The production of silver in Britain was understood to be the embodiment of the country's prosperity—an outward expression of political stability, taste, and industriousness. This exhibition explores some of the ingredients that made the English silver trade such a vigorous success in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Drawn largely from the Museum's collections, it also includes extraordinary loans from private collectors, including Paul de Lamerie's great rococo coffeepot of 1738 and the justly famous Maynard Dish belonging to the Cahn Family Foundation.
Since sterling silver was the coinage of the realm, a silver dinner service was, most literally, worth its weight. But the display and use of silver meant more than riches. Silver was an expression of a patron's taste and education, designed to celebrate his achievements and complement the architecture of his house.
In England, as in Continental Europe, a rich display of silver was essential to the expression of power. Government officials and emissaries dispatched to foreign courts were expected to entertain in a style that reflected the dignity of the English crown. To ensure that they could set an impressive table, an office holder or ambassador was issued a silver service from the Jewel Office, the division of the royal household responsible for precious metals and jewels. Several examples of silver made for ambassadorial use are included in the exhibition. Although the court was an important source of orders for silversmiths, it did not support workshops of its own, and makers broadened their market by serving the growing professional and merchant classes.