s (about £65,000 today), with a further £15.12s (about £896 today) for the engraved arms. The boxes yielded diamonds worth £2020 (about £116,000 today).

S is for Surprise

Puffed Up Vase 1&2, flask, by Kim Buck, 2016, Copenhagen, Denmark. Museum no. M.5-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Question: What happens when you give this vase a squeeze?

Answer: Nothing.

The Danish artist, Kim Buck, loves to play with our expectations of objects, creating small sculptural works and jewellery that appear to be inflated and made from soft fabrics. This vase is one of a set (Puffed Up Vases 1&2) that are made from panels of silver that are soldered together, their seams dimpled to look like stitching, and the vases carefully pinched and dented to suggest they are not quite fully inflated. It takes exceptional skill to be able to make metals fool the eye like this. It is always tempting to give this vase a squeeze but we try not to.

T is for Time Capsule

Time Capsule, finger ring and hagstone, designed and made by Ruth Tomlinson, 2021, London, England. Museum no. M.3-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The high tidal range and twisting, narrow course of the River Thames in London cause its riverbed to be in daily turmoil. Couple this with the fact that, for centuries, the river has been used as a dumping ground by Londoners as it has wound its way east through the city and its old docklands, and you have one of the world's longest and most productive archaeological sites. The Thames shore is paradise for 'mudlarks' as the detritus of hundreds of years of history washes in and out each day.

The term 'mudlark' was first coined during the 19th century for people who sold items of value they found on the riverbed at low tide. This was no casual hobby as both adults and children waded for as long as the tide would allow through shifting mud and raw sewage trying to eke out a living. Today mudlarking has become so popular that a law introduced in 2016 requires you to buy a licence. Finds over 300 years old must be declared to the Portable Antiquities Scheme run by the British Museum.

One modern-day mudlark is the jewellery designer and maker, Ruth Tomlinson, who created this Time Capsule from pieces she salvaged from the foreshore when she became fascinated by mudlarking during the COVID-19 lockdown. The ring is set with tiny beads, possibly from the Roman period, a piece of polished shell, possibly an offcut from the button trade, a sharp shard of glass and the spiralling shell of a tiny water snail, and is tied to a flint 'hagstone' weight.

Time Capsule is one of four unique rings, each incorporating different found objects in a series Tomlinson called OffeRings. She threw three of them into the Thames, perhaps for future mudlarks to find. Time Capsule is preserved as a material reference for all of them.

U is for Upcycling

Devil's Trumpet, designed and made by Ann Carrington, 2016, Margate, England. Museum no. M.18-2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When an artist offers you a bouquet of flowers it is always worth checking the small print. This stunning cornucopia is 68 centimetres high and weighs 49 kilograms. It is definitely more metal than petal and takes three of our technicians to lift it.

Devil's Trumpet was inspired by memento-mori in 17th century Dutch still-life paintings. Memento-mori reminded viewers of the temporary nature of life and often took the form of wilting flowers or precious objects left behind after death. In this bouquet, however, the flowers are in full bloom and will remain so forever. Look closely and you might see how new life has been breathed into old metals: the bouquet has been assembled with extraordinary imagination and skill from dozens of old pieces of cutlery.

V is for Vigilant

Detector lock, made by John Wilkes, about 1670 – 1700, Birmingham, England. Museum no. M.109-1926. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Over 350 years before cameras monitored doorbells and sent images straight to your phone, the owner of this lock was able to keep a close eye on the comings and goings inside their house. This 'detector lock', made in Birmingham between 1670 and 1700, would have been fitted to the door of a private closet or a room where valuables were kept. The lock's ingenious mechanism counted how many times the door had been unlocked, its activities confided to its owner by the figure of a soldier pointing his pike towards a numbered dial which rotated with each entry.

The soldier made an effective guard for the door even if in miniature. He warned intruders not to touch with an ominous poem inscribed in a speech bubble:

If I had ye gift of tongue

I would declare and do no wrong

Who ye are ye come by stealth

To impare my Master's wealth.

He secured the lock quickly if you cocked his hat and he only released the catch if you cocked his hat again and turned the handle at the same time. He revealed the keyhole only if you pressed the button beneath his left foot, which he then kicked forwards towards the dial. When the dial reached 100, a tiny button on his chest reset it to zero.

John Wilkes was a brilliant locksmith whose fame was international. Watch his detector lock in action.

W is for Winner

The Doncaster Cup, designed by Henry Hugh Armstead, made by Charles Frederick Hancock, 1857 – 58, London, England. Museum no. M.65-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A dramatic late burst landed 3-year-old thoroughbred horse, Vedette, this beautiful cup in the Fitzwilliam Stakes at Doncaster, on Tuesday 15 September 1857. According to The Era newspaper, he was challenged to the line by Black Tommy and a "most splendid struggle ensued between the pair" before Vedette held on to win by a neck. Despite the excitement of the race, newspapers devoted more column-inches to the cup. The Illustrated London News described it as a, "superb work of art" in which "the artist ... returns to the 'Cup' in its most classic form, but with finely modelled figures prominent in its ornamentation. … the Doncaster cup of this year ... illustrates the ... story of Meleager's Atalanta, from the Metamorphoses of Ovid ... The poet's story is here exquisitely told in oxydised and burnished silver". The cup is 64 centimetres high and has a separate ebony stand with Vedette's name on it. Vedette won the race again the following year.

