This article discusses household silver in the first half of the 18th century, noting its foreign influences in style (especially French) and silversmith Paul Lamerie, of whom the most information has been preserved over time. It originally appeared in the January 1946 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
Possession of silver articles has always been considered as a step up on the social ladder; something to be proud of and something to bolster self-respect. Even today we see people, making more money and making it faster than ever before, acquiring silver objects of all kinds. The market seems to be definitely a seller’s market.
Probably in no other country has so much fine silverware been produced as in England, and nowhere has the collecting of it been keener and its use more widespread. For several reasons this may seem strange, with no adequate source of raw material on the British Isles.
But with the growth of the nation, the war against competitors, such as Holland and Spain, for the domination of foreign territories and riches, more silver came to victorious Albion. And so we witness an evolution that not only brought to the churches gifts from the faithful parishioners, silver for the official use of kings and nobility, the plate of the liveried companies, but also an ever-growing quantity of so-called household and decorative silver.
Of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries fine examples of church silver and representative silver of the kings, the nobility and prominent institutions have survived, but pieces of household silver earlier than the sixteenth century are extremely rare, much of it probably perished in the long years of internal struggle, though a few pieces grace the collections of museums and private collectors.
The history of the guilds of the goldsmiths, their standing and responsibility, the history of the acts to protect the quality of the silver, or the coin of the realm, the history of the system of hallmarks and date letters, of makers’ marks and of assaying have been exhaustively explored and ably described. The profession of the goldsmith always was held in high esteem in England, well-organized and watchful to keep up the quality of the work and the honesty and integrity of its members.
It was obvious that such diligence and precaution guaranteed a high level of work and protected the public as well as the guilds themselves from any attempt at counterfeiting or other fraud. The trustworthiness of the goldsmiths was of course reflected in the ever-growing spread of the use of fine silver and it attracted many able artists and craftsmen to this honorable and lucrative profession.
Silver as an easily workable precious metal always has fascinated the artist, but there were very few in England during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The fine early English plate as far as its style and form goes owes much, if not everything to foreign influence. Of these early times, the Tudor-Gothic and the Renaissance, we will remember the drinking horns, remnants of a more ancient past, and other kinds of drinking vessels as the mazer, a bowl mostly of wood mounted with a band of silver to protect the edges, developing into the cup, and we have the tankard and the beaker.
Practically in the same class are the porringers or caudle-cups introduced into common use in the early seventeenth century for possets and hot drinks, very much in vogue at that time. The posset, a kind of hot sack with spices, milk and eggs was practically universal as a beverage; of course it was somewhat thicker than mere spiced ale or hot wine.
We can quote Shakespeare from the Merry Wives of Windsor, “Thou shalt drink a posses tonight in my house.” And we hear the devilish Lady Macbeth saying, “I have drugged their possets that death and nature do contend about them, whether they will live or die.”
At the time of King George 1, 1714-1724, a great variety of household silver was already fashioned and used; forks, spoons and knives, candlesticks, snuffers and snuffer trays, casters, cruets, soup tureens, wine tasters, bread or fruit baskets, and of course snuff boxes; more and more was added, first as a luxury and then as a necessity.
It may be of interest to note that for the style of the early Georgian silver, England is heavily indebted to France. With the repeal of the Edict of Nantes a great number of prominent French artists and craftsmen sought refuge from religious persecution, and we have a long list with imposing names of refugee silver-and-goldsmiths coming to England as early as during the last years of Queen Anne’s reign, and during the reign of the first two Georges, starting with men like Simon Pantin, Pierre Harache, John Chartier, Isaac Ribolau, Pierre Platel, Le Sage, Pileau, Courtauld, Willaume and culminating in the most famous of all, Paul Lamerie.
In the time of King George I, the dominating figure at the head of any European nation was Louis XIV of France, the Roi Soleil. The manner and style of his court were imitated in one form or another by many minor potentates and beginning in France, started the victorious spread of the Rococo style.
The word Rococo probably comes from “Rock-Coquille.” The forms originated from Italy and were then developed in France. We know that the director of the royal factory in Paris, Meissonier, published several works about Rococo style in 1723. The motifs fundamentally were Oriental with a prevalence of shells and marine subjects. We see them together with the Gadroon or other borders, the acanthus and lanceolate leaves, together with tritons, dolphins, sea-monsters, grape-vine leaves and grotesque masks.
When this style was introduced into England where a natural restraint and the gift for understatement quieted the exuberance of the French style in a very healthy manner, many works of excellent taste resulted, and some of the finest silver in this style was created by Paul Lamerie.
It seems that very little is known of the life of the famous silversmiths of that period. Probably they lived uneventful, regular lives as good citizens, devoted to their profession and at times also active in some kind of civic work, but none was outstanding in their personalities or artistic achievement to be recorded and passed on by contemporary writers or later historians. There is the one exception of the just-mentioned Lamerie, who although not attaining high honors in any official capacity became so famous for his work that much data of his family and life have been assembled and published.
On the fourteenth of April in 1688, Paul Jaques, the son of Paul Souchay de la Merie was baptized in the small town of Bois le Duc, according to the register of the Wallon church of this little town in southern Holland. When the little family left for England in March, 1689, they did not forget to take this baptismal record with them and it served them as a kind of religious passport together with attestation papers as members of the Wallon church. The head of the family, a French nobleman, had been accepted in the service of the army of the united provinces of the Netherlands. In England the name of Souchay was dropped.
