Serving up: silver slices

Rummage hard enough through your kitchen drawers and you might find a metal server for slicing and serving fish, cakes, pies and puddings. Today slices are often reserved for special occasions, but they were once the height of fashion, specially designed for specific foods – from 'knight slices' for serving fish, to 'pudding trowels'.

In the 18th century, dining was an elaborate affair. Hundreds of utensils were developed for eating, each carefully designed with form and aesthetics in mind, and intended for a specific use or food. The 'pudding trowel' was designed to serve sweet treats, and consisted of a triangular blade that was typically pierced and sawn to a variety of designs. This device was soon also used to serve fish, as the decorative openwork allowed the juices to drain through, making serving much easier. The first 'knight slices', intended solely for serving fish, were recorded in 1730. As serving fish at the dining table became increasingly fashionable, silversmiths decorated the utensils with marine themes. Silver was preferred over copper or tinned iron as it did not affect the fish's delicate flavour.

(Left to right:) Pudding trowel, by Richard Meach, 1774 – 75, England. Museum no.M.306-1962. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Fish slice, by William and Samuel Knight, 1814 – 15, England. Museum no. M.31-1957. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A has an extraordinary collection of slices compiled by the late Benton Seymour Rabinovitch (1919 – 2014), a chemistry professor and silversmith who was fascinated by antique silver cutlery, particularly silver servers and slices. This fascination lead him to an unusual commissioning project. From the 1980s to the mid-2000s, he challenged 99 contemporary silversmiths, based in Britain and North America, to create their own take on a server, fish or cake slice. His only stipulation was that the slice must be a "broad-bladed serving piece", predominantly made of silver, and of a certain weight. Otherwise, the silversmiths had free rein to design their own take on a serving slice. The resulting collection is remarkably diverse and presents a vivid snapshot of contemporary silversmithing of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Rabinovitch's unwavering focus on a singular utensil provides an extensive and fascinating survey of modern artistic responses to the same brief.

Explore highlights of the collection in our slideshow:

Serving up: silver slices

All objects were given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Professor B. Seymour Rabinovitch.

See the entire collection in Explore the Collections.

Header image: Fish slice, cast, pierced and chased silver, by Robert Butler, 1994, United States. Museum no. M.89-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London