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?)
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 Since my 1994 visit might be out of date, I have relied on Londonist for any up-to-date information.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.
photo credit: Londonist
The entrance to the Silver Vaults does not attract much attention
photo credit: Londonist
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)
a silver teapot and stand
by French Huguenot Louis Cuny,
made in London in 1706. Pinterest
a 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.