We find the first mention of a Paule Lemurre in 1691. In 1701 this was changed to La Merie and finally in 1702 to the name Lamerie. The nobleman had the idea that any kind of craft was below his personal standing and the dignity peculiar to his class; he managed to get a small pension for a while from the crown but died a pauper in 1735. For his son the goldsmith’s craft was all he would accept as becoming to a member of a noble family, and little Paul accordingly was apprenticed to another refugee, Pierre Platel, in 1704.
Eight years later he became a freeman on September 4, 1712, and entered his maker’s mark the next day. We have two additional marks of Lamerie, a second dating from the year 1732 and a third from 1739 which complied with a new law of King George II ordering all working and manufacturing goldsmiths to change the form of their maker’s mark and register a new form forthwith at the goldsmith’s hall. It should be noted that during this period also the old silver standard, raised since 1697 to stop the melting of coins for the use of silverware, was revised in 1719.
A few years after the establishment of his own shop Lamerie married Louise Juliott in 1716. He had six children, four daughters and two sons, but the sons and one daughter died at an early age.
In his civic career Lamerie was known as Captain from 1736 on and was later styled “Major”. Probably he was a member of some private volunteer organization of military character yet not recognized officially, organized in companies, having its own equipment at its own expense, but never called upon to carry out any duties by authority and probably not considered as a body of troops for any length of time. Only by courtesy were its officers allowed to assume the title of their representative ranks. It was a private volunteer organization of this sort that Lamerie joined in a patriotic spirit.
His rise in the Guild hierarchy was rather rapid. In 1738 he was appointed to a committee for “The Parliament business of the goldsmiths company” drawing up a petition and bill to be offered to Parliament.
With the rise of good business and widespread recognition, our master moved from modest quarters to a new address in 1738 where he became neighbor to many persons of high degree, and it is here, at Garard St. where he was to grow to fame and eminence in his profession, where he saw one of his daughters married and where his mother died.
It seems that the French refugees kept close together, because the husbands of Lamerie’s daughter, Joseph Debaufre, the son of a watchmaker of renown also had come from abroad. At the time of this marriage in 1750 Lamerie became seriously ill, but he managed to attend a meeting of the goldsmith’s company where his able and sound advice carried weight and we know that the activity, ability and power of artistic expression which had been his for forty years were not lost at that time.
One would expect to find some recognition for the creator of such outstanding work in the form of an appointment as goldsmith to the crown, but in royal collections not one piece by Lamerie can be found. As during his lifetime Samuel Smithin and later Thomas Minor were crown goldsmiths it may be that Lamerie’s foreign origin prejudiced against such nomination.
The master’s life span came to an end in 1751. In the London Evening Post, August 3rd to August 6th, 1751, we find the following obituary notice: “Last Friday died at Daventry in North Hampshire, Mr. Humphrey Paine, formerly an eminent goldsmith at the “Hen and Chickens” at Cheapside, but having acquired a handsome fortune, he quitted trade to his son a few months ago, to whom he has left the bulk of his estate.
“The same day died Paul D’Lamerie, Esq. an ancient goldsmith in Garard St., Soho; they both were ancient members of the goldsmith’s company and had each of them been upwards of fifty years in trade, wherein they would be very largely concerned. The latter was partly famous for making fine ornamental plate and has been very instrumental in bringing that branch of the trade to the perfection it is now in.”
In his will Lamerie made specific provisions and left directions for the disposal of his estate, evidently in order to avoid any possibility of dispute between his wife and unmarried daughters. His business was to be closed, the goods to be put to public auction, and there were also instructions as to the disposal of his leaseholds.
No catalogue of auction sale has been found, only two announcements of forthcoming sales, one of plate, jewels and watches, the other of patterns, tools and shop fixtures.
The status of the artist and master craftsman, Paul Lamerie is known universally. We know that at the start of his career the so-called Queen Anne style, with its unadorned simplicity, was still in vogue and that the Rococo style was widely favored, bringing new forms and new decorative motifs.
Accordingly, Paul Lamerie’s career falls practically into two parts, the first from his original registration to his second mark where he worked already in the so-called new silver standard. His pieces of this period are more delicate and less elaborate. The ornate Rococo work in the later period of the old silver standard has a different and probably not so high an artistic quality. Sometimes details are not handled with care and the pieces become really “compositions” seemingly by “chance” in silver, with a touch of genius.
When we try to find out if other artists or craftsmen of the period crossed the path of Paul Lamerie we come to the famous engraver and painter, William Hogarth who was first apprenticed in 1712 to Ellis Gamble, probably an engraver of silver. He did some work for Lamerie and also engraved Lamerie’s bookplate with the three “Souches,” meaning “tree stumps.” These Lamerie had chosen for his own arms, probably adopted from the arms born by another branch of the Souchay family.
We have dwelt at length on this eminent master because he is the most representative and the greatest of his period, and in his case we are fortunate that family and other records have been preserved, but we must not forget that during the reign of the first two Georges other splendid silver was created by famous refugees such as Pierre Harrache, David Willaume, Augustine Cortauld, Peter Archambo, Peter Plata just to name a few, and also by some English-born artists, such as Anthony Nelme and Benjamin Pine.
The silversmith’s art, of course, was not confined to the city of London. In England proper, Norwich, Exeter, Newcastle and Chester were centers for the production of fine Plate. In Scotland, Edinborough and Glasgow were prominent, and in Ireland the same held true for Dublin and Cork.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.