Sunday, April 18, 2010

Reflections on the Chadwicks' Silver

A Partial Gloss from the Public Collections

The Chadwick Family silver collection was until its dispersion one of the largest and most esteemed in the world, comparable perhaps only with the Queen’s at Whitehall and with that of the Victoria and Albert Museum. For four centuries, as the Chadwicks amassed this stunning array of tea services, tankards, and ceremonial steins, they were in close connection with the world’s most respected silversmiths—in London, Amsterdam and, later, in New Amsterdam, Boston and Philadelphia. Frequently the family commissioned pieces and entire collections as occasional memorials of major events in the family’s and their nations’ history—entwined as those two stories were for several halcyon centuries. This posting presents only a small fraction of the collection, selected for especial historical interest. Our effort has been not merely to document the pieces themselves, but to give as full a picture as possible of the rituals and occasions of their use, the elaborate social life in which these material objects were embedded.

A preliminary note on the photographs, however, is in order. We regret that the dispersion of the collections has made impossible the professional studio photography the family envisioned for the publication. Indeed the Chadwicks hoped that all of these specimens might be briefly united at Chadwick Manor for a blockbuster retrospective exhibition that would coincide with the kind of thorough documentation that, alas, never came to pass when the work was in the family’s hands.

But several years of unfruitful correspondence with the historical and fine arts institutions that now house the silver convinced us otherwise: tedious bureaucratic demands, exorbitant insurance policies, outrageous museum fees, and even the suspicion that the Chadwicks might use the occasion to retain the originals and substitute reproductions all toppled this grand design. Nor were these same museums even amenable to our temporarily removing the pieces from their vitrines and display cases in order to photograph them properly in the safety of their home institutions. In fact several museums positively barred photography of any kinds—and even discouraged us from visiting. And thus it was that Blachly and I were forced to photograph these vessels surreptitiously with our pocket cameras under display and lighting conditions far from ideal. Still we felt that even this partial and somewhat compromised representation of the family’s collection was preferable to an utter gap in the historical record.

When Queen Elizabeth asked Paxton Chadwick to write his definitive 1951 catalog essay for the Royal Collections, The Crown Jewels, it was certainly because his own family collections, and his well-known silver connoisseurship, put him in an unrivaled position. The Queen knew full well that Chadwick could bracket both his own familial allegiances and his own notorious left-wing leanings and, as a loyal subject of the Crown, concentrate his enormous energies on the other great English collection without competition or avarice. Indeed the situation paralleled the Metropolitan Museum of art’s hiring of Bashford Dean as curator of Arms and Armor in 1906, since Dean, too, was the most highly esteemed amateur collector then known in the country. And if the Metropolitan may have had an eye toward the eventual donation of the Dean Collection, who can fault them? Certainly Chadwick too would have considered a similar donation to the Royal Collection had not pressing family debts made this impossible. Elizabeth’s private correspondence suggests that she understood this obligation.

Though Paxton is listed as the illustrator, this was merely because academic protocol in the United Kingdom frowned upon an amateur being offered such a prestigious commission. And thus, at the urging of his close friend Sir Anthony Blunt, Chadwick invented the pseudonym of “Oliver Warner,” which seems to have been based both on his son (Oliver Chadwick) and his love of Hollywood films, particularly those of Warner Brothers. But Chadwick was not mistaken in predicting authorship for his son. For, if the Chadwick family collection began its process of dissolution in the 1950s and 60s, still at least Paxton’s fine connoisseurship was passed along to Oliver Chadwick—our principal authority for the present work—who was commissioned in 1975 to write what remains the most respected guide to collecting silver in England, titled simply English Silver. Indeed his unpublished manuscript on the history of the family’s own collection has frequently informed our own work here. Alas Oliver Chadwick was such a silver enthusiast, or “buff,” and above all such a stickler for fine condition that his own excessive use of cleaning solvents seems to have led to his addiction. In any case he was first in jail and then in rehabilitation by the mid-1980s and, as part of the condition of his parole, was the publication of his 1991 Inhalant Abuse.

But that, praise be to St. Dunstan, is now but a cloudy afternoon in the vast landscape of the Chadwick family history. And whatever problems the younger Chadwick may eventually have encountered, there is no question that he was a keen observer of silver. Chadwick was, first off, a particular expert on Regency sauce-boats. And he was, more generally, a celebrant of the larger dinner services, with multiple tureens, which he saw as adding “remarkable continuity to the furnishings of the table” (37). The highest grade period sauce-boat, as he defined it—“an essentially boat-shaped bowl, with looped handles at either end, standing on a single oval foot”—had for Chadwick “a delightfully light design that was usually given border decoration in the form of beading, reeding or gadrooning” (45). (The reader will note several such sauce-boats in the present work.)

