T his silver menagerie, featuring fifteen novelty animals, is one of the highlights of this season's Style: European Silver, Ceramics & Objects of Vertu auction in London on 22 May. Offering an array of elephants and rhinoceroses, as well as monkeys, pigs, birds and mice, this sale provides an opportunity to acquire a decorative and usable piece of antique silver suitable for the contemporary interior.
The largest elephant in the sale, Lot 346, weighs nearly 12kg of solid silver and is purely decorative, but its scale and weight make it an enviable centrepiece. Lot 348, at the other end of the spectrum, is a rare example of a cream jug, whilst Lot 350, with its hinged hide, provides a compartment for cufflinks or trinkets.
Silver animals became popular across Europe during the 16th century and became a fundamental part of societal engagement. The German Trinkspielen or ‘drinking game’ became synonymous in dining culture with fantastic vessels in silver and gold passed around the table during and after lavish feasts. These vessels, modelled as lions, bears, birds, stags and other noble creatures were produced by some of the finest goldsmiths of the period and today remain incredibly valuable.
During the Victorian age, silver novelty animals were produced in a different context, made to mirror social and political events of the time, as well as providing an interesting talking point. Lot 354, as an example of the former, was most probably made in response to Charles Darwin’s provocative and often lampooned On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, first published in 1859.
The controversy stirred by the book was still alive in the 1870s and in May 1874 The London Sketch Book, a short-lived illustrated magazine, published a caricature of a monkey-like Darwin holding a hand mirror up to the face of his companion, an actual monkey. The latter’s head and features are uncannily like those depicted by this unusual lighter.