NEW YORK – Since the ancient Romans, the grapevine has adorned vessels for eating and drinking. Its presence evokes the whole world of Bacchus, god of wine and the grape harvest, but also god of fertility and ritual madness – the makings of a good party.

ABOVE: Detail of a pair of George IV silver "grapevine" wine coolers and liners, Paul Storr, London, 1827. To be offered in Property from a Distinguished Private Asian Collection at Sotheby's New York on 15 October.


Detail of a pair of George III parcel-gilt silver “grapevine” wine coolers, Joseph Preedy, London, 1802. 
To be offered in 
Property from a Distinguished Private Asian Collection at Sotheby's New York on 15 October.

For the latter-day Romans of Georgian and Victorian Britain, the Parliamentary system kept power in the hands of wealthy landowners. Political decisions were made around the dining table, particularly after the ladies had withdrawn and the heavy imbibing began. The dining room became a masculine space, a temple to male drinking and the power that went with it – and therefore to Bacchus.

Detail of a Victorian silver and cut-glass “grapevine” garniture, Alexander Macrae/Frederick Elkington, London, 1863–72.
To be offered in Property from a Distinguished Private Asian Collection at Sotheby's New York on 15 October.

The mid-19th century, grapevine exploded across dining rooms – vine swags adorned wine coolers, but also more unexpected pieces like soup tureens, candelabra, chimneypieces and console tables. Classical motifs included lion heads turned vegetarians, as silversmiths and carvers made them hold clusters of grapes in their mouths, while goat and ram heads did the same with less long-suffering looks.

Detail of an English silver-gilt cup and cover, D. & J. Welby Ltd., London, 1928, after a Georgian original. 
To be offered in Collections: Silver, Vertu, and Russian Works of Art at Sotheby's New York on 14 October.

The vine also evoked the warmer climates where grapes are grown, particularly France and Italy. For the northern grandees gathered around the table, this would recall the Grand Tour, the Continental sojourn for well-heeled young men after the monastic enclosures of their prep schools and colleges. Under Mediterranean skies, with vineyards on the slopes behind them, these British boys discovered classical civilization, polite society, drinking and sex – Bacchanalian revelry.

Mezzotint of "Members of the Society of Dilettanti," William Say after Sir Joshua Reynolds’s painting of 1777–79.

This was the appeal of grapevine in gloomy London or frigid Yorkshire, a call to not just the classical past, but the personal past of the now worthy and portly figures gathered around the mahogany. A memory of youth and sunshine, raucous laughter in softer climes, when they themselves were the slim young gods of the grape.

Detail of a pair of Victorian silver figural "grape arbor" tazze, John S. Hunt for Hunt & Roskell, London, 1848.
To be offered in Property from a Distinguished Private Asian Collection at Sotheby's New York on 15 October.

Property from a Distinguished Private Asian Collection

15 October 2015 | New York

Collections: Silver, Vertu, and Russian Works of Art

14 October 2015 | New York