This article focuses on the French and later British influences on Canadian silver in the 18th and 19th centuries, noting important silversmiths and the spread of silver production from Quebec to Montreal. It originally appeared in the February 1941 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
The silver crosses discovered in the past hundred years in old Indian graves from Georgia to Wisconsin and Ontario are all of one type and bear such makers’ marks as C A and R C. Puzzled archaeologists at the time of their discovery presumed these initials to mean Cardinal Richelieu and Richelieu Cardinal, because these pieces of silver had been found where they seemed to have been lost during the regime of the French cardinal. One was in a grave mound in Georgia, traced back imaginatively to the De Soto expedition of 1540, and some of the others in the ancient Hurons’ country in Ontario.
These amusingly faulty ascriptions would not have been offered had the archeologists known that among a host of Canadian 18th- and early 19th-Century silversmiths, two of them, Charles Arnoldi and Robert Cruickshank, had supplied the Montreal fur traders with large quantities of silver ornaments and trinkets. These were distributed from 1775 to 1840 along the trade routes to the west and the south. It must be granted that, until these last few decades, not the least attention had been paid to the long-sustained existence of a Canadian silvercraft covering two hundred and fifty years, and to the interesting evolution and features of this craft which are unique.
Canadian antique silver in small part goes back to France — at least two hundred pieces so far catalogued are actually old French silver; but it was predominantly French-Canadian made, as about one thousand such pieces have been recorded. This is only a part of what is still available. It was also derivative of British and other Continental prototypes, as shown by the few hundred recorded items made after 1770 in Montreal, Halifax, St. John, and Quebec by British, German, and Swiss craftsmen. Finally, it was strikingly original in the hundred of items made by native gold and silversmiths of the North Pacific Coast — the Tlingit of Alaska, and the Haida and Tsimsyan of the islands and the coast south of the Alaskan border.
The few samples of the gold and silver work here commented on merely suggest the diversity of early sources, the tendency of the Canadian craftsmen to adopt themselves to their surroundings, and to follow their own ways of working and designing under the New World influences. Canada in this respect should be considered as a part of the North American culture and studied for the important historical elements it furnished in the two or three hundred years of Continental penetration and semi-opened frontiers, when a New World culture was in formation.
The large silver reliquary at the Huron mission of Indian Lorette near Quebec (Illustration III), serves to represent the two hundred items of old French silver so far identified and still extant in eastern Canada. Known under the name of “Chemise de Notre-Dame,” it was made by Thomas Mahon of Chartres and is dated 1676. It was presented to the Jesuits for their Huron mission.
Well preserved, about twelve inches high and one and one-half inches in depth, it is a perfect example of French provincial craftsmanship. It is exquisitely engraved on both sides with pictures of the Virgin. It is not the only one of its kind possessed by the Indian missions of New France. Two splendid examples of Paris silver are the monstrances or ostensoirs of the Caughnawaga Iroquois mission near Montreal and that of Indian Lorette.
An inscription in French around the rim of the base of one of these reads: “Claude Prévost, former alderman of Paris, and Elizabeth Legendre, his wife, have given me that I may serve at the Jesuit church of Three Rivers, in the year 1664.”
A number of chalices, ciboria, sanctuary lamps bishops’ crooks, reliquaries, crosses, statuettes, a large bust of the Jesuit martyr Father Brébeuf, ewers, and basins likewise of antique French provenance are still preserved in the religious communities and old churches and missions of Quebec and Montreal. These bear the marks of Paris and provincial towns and the touches of such noted craftsmen as Claude Ballin (1688) , Guillaume Loir (1716) , Pierre Hannier (1716) , Eloi Guérin (1727) , all of Paris, as well as Thomas Mahon, of Chartres.
Valuable as is the old French silver in Canada, it is less interesting in a way than the authentic French-Canadian work of the silver and goldsmiths in Quebec and Montreal, who worked from 1700 for almost two centuries. The beauty and richness of their work and the continuity in style and decoration of the French tradition have long made the owners of such old Canadian silver believe that their treasures came from France in the early days. The author alone has recorded around one thousand pieces of silver and gold made by French-Canadians, whose ancestors had migrated to Canada before 1700, from Earls, Arras, Rouen and elsewhere and it is estimated that the total number of such pieces would be impressive.
