This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
A WELL-APPOINTED dinner-table is one of the triumphs of an English housewife's domestic care. That the cloth shall be of fine and snow-white damask; that the decanters and wine-glasses shall be delicate in form and of purest quality; that the silver shall look as bright and spotless as when it first came wrapped in tissue paper from the silversmith's; that the epergne shall be filled with choicest flowers - these are points which she will consider of as much importance as the dainty skill of the cook's art itself. Indeed, the general effect of a rich dinner service, or of a well-arranged buffet, contributes a more picturesque element than is apparent elsewhere, to the appointments of a modern household. But if we examine in detail the various articles which, under the general name of 'plate,' form this display, we shall find that they depend for their attraction on richness of material rather than on sound principles of design.
A sense of mere prettiness in decorative art belongs in some sort to our very earliest instincts. A mere baby will crow with pleasure at the sight of a gold watch or any-glittering object, and try to clutch it with eager hands. In childhood the most elaborate and richly painted toys are preferred to those of a simpler kind; and, indeed, to a maturer but still natural taste the brilliant colour and complex form of manufactured objects are generally agreeable, without reference to the purpose for which such objects were designed.
The use of colour - applied by the process known as enamelling, and once so valuable an enrichment of metal work - has been long out of vogue in the manufacture of plate. The same may be said to a great extent of damascened, niello, and engraved ornament. A base imitation of the old repousse work still lends a vulgar kind of richness to silver teapots and cream-jugs designed in the all-prevalent but objectionable taste of the time of Louis XV.; but a large proportion of modern plate is simply cast, and cast too, in patterns which have no more artistic quality than the ornaments of a wedding cake. Take, for instance, the ordinary 'fiddle pattern' fork; can anything be more senseless than the way in which modifications of that form are decorated - now with a raised moulding at its edge, now with an outline of beads, now with what is called a 'shell,' but what is really a bad copy of the Greek honeysuckle ornament, at the end of its handle, now with a rococo scroll or a representation of natural flowers in low relief on its surface ? All these patterns are dignified by fine names, such as the 'Albert,' the 'Brunswick,' the 'Rose,' the 'Lily.' They are reproduced over and over again at Birmingham and elsewhere. People buy them because there is nothing else of the kind to be had; but there is no more art in their design than there is in that of a modern bed-post. Compare them with the charming examples of antique silver which may still be seen in the windows of a curiosity shop, and observe how much we have retrograded in this department of manufacture.
Now I am not going to recommend the re-introduction of what were called 'Apostle' spoons for ordinary use. The chased figure of a saint or of a ship in full sail (a favourite termination for the fork or spoon handle of olden days) may not be the most convenient thing for the fair fingers of a lady to hold at dinner; and it must be confessed that the bowls were wider and more capacious than we require for that infinitesimal portion of soup which is served out to each guest at a modern banquet. I merely mean that the spirit with which this old plate was designed is extinct in our modern silver. It would be quite possible to fashion graceful spoons and forks which should also suit the most fastidious notions of convenience. A modern fork looks top-heavy because it has four prongs. Three prongs were once considered sufficient, and with three only the fork would gain in lightness and appearance. Again, the stem of the old spoon was a delicate rod, sometimes twisted and sometimes square in section. It is now flat and heavy, requiring nearly twice as much metal in its manufacture, and therefore materially increasing the cost of silver plate. It may indeed be desirable, for the sake of convenience in handling, to keep the upper end of the stem flat, but in other respects the old shape seems preferable, and is certainly less expensive. In fact, all old plate of the best period was infinitely lighter in weight than our own. Its chief value consisted in its design; whereas that of the present day can but be estimated in ounces. It is perhaps for this reason that modern silversmiths prefer to load their plate with heavy raised ornament, instead of adopting the delicate incised patterns once in vogue.
In the whole range of art-manufacture there are few more deplorable examples of taste than the silver side-dishes, soup-tureens, cruet-stands, salvers, and candlesticks of the nineteenth century. The most extravagant forms are enriched with ornament, which is either a caricature of Renaissance detail, or simply feeble representations of natural form.
I have an illustrated catalogue of electro-plated goods before me at the present moment, in which a fish-slice is shown decorated with an engraved landscape, surrounded by acanthus scrolls. Further on I find a rose, a tulip, and an apple respectively doing duty as the handle of a tea-pot lid, and an egg-stand designed in imitation of a wicker-basket. As for the butter-cooler, it is, of course, surmounted by that inevitable cow which fashion has consecrated for our breakfast tables, in order, I presume, that we may never forget the source and origin of one of the most useful articles of daily food.
It is by no means easy to offer suggestions which should guide an ordinary taste in the choice of such objects as these. Perhaps the soundest advice to give would be that which is based on common sense. In an age of debased design at least, the simplest style will be the best. Choose a pure outlined form rather than that which is defined by a dozen varying curves. Round silver dishes and salvers are preferable to those of an oval or square shape for many reasons, and especially on account of the mode in which such articles are manufactured. Richly moulded edges are, for a like reason, inappropriate; moreover, in precious metal they necessarily increase the cost, and in plated goods they are liable to be rubbed and look shabby. Vessels of silver should be composed of thin plate, and the best means of decorating them is either by piercing the metal with open-work ornament, by engraving conventional (i. e., non-naturalistic) surface-patterns, or by repousse decoration, which consists in beating out the silver from inside into bosses and arabesques. The latter mode, if well executed, is of course the most expensive. All articles of plate which represent in miniature objects of a different material - as barrels, tubs, and baskets - should be avoided. There was a time when it was thought tasteful to let every knicknack for the table assume an appearance which utterly belied its real purpose. Some of my readers may remember the little gilt Cupid wheeling a barrow full of salt, which once appeared in many an English dining room, and I have often been surprised that no ingenious Sheffield designer has yet adapted the Martyr's Memorial for a pepper-castor. The substitution of electro-plate for real silver is now so common in households where the latter would be regarded as a superfluous luxury, that the sternest advocate of true principles in art-manufacture would scarcely require an apology for its use. The fact is, that even in the best ages of design some such expedient has been practised, and therefore has long since ceased to be a deception. In the case of a dinner service, there is sufficient excuse for its adoption in the fact that steel forks and pewter spoons are not pleasant things to eat with. If a wash of silver removes that objection, surely it is desirable to use it. We must remember that in this, as in other departments of 'household taste,' the intrinsic value of the material is of minor importance to the mode in which it is fashioned; and I, for one, would rather possess a copper-gilt flagon of good design than a modern 'trophy cup' of twice its weight in gold. If the pieces of 'presentation plate' which we are invited to inspect at silversmiths' before they are sent off to their worthy possessors were only entrusted to art-workmen of sound education, we might hope for something better than the everlasting palm trees, camels, and equestrian groups which are now allowed to symbolise both the taste and the gratitude of a generous public. In such objects as those to which I refer, the designer does little more than model more or less correctly after nature. This, as I have already endeavoured to show, is imitation, but not design in the artistic sense of the word. Both Benvenuto Cellini and Holbein were admirable draughtsmen; both were thoroughly acquainted with the proportions of the human figure; but, though they lived in an age when decorative art had lost its early simplicity, neither of them forgot its conditions so far as to let a naturalistic treatment of animal form predominate in their designs for plate.