03 February 2018

London Silver Vaults: my favourite site for silver art in the entire world

The date and maker’s-name symbols were required marks to add to silver objects in Britain from the late C15th on. Each piece, as it was presented for assay/content analysis, was therefore fully identifiable. Faking was possible, but improbable. Thus for hundreds of years, British silver has had the oldest qual­ity-control standards in the world.

My personal passion for silver art started in 1685 with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in Catholic France. The king declared Protestantism illegal, beginning an intense pers­ec­ution programme of Huguenots. All Protestants could convert to Cath­olicism, leave France or have their children removed. Some 400,000 Huguenots did flee France, taking their silver art and silk making skills with them to Britain, Germany, Nether­lands or other safe Protestant havens.

starkly underdecorated silver toilet set 
made in London by a Huguenot silversmith (who?)
1699

A shop display in the Silver Vaults

I wanted to specialise in Huguenot silver art made in Britain from 1685 on. I introduced myself to every French silversmith, his master, wife, children and church in Britain, until 1725. By that time, the Huguenots' uniqueness had dis­app­eared and British-born artists were creating similar work.

So once financial reality set in, the next task was to go to The London Silver Vaults which began when The Chan­cery Lane Safe Deposit Co. first opened its doors in the mid-1880s. Since my 1994 visit might be out of date, I have relied on Londonist for any up-to-date information.

An advertisement for the vaults that appeared in The London Illustrated News of 1884 shows elegant Victorian men and lad­ies passing through a massive, arched entrance at 61-62 Chan­cery Lane. It said “The vaults are built on col­umns, and are entirely isolated, having patrols or corridors around, over and under them, making it utterly impossible for anyone to approach unobserved. Night watchmen are armed with revolvers”.

The rooms were used by the local wealthy upper classes and rich merchants to store their valuables, whenever the own­ers travelled to their country estates or where going abroad. The vaults, protected by armed guards at 53-54 Chancery Lane, were also used as a safety deposit stronghold for anxious Lon­doners who were aware of the crime waves affect­ing Victorian London. These subterr­anean vaults in the centre of London suc­ceeded because the 1.2 metres thick walls were lined with steel – no thief could get through.

Additionally the Chancery Lane location was ideally suited to the needs of merchants in nearby Hatton Garden. And for the solic­itors and barristers of the Inns of Court, who needed a safe place for their legal documents. Victorians clearly paid to leave their priceless items in this high-security repository. A 1890 press report, five years after its opening, described 6,000+ safes and 3,000 customers. Some of the valuable State papers were in conn­ection with the historic enquiry called the Parnell Commission.

The vaults were badly bombed during WW2. They were revived in the 1940s by renting space at The Chancery Lane Safe Deposit Co. and invited American officers and memb­ers of the diplomatic service down to their vault, to buy silver. These were the first retail customers in WW2 and as word spread to other deal­ers, London Silver Vaults be­g­an their second incarnation.

Did they remind citizens of the vaults' previous life as Britain's first safe deposit site? In 1953, several jewellery and silver dealers who had used the vaults for storage moved their operations to 53-54 Chancery Lane and opened shops there. Clearly the vaults retained their secure reputation! Downstairs, inside the London Silver Vaults, each of the c30 shops is in a small cell, each protected by a sturdy iron door off a long, prison-like corridor.

Today the shops are very often run by the grandchildren of the orig­inal owners, handed down through the generations. 

Each small shop is protected by a sturdy iron door off a long, prison-like corridor
photo credit: Londonist

The entrance to the Silver Vaults does not attract much attention
photo credit: Londonist

Koopman & Son has one of London's finest collections of antique silver. All the best Hug­uenot and early C18th British silversmiths eg Paul de Lamer­ie, Matthew Boulton, Paul Storr, John Bateman and sons, are there. The items include large silver-gilt epergnes and candelabra, bowls, ewers, coffeepots, teapots and chocolate pots, with their original ebony or ivory hand­les. A set of three Queen Anne muffin­eer shakers 1709, made in Edinburgh, was $5,700, while a rare Queen Anne choco­late pot by Thomas Parr, with the original swizzle stick, was $54,000. Two Hester Bateman sugar basins 1788 cost $1,740.

The silver­ware in William Walter Antiques is predominant­ly Georgian eg a pair of Georgian openwork sweetmeat baskets ($480) and a pair of George III wine coasters ($1,200). William Walter also boasts a large soup tureen with a gadroon border, made by Paul Storr ($19,200) and a pair of Queen Anne sugar casters made by Charles Adam in 1713 ($2,220). The oldest objects are a set of Tudor spoons that cost tens of thousands and one Charles I seal-top spoon dating from 1628 ($595)

Ivor Mazure has a fine collection of Faberge eggs made with prec­ious and semiprecious stones, as well as Art Nouveau and Art Deco jewellery. There are cigarette cases, desk seals, picture frames, sweetmeat dishes, jewellery & clocks att­ributed to the Faberge workshop. An Art Nouveau gold-enamel pendant by Henri Teterger has stylised organics set with diamonds, emeralds & large baroque pearl ($27,600)







silver teapot and stand
by French Huguenot Louis Cuny, 
made in London in 1706. Pinterest

silver gilt ewer and basin 
by French Huguenot Paul de Lamerie, 
made in London in 1715. Pinterest

Then wander into Steven Lind­en's antique home­ware and giftware shop, another 3rd-generation business. Kalms Antiques has a beaut­iful silver nef/ship, roll­ed along the table top to carry a cargo of spices or condim­ents to the ass­embled diners. Such devices were popular table ornaments in the Renaissance when spices were a costly commodity. One is a C19th pastiche from Portugal, but would still fetch almost £30,000.