Among the craftsmen of the French period (1690 to 1759) the leading masters were: Michel LeVasseur, at Quebec, who about 1705 took two apprentices — one of whom, Jacques Page dit Carey, is known to us by his mark; and four others whose marks are represented in our repertory — Francois Landron, Jean-Baptiste Meson Basse, Michel Coton (Illustration IV), who were Quebec merchants as well as craftsmen, and IgnaceFrançois Delezenne. Sieur Saint-Paul, whose work we know best because of thirty recorded pieces, was the most important of the French colonial period (Illustration I).
Paul Lambert or Sieur Saint-Paul, the son of Paul of the same name from Arras, France, used the mark of P L with a lily flower over it. His mark has already been found on both church and domestic silver. Among the pieces bearing his mark are three chalices, a bishop’s crook, three ciboria, a sanctuary lamp, two pairs of ewers and basin, a holy-water pail, two altar flower vases, three piscines, two small boxes for sacred oils, two ampullas, two porringers, a cup or goblet with cover, a plate, and a ladle. These show the excellence of his art and his originality.
His inspiration undoubtedly was traditional and may have followed models available in his time; yet we have not found elsewhere quite the same type of work, wherein gadroons are in low relief and stippled engraving is used extensively around the embossed designs. His style, as well as his ornamentation, have a charm that is akin to the best in folk handicrafts. It is distinctly hand work and sensitive, is a bit casual and does not in the least look stereotyped in any of its parts. He may be considered a leading silversmith of New France, and ranking only after the later craftsmen, Francois Ranvoyzé and Laurent Amiot.
The loosening of the ties with France after the British conquest, indeed, fostered the autonomous development in the craft — first, in Quebec and, later, in Montreal. Following the tracks of his predecessor, Francois Ranvoyzé (1739-1819) became the leader of the Quebec school, whose inspiration was traditional, yet whose personal skill, originality and industry, were outstanding (Illustrations II, VI and VII).
His mark, so far, has been recorded on at least one hundred and seventy-seven pieces of church plate. Altogether two hundred and sixty pieces may be ascribed to him, covering a wide variety of forms from religious to domestic items. His working career covered nearly forty years. The style, decorative treatment — which was rich and heavily ornamental, repoussé and engraving, also incidental casting of figures — of Ranvoyzé was that of an artist rather than of a mere craftsman. A past master of his calling, he was a creative worker who decidedly left his mark in Canada. He also worked gold, as is shown by the fine church plate of the Lislet church on the lower St. Lawrence.
His one-time apprentice, and then his competitor and rival, was Laurent Amiot (1764- 1839), who followed in his footsteps yet in some respects differed from him, as he went to Paris to complete his training in 1783. On his return he introduced a taste for current French forms and style as well as shop equipment. He was the only Canadian silversmith comparable to Ranvoyzé in quality of work and length of his active career, of more than fifty years. In quantity of production, he even surpassed his older master. We know three hundred and fifty-two pieces that either bear his mark LA or can be ascribed to him.
As the contemporary fashions from abroad were, after 1790, gaining ground in French Canada, Amiot readily adapted them when his clientele called for domestic silver (Illustration. V), such as large ewers, tureens, teapots, cream jugs, and ladles. His silver of this sort might well be mistaken from French, British or American. Amiot’s business in his Côte de la Montagne shop was so well established that at the time of his death it passed complete, with clientele and equipment, to his kinsman and associate, Francois Sasseville (1797-1864).
From Sasseville it passed to another kinsman, Pierre Lespérance (1819-1882), who moved this workshop to Côte du Palais, Quebec. From Lespérance it again passed to Ambroise Lafrance. He was still working in 1905, when E. A. Jones, the British silver expert, visited his shop and had Lafrance’s son, in training as a silversmith, make a cross and a cup for him. Some of the silver and drawings then collected by Mr. Jones are said to be now in the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection at the Yale Gallery of Fine Arts, New Haven, Connecticut.
If Canadian silver craftsmanship of the 18th Century was largely a Quebec achievement, new developments took place at the end of that century — particularly in Montreal, which became a new and important center for silverwork in Canada. The growing British influence in Montreal, particularly because of work done by Robert Cruickshank for the Indian fur trade, did not materially interfere with the vitality of the French tradition in church silver. We find a few silversmiths there whose work compares well with their Quebec contemporaries, for instance: Pierre Huguet-Latour (circa 1749 -1817), Salomon Marion (circa 1818-1832), and Paul Morand (circa 1819-1846).
