From Majesty to Mass-production: Silver Lions on Show

This blog is published as part of the V&A Performance Festival, which ran from 21st – 30th April 2017.

It has been adapted from a talk given by Assistant Curator Hanne Faurby as part of the series of talks: ‘Performing Objects’

Location: The Whiteley Galleries, gallery 89

Elkington & Co. electrotypes of the three Rosenborg Lions

Elkington & Co. electrotypes of the three Rosenborg Lions, [museum nos. REPRO.1885-193 to 195] Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum

On entering the silver galleries you will meet a group of three majestic life-sized silver-plated lions. In the gallery they take on a playful appearance far removed from their original context. They are electrotypes of three 17th century silver lions at Rosenborg Castle, Denmark.

The Rosenborg lions were commissioned by the Danish King Frederik III (1609-1970) and executed by silversmith Ferdinand Kübich between 1665-70. Made out of 130 kg of silver with gilt eyes, manes and tufts their arrangement in the Coronation Hall at Rosenborg sees them prowling around the throne.

Coronation Hall, Rosenborg Castle, Denmark

Photograph depicting the Royal Coronation Hall in the Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen, Denmark, 19th century, [museum no. PH.2216-1897] Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum

The synergy between lions and throne draws upon references to the justice and righteousness of Old Testament King Solomon whose throne was said to have been guarded by twelve lions. Further, the three lions may also reference the three Danish Straits: the Great Belt, the Little Belt and the Sound, that connect the seas east and west of the country.

The lions’ performative nature served the staging of sovereignty, injecting reverence and presence of majesty in those in audience with the King. Until the 19th century they played a similar role in coronation ceremonies. Today, they continue to be used for ‘castrum doloris’  – guarding a deceased monarch’s casket as he or she lies in state.

The unique and impressive design of the Rosenborg lions attracted interest at the V&A where electrotypes served as educational examples for otherwise inaccessible pieces of decorative art and design. Especially made for the V&A around 1885 by the Birmingham manufacturers Elkington & Co., at the cost of £100 each, they are the only existing reproductions. They were reproduced in silver plated copper, together with nearly 60 other objects held in various Danish collections.

For over half a century (1852-1920s) Elkington produced thousands of electrotypes for the V&A of both contemporary and historic objects which were lent or sold to art schools, museums and other civic institutions to act as design models for students.

Albumen print of Elkington & Co. exhibition stand at the Paris Universal Exhibition, 1855

Bronzes by Messrs Elkington at the Paris Universal Exhibition, albumen print by Robert J. Bingham, 1855, [museum no. 33315] Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum

By the 1840s, the technology of electroplating and electroforming had been refined and developed commercially by Elkington who protected their scientific discoveries zealously. The process started by taking moulds of the object to be reproduced in wax, plaster, or by the 1840s, a malleable material called ‘gutta percha’  (a tree sap) which was especially susceptible to pick up fine and intricate surface decoration. The moulds were coated with powdered graphite, then suspended into a vat with a chemical solution of copper or other metal. An electric current was conducted through the vat attracting the metal to the moulds forming solid electrotype impressions of the various parts. The impressions were cut and assembled and then, using the same method electroplated with silver or gold.

Elkington & Co. electrotype of Rosenborg Castle Lion

Elkington & Co. electrotype of Rosenborg Lion, [Museum no. REPRO.1885-194] Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum

Whereas the Rosenborg lions partook in the performance of majesty, the incentive to make and display the V&A electrotype lions came from a very different quarter. Their continued role was to document advancements in production techniques, ideals of accessibility and education of good design and skilled craftsmanship – a perfect combination of Art, Science and Industry.

To learn more about electrotypes, take a look at: A Unique Replica: The Wimbledon Ladies Singles Trophy