By Mrs. Arthur Bell
Connected with old plate, almost invariably, are many interesting associations, and owners of such of these unique relics as escaped the melting-pot, which, in times of national stress, claimed many priceless heirlooms, naturally are anxious to learn all that is possible concerning them, their date, and maker.
This task has been simplified greatly, owing to the patient research work of many experts, pre-eminent among whom stands out the late Wilfrid Cripps.* It has also been simplified, owing to the fact that unbroken records have been kept by the London Gold and Silversmiths' Guild, and by the admirable series of reproductions of characteristic examples of British plate, from Saxon to modern times, which has been arranged chronologically in the Albert and Victoria Museum, at South Kensington.†
Old English silver candlestick bearing London hall-mark for 1759-60
Fully to master this subject is an occupation which requires much leisure and much study. The object of this article, therefore, is to enable the reader to distinguish the work of one maker from that of another.
In this connection it is unnecessary to do more than refer to the few Saxon, Norman, and early Gothic relics which still survive. These include such things as the tenth century Ardagh cup; the eleventh century cover of an ancient bell, which is said to have belonged to St. Patrick; the thirteenth century coffer, which is one of the greatest treasures of the Victoria and Albert Museum; and the fragment of a silver - gilt drinking cup in All Souls' College, Oxford.
To the or-dinary collector, and for all practical purposes, however, the history of English plate begins with the foundation of the Goldsmiths' Guild of London. This guild was incorporated in 1327 by letters patent from Edward III., under the name of "The Wardens and Commonalty of the Mystery of Goldsmiths of the City of London," and the charter regulated the sale of gold and silver work, secured the election of honest and skilled craftsmen to rule the trade and to punish offenders against its laws. Moreover, it provided that carefully selected representatives of county towns should be periodically sent to the capital, "to be ascertained of their touch of gold.
Old English silver candlestick tearing London hall-mark for 1762-3
* "Old English Plate," by W. J. Cripps, is now out of print, but an excellent condensed edition, with supplementary information, by Mr. Percy Macquoid. was published by John Murray in 1908, under the title of "The Plate-collectors' Guide."
† The large catalogue of the gold and silver work in the Museum gives the fullest particulars concerning the reproductions, hall-marking, and the standards for gold and silver, whilst the small illustrated "Handbook on College and Corporation Plate," by W. J. Cripps, now out of print, brings out very clearly the various stages through which the art of the gold and silversmiths passed in the British Isles.
This leopard's head is the first mark referred to in any law concerning the goldsmiths' craft in England, and it is generally supposed to have been a modification of the head of a lion passant, guardant - i.e., the front face of a lion.
The earliest examples of the mark show the representation to have been the head of a lion, full-faced, bearded, maned, and wearing a crown. These characteristics it retained until the second half of the sixteenth century. Then it was treated more picturesquely; the mane was made longer, and the lines of the features were cut more deeply.
Acts of Parliament have from time to time confirmed and added to the powers granted to the guild, and many new rules were laid down concerning the manufacture of gold and silver plate.*
In the middle of the fourteenth century an order was issued declaring that only sterling silver should be worked by smiths, and that, in addition to the head described above, everything made or sold by them should bear some distinctive mark by which the maker could be identified. These workers' or makers' marks, first came into use in 1363, and were in most cases emblems, such as a ball or a bird. At that time but few people could read, hence the initial letters which later came into use would have been intelligible to the educated alone.
Unfortun-a t ely, a 1-though the name's of several great London goldsmiths of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are known, only about twenty examples exist of English work of an earlier date than 1500, . and of these scarcely any bear a distinctive mark.
Noteworthy examples of such work are the Gothic pastoral staff of William of drastic iconoclasm of the Puritans, there remain a considerable number of fine examples of Tudor work.