Metropolitan Museum – Metalwork

THE department of Metalwork is rapidly presenting an exhaustive survey of artistic work in gold, silver, bronze, brass, iron and pewter.

As far back as 1873 the Trustees made a beginning with this department, one of the most valuable in the Museum by reason of its educational use — by ordering reproductions in metal of objects in the South Kensington Museum.

Such electrotype, or galvano reproductions are so skilfully made that it is nearly impossible to detect at sight the replicas from the originals, so that the large number of reproductions in the Museum serve all the purposes of the originals in foreign museums. Thus we find perfect duplicates of many treasures of the gold and silversmith’s art that otherwise would be lost to the local artist and artificer.

The South Kensington Collection consists of beakers, bowls, tankards, spoons, forks, knives, ewers, candlesticks, salvers, plateaux, chalices, vases, inkstands, incense holders, statuettes. President Marquand was greatly impressed with the value of these reproductions, and he had copies made for the Museum of Russian metalwork from the Imperial collections and from other sources. Thus there are superb examples of Muscovite house-hold, table and ornamental plate. Important among these is a magnificent set of a gold toilet service, used by the Empress Anna Svanovna, of Augsburg work of the middle of the 18th century. Further there are objects found in the tombs of Kertch in the Crimea; works of gold, in ” early Russian,” found in the North East of Russia, and to the South East of Siberia; specimens of old German and Russian plate ; some English work presented by the Earl of Carlisle when ambassador to Russia in 1663 ; an equestrian statuette of Charles I of England, of Augsburg work, presented by Charles to the Czar; a silver centrepiece of English work by Paul Lamerie (1733) ; and a miniature tazza, of chalcedony mounted in gold, elaborately chased in figures and groups, and attributed to Cellini.

These collections of reproductions have constantly grown, so that we may study here the golden treasure of Nagy Szent Miklo’s, found in Hungary in 1799, and now in the Imperial Art History Museum, Vienna ; and the so-called Hildesheim treasure. This consists of 38 silver vessels found near Hildesheim in Germany, in 1868, and now in the Royal Museum of Berlin. The oldest piece is a patera, or dish, of parcel gilt, with two flat handles, having a figure of the seated Athene in high relief in the centre, which dates probably from the first century before our era. There are several two-handled drinking cups of silver parcel gilt, exquisitely chased, with figures in relief, besides vases, ladles, stewpans and a tripod, all attributed to the Augustan age.

There is also a series of reproductions of Irish metalwork. Long before the introduction of Christianity, the pagan Irish practised the art of working in bronze, silver, gold and enamel, in which they displayed great mastery over the metals, and admirable skill in design. The art came to its highest perfection in the 10th and 11th centuries, after which it declined for, want of encouragement. Some of the most remarkable as well as the most beautiful and elaborately ornamented objects in the National Museum of Dublin have been reproduced for this department.

The Ardagh Chalice is an exquisite example of Celtic ornamentation, of the end of the 10th century. The Tara Brooch is ornamented with amber, glass and enamel, and the characteristic Irish filigree or interlaced work, and is of the same period as the Ardagh Chalice. Several other brooches of different designs allow one to trace the progressive methods by which the pin was made to hold fast.

The Cross of Cong, of wood plated with metal, and covered with elaborate ornamentation of pure Celtic design, was finished in 1103: St. Patrick’s Bell, of the 5th century, is protected by an elaborate shrine, made in the beginning of the 12th century, which is a fine example of goldsmith’s work.

Of the 12th century we find the reproductions of several shrines, usually of bronze, set with gold, silver, jewels, etc. There are also Croziers, or Pastoral Staffs, of bishops or abbots.

Electrotype reproductions of Mykenaean metal-work, including specimens of the art of the pre-historic Greeks, in various metals, were made from originals in the National Museum of Athens. These include inlaid daggers, a silver bull’s head with gilded horns, cups from Vaphio, and many fingerrings and other small ornaments.

The department is almost as rich in original work. Some of the articles in gold will be referred to in the chapter on Gems, but where the gold-smith’s art and not the graver’s is preeminent we must refer to it here.

In the days when war or pestilence brought hard times, it was easy to melt up gold or silver ware and turn it into coin. Many masterpieces were no doubt destroyed in this way. As recently as 1714 Louis XIV of France had all the silver used in his royal palaces melted in the mint to meet the expenses of an unfortunate war. Church ornaments were protected to a certain extent by their sacred nature. The most valuable pieces have come down to us through excavations of tombs, or from the discovery of secret hiding places where the treasure was buried to protect it from marauding enemies, and the hiding place forgotten. Thus we have several ancient Greek gold ornaments, chiefly of the Roman periods, found in tombs at Saida, Haifa and Tarsus. Others were found at Sidon and Bagdad. A gold necklace found in a Greek tomb near Smyrna, dated 400-300 B. C., is composed of 29 pearls, 22 gold heads and two cylinders of fine granulated work. A winged figure (Cupid) serves as a pendant in the centre.