By contrast “very few epergnes ever captured quite the right degree of elegance and lightness” (45). Though Chadwick did recommend an occasional deal in the world of silver collecting—as for instance, that “whalebone-handled toddy ladles” remained an especial bargain in the otherwise prohibitive domain of Georgian silver (39)—his more common stance was to point out overvaluations and downright fraud, for which he had a famous nose. I cite but one of many examples of on-the-spot connoisseurship from his standard work:

I was once admiring what was apparently a fine example of a Georgian bullet-shaped teapot, which I had found on the shelves of a well-known London dealer. The hall-mark was clear and unrubbed, an important factor, particularly when the mark is on the side of the pot and exposed to the abrasion of cleaning. [Actually, this was a problem particular to Chadwick’s own rather over-scrubbed silver and not as rampant a concern as he suggests] I breathed on the mark to show it in better detail and suddenly noticed what was wrong. A faint line encircled the mark. The teapot was a clever Victorian copy. The Georgian hall-mark had been obtained from a broken article and inserted into it. The deception had been remarkably well done, for the mark was in no way distorted; so well done, in fact, that the dealer had been completely taken in. He had bought the teapot in good faith and was very unhappy to have to remove it from his shelf. But there was no alternative. The law is very strict, and rightly so. (9-10).

Chadwick’s remarkable detective work made him few friends among storeowners. But it did raise him considerably in the public esteem. Nor were Chadwick’s judgments on the established canon of English silversmiths more sparing than his discoveries in Chelsea windows. Chadwick could remark, for instance, of the great eighteenth-century silversmith Paul de Lamarie that “his enthusiasm for grotesque ornamentation sometimes overtook his sense of balance and proportion” (35). Or, even more surprisingly, he could simply find overrated the most famous woman in silver history: “It is interesting to speculate exactly why Hester Bateman enjoys so elevated a position in the hierarchy of English silversmiths, for there is no doubt that her pieces command extremely high prices, sometimes almost double those of her equally able contemporaries. Perhaps it is because she was a woman in a man’s world that she has caught the public’s fancy, but it is certainly the case that, despite her skillful work and considerable output, there were many others who were unquestionably her equal” (43). Composed at the height of the women’s liberation movement in the mid-1970s, Chadwick was perhaps venting his frustration on a mute target.

Perhaps more to the point are his frustrations about both the great episodes of waste in the history of silver and then the decline of modern silver-smithing. Of the former, Chadwick remarked that the Cromwellian interregnum was the most prodigal of all such episodes, when, “in a few short years was wiped out the legacy of centuries” (20).

The effect of the Civil War on English silversmithing was drastic and violent. The wealth of pieces that were, only ten years before, a part of the normal way of life, had been by 1650 almost entirely melted down to finance the two warring sides. The demand for silver coin was so acute that when Admiral Blake succeeded in capturing a Spanish fleet and its cargo of silver, the relief was sufficient for Cromwell to decree a day of National Thanksgiving (20).

Still, silver connoisseurs were treated to a solid century of high grade work after the Restoration, and to more inconsistent though occasionally quite strong work up until the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria. But by the late-18th century, as Chadwick notes, “The boisterous winds of a new era were scurrying away the traditions of centuries and things were never quite the same again” (42). Silver production limped along in the undistinguished, eclectic world of Victorian aesthetics. But it never regained its early eighteenth-century, or Britannia standard, luster. For Chadwick, the very last gasp of silver production was art nouveau, itself rather an iffy proposition for silver making. But in any case, “As the century progressed no other style emerged to fill the gap.” This was because, the Bauhaus,

which might have been expected to produce some startling innovations, seemed to ignore silver completely and the twin factors of stainless steel and mass production have served to drive it into something of a backwater. Today stainless steel, china and earthenware have largely assumed the mantle once monopolized by silver, while the most noble of crafts lingers on in what is almost a mockery of itself, reproducing the old designs ad nauseam. (56).

Chadwick felt defensive enough about his last remark to add a proviso: “If this remark seems sweeping and disparaging to an industry struggling to retain its slipping status, it is certainly not intended” (56). Indeed Chadwick notes a few fine pieces can still be found—before continuing with his lament: “It is, however, to the shoddy pieces, poorly fashioned and poorly finished, that we must take exception. In an age where the sub-standard is accepted as normal, it is unfortunate that they should be so numerous” (57).

What remains to be noted, then, are a few of the features and ceremonial uses of the Chadwick collection. Though Oliver Chadwick was reluctant in a general work like English Silver to mention his own family’s famous presentation pieces he nonetheless touches on the general topic when he remarks on the “large numbers” of “presentation pieces … inspired by the succession of victories that were sustained during the Napoleonic Wars. After that at Trafalgar, Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund made presentations to all the admirals and captains present at the battle” (48). Several of these, as well as many of the best from the family collection, have come to rest in the Victoria and Albert Museum. What separated the Chadwick family practice, however, from the national commemorative or presentation piece, was the Chadwicks’ elaborate sense of history.

To be continued ...

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