Anthony Green has special­is­ed in antique pock­et watches for 30 years, some of them Geor­g­ian timepieces. Nearby Clerken­well was, after all, a world cen­tre of watch-making. Belmont Jewellers stocks modern jewel­lery while Wolfe Jewellery specialises in antique items.

The London Silver Vaults are open till 5.30pm, after which you will need good food and wine. NY Times recommended two Chancery Lane eateries i.e Hodgson's Restaurant built in 1863, and Chez Gerard.





14 comments:

Andrew said...

I've never been a fan of gold, but I do love silver. I take it that there has never been a robbery in either incarnation of the vaults.

Another Student said...

Jay and I remember the courses on Huguenots. Poor oppressed families, but so gifted.

Hidden London Tour said...

In part of the Hidden London Tour, see the western gate of the Roman and medieval city, Newgate, an area once infamous for its prison. Then a short stroll to St Etheldreda’s, another remarkable medieval survival where the crypt and chapel still stand. Then move to the Silver Vaults, which was built as a Victorian safe deposit but is now a set of underground silversmiths and shops, and is little known outside the silver-dealing world. Finally the medieval Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four remaining Inns of Court in London, where aspiring lawyers lived and learnt their trade.

The Hidden London Tour is led by a historian or archaeologist.
https://www.contexttravel.com/cities/london/tours/hidden-london

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Somehow I missed the Silver Vaults on my previous trips to London, but there's always next time! I generally prefer the more chaste forms of silver (no pun intended), but I recall the excitement when Cleveland bought its Meissonnier tureen, which I am sure you know well:
http://www.clevelandart.org/art/1977.182

It was one of a pair, and even then I didn't understand the reason for breaking them up. Great collections are formed by paying record prices and then holding on to the objects. I'll bet that the museum wishes it could reverse that decision! At any rate, it is one of the great masterpieces of French Rococo art.
--Jim

Hels said...

Andrew

correct, there was never a successful theft.

I liked the historian who pointed out that even during WW2, when the Germans were bombing the buildings to smithereens, they couldn't budge the concrete and steel vaults.

http://moneysafebox.com/the-london-silver-vaults.html

Hels said...

Student

the Huguenots were a small proportion of the French population, but they were the most skilled silver artists, silk weavers, lace makers and merchants in France. When they were forced to convert to Catholicism or be exiled to a Protestant country, the French economy was severely damaged.

Lucky Britain, Holland and Germany. Silly France.

Hels said...

Many thanks, Hidden London Tours.

I have been to many of the places you have highlighted, but never in an organised tour and never with a theme. As you say, tourists always see the more obvious sites, rather than the less visible remains of London’s past. And I include British tourists in this, many who have never heard of the silver vaults.

Hels said...

Parnassus

the covered tureen on a stand is a silver confection of shells covered with putti, crayfish and vegetables. I found the height and width easily, but the cost of silver art depends largely on its weight. Cooper Hewitt says the two tureens together were 42 kilograms. That would have made them more valuable than my house, car and city office put together!!

Meissonnier worked for Louis XV, becoming the royal goldsmith in 1724. If we date the tureens to 1735-40, any Huguenot taste has clearly disappeared and the rococo was running wild.

https://www.cooperhewitt.org/2014/09/08/surf-turf-a-silver-tureen-for-a-duke/

Nikki-ann said...

I've never heard of this place before. What a great place to visit :)

Hels said...

Nikki-ann

I knew all about French and English silver art because my thesis was about the Huguenots. But you are so correct... there are many great places to us visit for the first time. Isn't the bloggersphere wonderful :)

mem said...

Apparently the loss of the Huguenots to the French economy was pretty catastrophic so they suffered as a result of their stupidity . I had a Huguenot ancestor who made his fortune in Dublin as a leather merchant and slave trader !!!!! :(

Hels said...

mem

you are fortunate having Huguenot relatives, although you would probably prefer riches from mercantile success, rather than from the slave trade.

But now to the central issue. There were two million Huguenots in France, until Catholic hostility and religious conflicts led to the French Wars of Religion (ended in 1600 AD). Thus Protestant Huguenots numbers dropped rapidly, even before their formal expulsion. When King Louis XIV expelled all the surviving Huguenots in 1685, it meant that France lost its merchants, teachers, artisans, weavers, silk artists, doctors, watch makers etc.

The French had to choose between enforcing religious principles and protecting the nation's economy. They chose to enforce religious conformity :(

bazza said...

When I left school I worked just off Chancery Lane in Cursitor Street for a Market Research Company about 100m from the Silver Vaults. I would pass by everyday with a vague inquisitiveness about what they were for. It was very many years later when I learned the real facts.
In my guided walks around London we have seen the spindle or bobbins above some of the houses in Spitalfields which were signs of a Huguenot's house/place of work. The Huguenot's were followed into London by immigrants from Ireland, Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe and latterly by Bangladeshis. All of those communities have thrived and been absorbed to varying degrees by British society.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s salubrious Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

bazza

it breaks my heart when countries across the world are turning away refugees, hauling their boats out to sea to sink them or putting them into prison camps. People motivated enough to leave their own homelands are usually the best citizens their new homelands will ever have. I know three people who were honoured over the recent Australia Day weekend, all of them children when they arrived in Australia with their refugee parents in 1948-56.

I suspect the difference with the Huguenot refugees was that the King and the Church felt morally impelled to welcome the exiled Protestants and to save them from their French Catholic oppressors. The fact that they were highly skilled craftsmen, professionals and business men was just an additional stroke of good luck.