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In this essay I have chosen to analyse an 18th century British work of decorative art. The object I shall be closely looking at is a two handled silver cup and cover. The piece was produced by George Wickes in 1735 and is currently to be found in Gallery 53 in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. In my essay I shall describe the piece and the artist and their place in the art movement of the time. My conclusions shall be drawn from my research and personal opinions.
George Wickes and 18th Century Silver Art
George Wickes was born in Suffolk in 1698. He moved to London to become an apprentice to silversmith Samuel Wastell in 1712. A decade later Wickes registered his first mark in 1722 while working in Threadneedle Street. During this period it is most probable that the young silversmith found regular work in the city from rich clients employing his skills as a repairer of items rather than a designer and producer of silverware: “…even extremely wealthy families spent regular sums [of money] over long periods on the repair of basic household items (candlesticks, punchbowls, etc.).” In 1730 he went into partnership with John Craig and moved to Norris Street in Haymarket which was: “rapidly succeeding Cheapside as the jewellers’ quarter of London.” When Craig died five years later Wickes opened his own workshop in Panton Street, Haymarket (this is when he produced the two handled silver cup and cover I am analysing). In 1747 he went into partnership with Edward Wakelin and jeweller Samuel Netherton to create Wickes & Wakelin; the company that were later to become Garrard & Company Limited: “Crown jewellers and goldsmiths during six reigns and in three centuries.” George Wickes eventually died in 1761 at the age of 63.
It has been rumoured that Wickes tutored a young apprentice during his London years. This apprentice was perhaps one of the greatest British artists of all time; Thomas Gainsborough: “Legend has it that Gainsborough’s first teacher in London was a silversmith. Various suggestions have been made to the identity of the artisan in question. Two contenders are George Wickes and George Coyte, both Suffolk men.” It is also interesting to note that Wickes himself was always trying to improve his knowledge and artistic abilities and frequently sought to learn new techniques from his peers and contemporaries: “Wickes achieved distinction in the craft as a close follower of [Paul] Crespin and [Paul de] Lamerie.”
The silver cup and cover I am analysing is approximately 25cm in height and 35cm in width and was most probably designed as an object of display rather than an actual drinking vessel. By the 1730s, covered cups were no longer primarily intended as drinking vessels, even though they may still have been drunk from on ceremonial occasions, but were now more important as objects for display and as fine gifts passed between gentlemen. The overt grandeur of the cup heralds a period in British history that applauded opulence and demonstrations of wealth. The new cultural practice of social etiquette was centred around the dining table: “The table was the centre of social activity in the 17th and 18th centuries and, as earlier in polite society, the silver with which it was dressed reflected the wealth and social standing of the host.” With this in mind it is quite easy to imagine the cup perched proudly as the table’s centrepiece as the guests sit in wonder of the host’s grandeur. The cup is shaped as if it were a trophy, and for all intents and purposes that is what it is; draped with ornate, elaborate cast and chased representations of flourishing vine leaves and bunches of tempting grapes; both exaggerating the images of sumptuousness and overflowing prosperity. The piece falls neatly into the early Rococo phase with its Bacchic theme, proudly pointing back to the original function of the ceremonial vessel in the hands of Bacchus, the god of wine.
The vase-shaped two-handled cup was a popular design in English silver throughout the 18th century and this piece is perhaps one of the best representations of the style. The thing that literally caps it all is the regal crown sat on the very top. With this motif Wickes has undoubtedly demonstrated that he believes this piece to be one that should adorn the table of nobility.
I believe that this decorative work of art by Wickes is a superb representation of 18th century British design. The sheer magnificence of the cup is a testimony to a period when attention to lavish detail was paramount to the object’s design rather than the object’s function. It is a world poles apart than the one in which I live, in fact I do not think that a similar object would be produced today; the absurdity of a cup that was not meant to be drunk from would be too much for some! It is my opinion that Wickes was an extremely important figure in the British art movement who has been largely overshadowed by his contemporaries, in particular William Hogarth. The fact that Wickes’ cup has found a home in the Victoria & Albert Museum is testimony both to the artist and the work of art.
Asfour, Amal & Williamson, Paul (2000) Gainsborough’s Vision Liverpool University Press
Barr, Elaine (1997) Gainsborough and the Silversmith Burlington Magazine CXIX
Cock, Matthew (1996) The Arrival of the Dinner Service in Glanville, Philippa [ed.] (1996) Silver Victoria & Albert Museum
Evans, Joan (1989) A History of Jewellery 1100 – 1870 Courier Dover Productions
Newman, Harold (2000) An Illustrated Dictionary of Silverware Thames and Hudson
Pointon, Marica R. (1997) Strategies for Showing Oxford University Press
Walford, Edward [ed.] (1915) Antiquary E. Stock Publishing
Wolf, Lucien (1934) The Origins of the Provincial Communities Essays in Jewish History
Victoria & Albert Museum Website
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