Making Silver Sculpture for the Victorian Home

The V&A has the largest collection of metal casting models for silver sculpture in the world. Over the last year these models have been giving up their secrets to staff researching their manufacture and design.

Staff examining metal patterns for 'High Life'

Staff examining metal patterns for “High Life”, originally modelled by Louis Victor Fréret in c.1860. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There has never been a better time to think about Victorian silver sculpture. In 2014 there will be an international exhibition of Victorian sculpture at the Yale Centre for British Art in the U.S. which then travels to Tate Britain, London.  As well as marble exhibition pieces, it will feature sculpture for the home in materials such as ceramics and silver.

Drawer in Edward Barnard and Sons pattern room

Drawer in the Edward Barnard and Sons “pattern room” photographed in May 2006 showing “Figures Old”. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Drawer in AAD collection showing casting patterns

Drawer in the Archive of Art and Design collection (AAD/2009/8/711) showing casting patterns for tray, salver and waiter borders. Edward Barnard and Sons. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The 10,000 or so figurative metal casting models or patterns are held within a larger collection of about 30,000 smaller items like borders for trays, teapot spouts and tureen handles. The sculptures were made as part of the casting process of figures and animal models for grand table centrepieces, dessert stands and cups to celebrate sporting glory and mark outstanding public service or military prowess.

Photograph of centrepiece

Photograph of centrepiece c. 1861, ordered by the Royal Marines Mess, Plymouth in March 1861, Edward Barnard and Sons. Archive of Art and Design, AAD/2009/8/53. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The earliest date from the 1830s although the majority of the Victorian sculptural figures were probably made between 1840 and 1870. Some can be dated more precisely through the dates written in ink on the metal surfaces. Occasionally the designer, the presentation or the symbolism of the figure (for example Civic dignity, Liberty or Justice) is named.

Metal casting patterns for 'Poetry'

Metal casting patterns, back and front, for “Poetry” designed by Charles Grant for the testimonial presentation to Justice Talfourd in 1850 but marked in ink “Talfourds presentation used 1862-3.” suggesting reuse of the model over ten years later. Edward Barnard and Sons. Archive of Art and Design, AAD/2009/8/295. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Not only were these patterns a library of design for the silversmith but they allowed the silver to be made more quickly, easily and cheaply as the basic model types already existed and did not need to be remodelled.

By attaching different arms, legs, heads or attributes ( such as scales for figures of Justice ) older figures were recycled to create new models. A figure of “Erin” (symbolic of Ireland) was made by changing an existing metal figure of Hope, and adding a harp.

In addition, the patterns reveal the range of sizes available for the most popular animals or figures.

Making and using metal patterns.

Wax and plaster models

Wax and plaster models of figures and candlestick stem and nozzle, Wakely and Wheeler, 1860-1930. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The silver sculptures were sand cast, a technique once widely used in the silversmith’s trade.

A drawing was made by the firm’s artist or a design was supplied by the customer. The drawing was then worked up in wax or clay or more rarely wood perhaps by a skilled modeller. A plaster cast of several parts keyed together was made around the wax model. From this plaster a solid or part metal pattern could be made.

Metal casting patterns of two female figures

Metal casting patterns of three figures with casting spigots, Wakely and Wheeler, c. 1860-1930. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The metal pattern was impressed into the sand in a sand box leaving the mould into which the silver could be poured once the metal pattern was removed. Most of the metal patterns in the archive are made of pot metal; a mixture of metals available in the workshop on that day. As the patterns vary in the quantity of metals which were used, such as copper, tin, lead or zinc, they can have a wide range of appearance from orangey copper to a yellow or even white.

Classical sources inspired the earliest models. Dancing figures became caryatids and held up dessert stand baskets while chubby Cherubs played with domestic or wild animals.  Marble originals were blatantly copied. John Flaxman’s monument to Lord Mansfield in Westminster Abbey (c.1795-1801) provided designer and modeller E.G. Papworth with his figures of Justice and Law on a silver presentation piece for Justice Talfourd in 1850.

Metal casting patterns for 'High Life'

Metal casting patterns for “High Life”, back and front of male and female figures by French designer, Louis Victor Fréret, c.1860-65. Edward Barnard and Sons. Archive of Art and Design, AAD/2009/8/636. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Photograph of models of 'high life' figures

Photograph of models of “high life” figures in use on a silver centrepiece made in c.1865-69. The models, a 19th century re-interpretation of Rococo design, were also used for novelty silver salts. Archive of Art and Design, AAD/2009/8/53. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some of the figures have remained popular for over 100 years. The figures of high life and low life, originally modelled by the French designer Louis Victor Freret in 1860-65, were recast by Edward Barnard and Sons in the 1970s and for Garrards in the 1990s.

Why don’t more of these metal models for silver sculpture survive?  Business papers and paper designs have been more highly valued historically and so preserved. The metal patterns, perceived as working tools with a melt down value, were disposed of, to recover costs for the business.

The Archive of Art and Design’s collection of sculptural models form an important part of the Edward Barnard and Padgett and Braham archives and had been valued as a library of design by the Victorian silversmiths and their descendants. They are a unique survival of technique, design and artistry in the silversmithing trade.