A number of these pieces of ancient Greek jewelry are of extraordinary beauty and importance. They include a diadem, a necklace, a pair of ear-rings, a fingerring, seven rosettes in the form of small flowers, and nineteen beads from a necklace, all of them being of the pure yellow gold which was customarily used by the Greeks for their coins and for the better class of their jewelry. The design and the execution indicate these to be of the 4th century B. C., or in the highest development of the Hellenic period.

The decorations of the diadem are entirely repousse, hammered into low but carefully modelled reliefs. The figures of Dionysos and Ariadne, seated back to back, form the centre from which a series of scrolls, each enfolding a small female figure, no two alike, runs out terminating in a conventionalized “palmette ” pattern. The necklace consists of a closely woven braid of fine gold wire, from which amphora shaped pendants are suspended by rosettes and intertwining chains. The rosettes especially are remarkable for delicate workmanship. The single rosettes are unique in the careful manner in which the minutest details, pistils and stamens have been imitated.

We must further notice a pair of spirals of pale gold, the use of which cannot be ascertained, as they are too large for fingerrings and too small for bracelets, being about one and a half inch in diameter. The ends are decorated with balls in which human heads appear of a distinctly Hebrew type, so that they may be regarded as Phoenician work. There is also a Greek gold ring on which a dancing girl is engraved. The figure is of a type of the 5th century B. c. A Greek gold ring, the bezel of which measures 7/8 in. in diameter has engraved a fully draped woman, standing by an incense-burner. It is of the 4th century B. C.

A collection of classical Greek jewelry, dating between 400 and 300 B. c., consists of a bridal wreath, composed of oak, myrtle and hawthorn leaves and flowers ; a wreath of ivy leaves, called by the Romans ” Corona Triumphalis “; a crown with figures in relief and an inscription ” Of Idyteia, Priestess of Demeter “; a necklace of exquisite granulated work with pendant.

Only recently the Younghusband expedition to Thibet has produced a large number of art objects from the Llamissaries. From these three antique Thibetan priestly ‘helmets, profusely decorated with Buddhistic symbols, have found their way to the Museum. They are made of copper, hammered out from single pieces, then encrusted with medal-lions. These, with the brow bands and earguards were overlaid with gold. Their form is curiously archaic, and suggests exotic influence, early Indian, and possibly even Greek. The decorations are, however, purely Mongolian. One of these is here and there encrusted with crystal and turquoise.

Noteworthy among the objects in gold is the modern ” Adams Gold Vase,” an exquisite example of American goldsmith art. All the materials, the gold and the hundreds of precious stones with which it is studded, are indigenous.

Among the objects in silver we note first the ” Bryant Testimonial Vase,” perhaps the finest piece of repousse ever made, which was presented to the poet on his eightieth birthday. It is a magnificent example of the dexterity of the American silversmith. The abundance of its decorative designs reminds one of the rococo period of the late Renaissance.

Silver seems to have been a form of domestic extravagance earliest indulged in. After domestic utensils had long been made in copper and pewter, silver became the coveted material for beakers, tankards, dramcups, flagons, plates and dishes. Among these objects we will single out a silver Knight’s cup, enamelled with gold, dated 1561; a silver beaker, marked ” van Schaick, 1604,” probably of Knickerbocker times; some pieces of old English silver ; an early American silver tea set of four pieces, of 1825; and an Irish silver flat-top tankard of the time of Queen Anne. There are also reproductions in sterling silver, and exact facsimiles of the originals, of some Irish dish-rings, or punch-bowl stands of the 18th century. Some of these are plain with pierced patterns and without ornament. The later ones are pierced, and chased with animals, flowers, scenes, etc. A 16th century Italian altarpiece of silver is enamelled and studded with precious stones.

The forerunner of silver for domestic purposes was pewter, selected because the inferior value of the metal protected it against destruction, and its extreme malleability and its soft colour appealed to the art-workman.

Pewter is simply tin tempered with lead, copper, bismuth and antimony, the proportion being different in different countries. The bluer the colour the more lead is in its composition. It relies for its pleasing appearance on its form, on the quality of the alloy, and on its colour.

The period of the most showy development of pewter began in France about 1550, and Francois Briot was its most celebrated worker, although Lyons was known for its excellence in pewter ware as early as 1295. By 1600 the Nürnberg workers entered the field with richly worked plates and platters, many designed for ornament on the heavily carved dressers of the middle classes, in imitation of the gold and silver plate which was displayed by the wealthy nobles. Augsburg became also famous for its pewter. The Flemish workers of the 17th and 18th centuries often produced work of great delicacy and beauty, their best coming from Ghent. The ” rose and crown,” although a mark thought to belong to English pewter, is found on Dutch, German, French and Flemish ware. A large collection of this continental pewter is here on exhibition, with a few pieces of English and American make. There is also a Japanese pewter jar. The pewter used by the Japanese contains so much lead that it was susceptible of much working, and engraving was used as a form of decoration.