Only a brief mention can be made here of the vast quantity of fine Canadian silver made by craftsmen of British and other origin in the eastern provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec. Like the French, the British residents in Montreal, Quebec, St. John, and Halifax were satisfied at first with importations.
Some of the earliest jewelers, watchmakers and silversmiths in these centers were chiefly importers. They advertised the newest London creations received via the last ships. Yet John Lang-don, who has recently made a study of the silversmiths of the Maritime Provinces, has listed no less than thirty craftsmen with British names, and a few others of Swiss, German, or French origin. His conclusion, as yet unpublished, is that, “sufficient data have been accumulated to show that silversmithing was an interesting and not altogether unimportant Maritime industry as late as 1850 and even a short while later.” Its earliest pioneer, even prior to 1753, was Josiah Allen, of Halifax.
The outstanding British craftsman in Canada undoubtedly was Robert Cruickshank (circa 1775-1809), who may have had his training in London, migrated to Canada via the United States, and became an important silversmith and merchant in Montreal. And his influence, chiefly in domestic silver and ornamental silver for the Indian trade, seems to have been considerable.
A few Montreal silversmiths and jewelers, from the time of George Savage — that is, 1815 — opened shops in Montreal and began to build up a clientele and a business that slowly progressed through the following hundred years. They found, locally, British, French-Canadian, Swiss and German craftsmen, whom, in several instances, they employed.
Quebec and Montreal silversmiths numbered no less than one hundred and forty in all. Over eighty of them were French-speaking and over sixty English. The Maritime craftsmen totaled about forty; this means a grand total of Canadian craftsmen (excluding those of native extraction) of about one hundred and eighty, whose names are now on lists compiled by Mr. Langdon and me.
Far apart from the silversmiths of eastern Canada and also from their Indian imitators —there were many of these in the past century, principally among the Iroquoians — we find a group of native craftsmen on the North Pacific Coast who stand by themselves. This group consists of Haida, Tlingit and Tsimsyan silver and goldsmiths, of the islands and main coast immediately north and south of the Alaska frontier. The art of these craftsmen, purely decorative and ornamental, is quite original and remarkable. It is unique. Its features conform to those of the other varied crafts practiced by the same nations. It is the latest development in the recent growth of a native art that is nowhere else surpassed for individuality and refinement of stylization.
The characteristics of this native work, consisting of bracelets, brooches and head ornaments are both individual and derivative. They are individual in so far as they are restricted to ornamental objects which involve little or no embossing in hammering gold or silver coins into narrow convex bands, highly polished and rather thin, and into varied rounded and disklike surfaces with soldered pin attachment. As the engraving of ornamental patterns on the surface was customary, it called for great skill in the engraver, and drew upon the resources of other pictorial arts. Thus with slight transformation the current stylization of totemic or heraldic figures on totem poles, in house-front paintings and in all sorts of domestic and ceremonial objects was absorbed. In this, such silver was wholly derivative, yet original.
The decoration of the silver work among the Haidas, the Tlingit and the Coast Tsimsyans conformed to standards that were consistently carried out. The engravers used a stock of conventional patterns and symbols into which they injected new life and incessant variations. No two pieces, even of a pair, ever being quite alike. The first requirement was that the whole outer polished surface must be filled to the edge with design. Thus features and limbs of the totemic animal were either enlarged in proportion with the rest, or boldly reduced or torn apart.
Technical devices, together with the tools used by these Indian silversmiths, were obviously borrowed from the white craftsmen who must also have helped in the first stages of the native craft. The early Russians at Sitka, who were versed in metal work, contributed much in this way. Indeed the earliest native imitators of the Russians were their close neighbors, the Tlingits, the most noted among them, Sitka Jack and his wife (Illustration VIII), about 1870 and 1880, and undoubtedly a number of others. Since 1880 the Haidas of Massett, on the Queen Charlotte Islands, have specialized in working in silver, where a few of them until recently have excelled; the most noted among them was Charles Edenshaw who, when he died a very old man in 1924, left a great deal of beautiful work after him (Illustration IX).
Silver making for a time flourished among these coast natives because of the difficulty experienced in safeguarding gold and silver coins.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.