The whole picture

Don’t look at silver in isolation. It is part of a panoply of three-dimensional objects, ’flat’ art and architecture that form our inheritance.

Paintings, tapestries and drawings are crucial to our understanding of silver. They depict objects that have not survived, show us how silver was used (particularly on the dining table), enable us to identify designers, and portray the craftsmen, clients and room settings that bring our subject to life.

The painting shown here depicts a collection of treasures assembled by the Paston family of Oxnead Hall, in Norfolk. It gives an insight into a period when collecting and intellectual enquiry embraced all that was offered through voyages to the East - a fascination with the natural world and precious objects that resulted in Schatzkammer in houses throughout Europe.

Without the series of paintings and tapestries made in France at the end of the seventeenth century, we would have no idea what Louis XIV’s silver looked like, for it was lost in a series of melts during his reign. Dutch seventeenth-century domestic silver has fared better, but seeing it in the still-life paintings of Pieter Claesz, Willem Kalf, Georg Flegel and others, alongside glass, pottery and the fruit, wine and sweetmeats they contained, puts the silverwares in focus.

Printed material extends the boundaries of our subject too. Bookbindings incorporate silver, early manuals tell about techniques, trade cards provide invaluable information about a range of trades and ornament prints (particularly of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries), link metalwork to every branch of the decorative arts. Numerous artists trained as goldsmiths and medallists, and sculptors and carvers produced models for silver castings.

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Photo: Norwich Castle Museum
The Yarmouth Collection, oil on canvas, circa 1660/70