Bronze is an alloy of copper, zinc and tin, copper forming about 85 per cent of the weight. This alloy can only be poured into sand-moulds. The imitation bronze, most used for commercial purposes, is spelter or zinc, and can be cast in metal moulds, which open to take out the casting. The Japanese method of casting has also been followed in the Western countries. The model is made in hard vegetable wax with a core of clay, and covered with a mixture of clay, charcoal and sand, tempered with water, so as to be very plastic and capable of readily taking the minutest impressions. ” Jets ” for the introduction of the melted metal, and ” vents ” for the escape of air and gases are put in place, and the outer crust of clay of considerable thickness at last surrounds the model. The whole is subjected to intense heat, which bakes the clay and melts the wax which runs out, leaving the exact space for the metal to fill up. The pieces produced in this way are called a cire perdue. Barye always made his first model in wax, and had the first casting made from it in this manner. This first casting was kept as a pattern to make the moulds for subsequent copies.

Specimens of early Roman bronzes are shown, which include a ring uniting two lions’ heads face to face, a lamp with double handle, a mask of a lion’s head, tripods, disks, statuettes, sacrificial shovels, etc.

The Japanese and Chinese who are masters in all arts connected with metalwork, used different alloys which they colour in endless variety of shades. The Japanese Shakudo, or dark-bluish bronze, sometimes nearly as dark as blue steel, contains lead in the alloy, and is stained with cinnabar. We find here examples of such coloured Japanese bronzes, and also vases, kettle and winevessel made in China.

Of singular attraction is the handicraft of the ironsmith. From earliest times iron was chosen for its toughness, its elasticity, its flexibility and endurance, and it was wrought into all kinds of useful and ornamental forms. As to the antiquity of the art of the blacksmith, the reference in Genesis to Tubal-Cain as the artificer and instructor in iron and brass carries its own significance.

It is to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that we must turn for the greatest achievements. The decorating of hinges, locks and straps for chests was practised as early as the loth century. Iron embellished doors and gateways, and the de-signs for presses and chests, grilles, windowgratings and fastenings, wall-anchors, firedogs, became in Gothic and Renaissance times truly remarkable for the genuine spirit of art they express. Cast-iron never can compare with wrought-iron, forged and chiselled with artistic feeling. After the Renaissance art-smithing declined to the Baroque and Rococo periods, when it became so over-ornamented as to lose the quality of the material. The designs then have not quite the interest or charm of those of the mediaeval period.

Of English smithing there is a copy of the beautiful wrought-iron grille or grate to the tomb of Queen Eleanor (died 1290) in Westminster Abbey. It is made of the same material, the scrolls being forged and the stamped work pressed into prepared moulds. It consists of eleven panels resembling hinge-work, riveted to the face of a plain, rectangular frame, to which the arching or herse form was given, and surmounted by a row of trident spikes, used as prickets. The easy flowing lines of the vine pattern is followed in nine of the panels. We note also some Chamberlain’s keys, gilded and chased.

Of Gothic and early Renaissance German work, we have keys, lockhandles, key-hole plates, candle-sticks, scroll-work, caskets, armourer’s tools, and some exquisite work from old Nürnberg. Of the Baroque and Rococo period, hinges, clasps and straps ; and of the late Renaissance table-knives and forks, skewer-needles, etc.

The art of other nations may also be studied. There is a wrought-iron Dutch chest of the 17th century, and one of the early 19th century; a metal coffret, and a wrought-iron chancel-gate of the 14th century, from France; a pair of chiselled Milanese iron brackets of the 16th century ; and wrought-iron kitchen utensils of the 17th and 18th centuries from Spain.

Saracenic metalwork is distinguished by its frequent use of damascening. This was done by placing two sheets of different metals, copper and steel or silver, in which at different places holes were cut, not corresponding with those in the other plate. The two plates were then hammered together, the metal of the one filling the holes in the other plate. Designs were frequently cut out, and filled with the other metal in like manner. The Japanese also were expert in this work, as may be seen in their armour.

Of the Saracenic metalwork there is a variety of specimens, waterjars, trays, urns, lamps, bowls and boxes. The Mosil style of decoration of the 13th century is characterized by the lavish use of figures of men and animals.

A cognate collection is the one of Spoons, donated by Mrs. S. P. Avery. The introduction to the catalogue of this collection is an exhaustive and erudite essay on the subject. The collection ranges from a Roman spoon of white metal to the latest designs. All the earliest spoons have pear-shaped bowls. It was not until the latter part of the 17th century that they began to elongate toward the egg-shaped spoon of the present time. The collection includes a complete set of Apostle spoons, with the thirteenth, or ” Master” spoon. Also wooden Apostle spoons with metal handles, from Norway, are found here. All styles, from the 16th to the 19th century are illustrated.

A large collection of modern souvenir spoons are reminiscent of a fad of some years ago.