All That Sparkles is not Just Gold
In their final major exhibition marking their centenary, the Holburne brings together 500 years of silverware
Review by Rupert Watkins
This remarkable precious metal has appealed to artisans and owners for centuries. Whether heavily engraved and decorative or plain and austere, silver has long been seen as an indicator of status and wealth. The Holburne’s exhibition also shines a spotlight on the continuity of techniques in silversmithing.
Walking into the small exhibition, you are instantly reminded of how light affects how we respond to silver. The museum have deliberately kept the room plain, white and quite brightly lit in order to show off the gleam and translucence of the metal. The first exhibition case juxtaposes two extremes of silver showing the earliest pieces being shown, a pair of silver flasks dated between 1400 – 1440 alongside a 2003 vase by Hiroshi Suzuki. Separated by 500 years, these pieces though show the continuity of craft and shape in silverware. Likewise, the two dishes, one from Bruges in 1561 and a millennium dish made in 1999 by Clive Burr and Jane Short show that silver is one arena where enamelling and engraving skills have been passed down through many generations.
Silver has always been seen as an indicator of wealth; a number of the exhibits show how concern over the architectural design of houses came to influence the interior decoration and the items that were specifically created for the space. A Georgian soup tureen from 1792/93 was designed by William Chambers, a contemporary of Robert Adam and James Wyatt demonstrating how design become holistically fused. The restrained and fiercely classical tureen clearly complements the Palladian architecture these men are famous for.
A major theme from the exhibition is the nature of texture. Silver has the ability to be hammered and worked in a multitude of differing ways and from the very austere 1687 sideboard dish – made to reflect candlelight – to a bravura rococo 1740s sauceboat and the clever bark effect found on a Gerald Benney cigarette case from 1965, you can see the sheer variety of texture silver offers. Many of the silver pieces are very extensively engraved; two pieces from the Royal collection – Flaxman’s Shield of Achilles 1822 and an 1818 silver gilt tureen and stand – show both the artistry and complexity of what the metal can bear. Yet, there is perhaps a point when there is too much engraving for the eye to naturally absorb. Relief can be found in the final case in the exhibition in the 1978 silver sculpture Box by Michael Rowe. Stark, smooth and angular is allows the simple purity of the precious metal to come through.
This exhibition is certainly an interesting end to the museum’s centenary year. The Holburne has already seen much interest in this final show and for those who have not enjoyed this relatively unknown gem, this certainly is another good excuse to head to Bath.