The 19th century was the great age of trophy production. Trophies saw the coming together of silversmiths and sculptors to create spectacular and complex arrangements drawing on ancient mythology or local legend to appeal to the learned and discerning connoisseur. Their designs often had little to do with the sports they rewarded. These monumental creations did not please everyone. In 1867 the critic, H. Friswell, complained in The Art Journal that, "It is time we had more variety and more utility introduced into these large and generally useless masses of silver, which are now simply memorials of the triumph of a particular racehorse".

Not so with this cup, surely. It is an astonishing demonstration of different silversmithing techniques and surface finishes. Its designer, Hugh Henry Armstead, was one of the first graduates of the new Government Schools of Design that, prior to the Great Exhibition, had set out to improve the design of Britain's manufacturing products.

X is for X marks the spot

The Ramsey Abbey censer and incense boat, 1325 – 75, England. Museum nos. M.268-269-1923. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When we think of buried treasure it is usually gold and silver that come to mind. In the V&A are two beautiful pieces of medieval silver that emerged when Whittlesea Mere in Huntingdonshire (now part of Cambridgeshire) was drained for conversion to farmland in 1850. This censer, for swinging to release incense smoke during religious ceremonies, dates from the mid-14th century and was designed to look like a cathedral chapter house. With it was discovered a silver incense boat of the same age. They may have been lost by accident, but it is also possible they were buried during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century: both were discovered only eight miles from Ramsay Abbey. As almost all English medieval church silver was melted down during the Reformation, these are exceptionally rare survivals.

Whittlesea Mere proved fertile ground for discoveries of treasure during the mid-19th century. In the same area a few years earlier, a 13th-century sword of exceptional quality was also found.

Y is for Yum

Cake slice, made by Stuart Devlin, 2002, London, England. Museum no. M. 47-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If you have made it all the way to 'Y' then you deserve a slice of cake.

In 2005, a retired Professor of Chemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle, Benton Seymour Rabinovitch, donated an extraordinary collection of silver serving slices to the Museum. As a keen silversmith himself, he had commissioned them over a 20-year period directly from silversmiths whose work he wanted to support.

Asking each to produce something as familiar as a serving slice enabled him to build a collection expressing a vast range of creative responses to the same simple brief. The collection is therefore a wonderful snapshot of the state of contemporary silversmithing during the last two decades of the 20th century. It includes gold, silver and enamels with a wide range of textures and finishes and includes this appetising looking slice by the Australian silversmith, Stuart Devlin.

The vast majority are slices for serving fish. Some have watery themes in their decoration, some have scaly fish tails for handles while others depict monstrous fish heads with sharp teeth. But we thought you'd prefer cake.

Z is for Zoo

Sepia toned photograph of elephant with seat for carrying people on its back
Jumbo the elephant at London Zoo, photograph from the Elkington Business Archive, by A.A. Willms, about 1865, London, England. V&A Archive of Art and Design. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We finish with a trip to London Zoo in the company of Auguste Adolphe Willms, Head of the High Art Department of the metalworking giants, Elkington & Co. of Birmingham. Willms was a keen photographer and visited the zoo sometime in 1865 or soon after, recording his day in an album. We know this because one animal he photographed and annotated with three joyous exclamation marks was Jumbo, the legendary but tragic elephant who had just been acquired by the zoo from the Garden des Plantes in Paris. Jumbo is shown with a howdah (carriage) on his back for taking visitors on rides. Zoos are quite different places now.

Sepia toned photograph of a crane
Crane at London Zoo, photograph from the Elkington Business Archive, by A.A. Willms, about 1865, London, England. V&A Archive of Art and Design. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Willms's album also includes annotations for his young son Arnold who went on to become a painter himself. These, however, were not family or tourist snaps. During the 19th century, public zoos added a whole new library of source material for designers interested in depicting animals and birdlife from around the world on their products. Artists were no longer reliant on imagining poses drawn from dead specimens or second-hand depictions of animals drawn with varying degrees of accuracy from nature. The only problem was that no matter how confined they are, animals move about. Photography, first developed in the 1840s, enabled specimens to be captured in action.

Vase, Elkington & Co., 1876, Birmingham, England. Museum no. 62-1877. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The photograph album includes three pages of birds, including cranes, storks, pelicans and cassowary. Many of the animals captured in the album, including Jumbo, provided inspiration for Elkington's artworks in silver, gold, electroplate and bronze over the next 30 years. The cranes may have been the source for those depicted in enamel on this electroformed vase bought by the museum in 1876 after it was shown at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

The album forms part of the Elkington Business Archive that is held by the V&A and is stored with 26 drawing and pattern books from the company dating from the 1840s to the 1920s.

Header image:
The Dolphin Basin, silver basin, by Christiaen van Vianen, 1635, London, England. Museum no. M.1-1918. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London