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How British silver seduced 17th-century imperial Russia

It was a case of international economics and politics in kettles and coolers

by Tess Murdoch  |  29 February 2016
How British silver seduced 17th-century imperial Russia
The body of this silver chinoiserie “chaudron” (tea kettle with burner and stand, 1743-45) by Nicholas Sprimont of London is chased with scenes from “Chinese” life; on one side a man pours tea for a woman seated at a table. The figure of the tea server is
Three hundred and seventy pieces of British-made silver in the State Hermitage Museum range in size and importance from thimbles to a wine cooler large enough to bathe the young Tsarevitch Ivan VI in 1740. This, the Jernegan-Kandler wine cooler, familiar from Elkington’s 1880s electrotype in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Whiteley Silver Galleries, has been justly described as both “the most extraordinary piece of silverwork to be made in England in the 18th century” and “the ugliest”. Figurative handles of Demeter and Bacchus symbolise summer and autumn and were modelled by the sculptor John Michael Rysbrack, also responsible for the bacchanalian reliefs. Commissioned by the banker-goldsmith Littleton Poyntz Meynell through Henry Jernegan and designed by the antiquary George Vertue, the cooler was made under the supervision of the leading goldsmith, Charles Kandler. Meynell defaulted; the wine cooler was disposed by lottery in 1737 to Major William Battine of East Marden, Sussex, and sold in 1738 to the imperial Russian court. Inside, appropriate engraving of fountains with spouting dragons is inspired by the contemporary designs of Jacques de Lajoue.

Kandler also marked the toilet mirror embellished with flowers and the Russian imperial arms recorded in Oranienbaum Summer Palace in the 19th century. For the same setting, Nicholas Sprimont contributed a spectacular chinoiserie tea kettle ordered through the Russian envoy in London, S.K. Naryshkin. A memoir in French dated 1743 records the original request from Empress Elizabeth for a table with a tea, chocolate and coffee service decorated with the appropriate plant forms. Two teapots were ordered: one for saffron, with a burner to keep the liquids warm. The surviving “chaudron” marked by Sprimont is a masterpiece; with an original weight of 58oz, the central scene is chased after the print of Fire, from The Four Elements after Boucher. Surmounted by a pagod, the spout is formed as a dragon; the trivet supported by a tray with four heads representing a European, Arab, African and Chinese.

These highlights demonstrate how the taste for European decorative arts was fuelled and furnished by flourishing economic and political ties between England and Russia, a complex narrative captured by Marina Lopato in her introduction to British Silver: State Hermitage Museum Catalogue. Successive Russian envoys in London included A.M. Golitsyn who in 1759 took delivery of a toilet service adorned with diamonds for imperial use (no longer extant). British merchants established in the English Quay, St Petersburg, substantially increased the volume of shipping between London and the Russian capital. Catherine the Great became “the most outstanding client” of London’s royal goldsmiths Rundell, Bridge & Rundell.

Detailed photographs of these masterpieces reveal their excellent surface condition, thanks to careful Russian neglect of surface cleaning. The Russian edition of this catalogue was published in 2014. Catherine Phillips is responsible for the masterly translation for this English edition, which marks the 250th anniversary of this great museum. Professor Brian Allen, while the London-based director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the chairman of the UK Hermitage Foundation, championed their decorative as well as fine art collections. This most important collection of British silver outside the UK is now accessible to a wider international audience.

• Tessa Murdoch is the deputy keeper of sculpture, metalwork, ceramics and glass and of the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

British Silver: State Hermitage Museum Catalogue
Marina Lopato
Yale University Press, 400pp, £100 (hb)

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