Hamlet’s principal silversmith during the most fruitful years of his career was William Elliott of Clerkenwell and it is the latter’s mark which is struck on the mounts of this flask. Moreover, while the design of Elliott’s mounts, particularly the shape of the screw-on cover, nods in the direction of China as befits the flask itself, the silversmith was actually looking for his inspiration at a pair of late 17th century silver flasks, George Garthorne, London, 1690, which were then owned by the Duke of York. These were acquired in 1827 by George IV and are now in the royal collection, presently on view in the Lantern Lobby, Windsor Castle. Elliott (and therefore Hamlet) knew of the Garthorne flasks as early as 1823 when he copied them for the Peel family of Drayton Manor, Staffordshire, one of whom was Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), Home Secretary from 1822 to 1827 and Prime Minister in 1834/35 and from 1841 to 1846.
That the flask in this lot is said to have been removed from Brighton Pavilion immediately brings to mind the large number of Oriental vases, flasks and other objects, many mounted in ormolu, which George, Prince of Wales, later George IV, began to acquire in the 1780s for the Chinese Room at Carlton House.1 Many of these treasures were later removed to the Prince’s seaside villa or palace at Brighton, which he and his architect, John Nash enlarged and embellished between about 1815 and mid 1820s; as a writer in The Brighton Gleaner observed, it was a continuing project:
‘The splendid decorations of the palace, in the aggregate considered, afford the most pleasing testimony, that John Bull, with suitable encouragement, has it within the scope of his own powers, to excel all the boasted frippery ornaments of the continent.
‘The palace, generally, however, is yet undergoing improvements, the real nature of which it is impossible to write with certainty upon, though they are to be continued in the Chinese taste and style, and to display a magnificence suitable to the high rank and dignity of the owner.’2
The taste for Chinese decoration was shared by a number of the Prince’s contemporaries. Harley Place, Bath, belonging to Sir Robert Wilmot, 3rd Bt. (1765-1842) boasted ‘a tasteful Chinese passage . . . handsomely fitted up with Chinese decoration.’3 The Hon. Frederick West (1767-1852), third son of 2nd Earl De La Warr, lived at 37 Upper Grosvenor Street, which for the 1819 season had undergone improvements including the Chinese Room which ‘displayed all its nouvelle embellishments.’4
Of this relatively small group of sinophiles, apart from the Prince of Wales himself, by far the most celebrated was William Beckford (1760-1844), the wealthy, eccentric bibliophile and collector who built Fonthill Abbey. He amassed a large group of Chinese ceramics, many of which were mounted in silver or silver-gilt. Perhaps the most striking example was the white porcelain bottle made at Jinkdezhen early in the 14th century which had been presented to Charles III of Durazzo by Louis the Great of Hungary in 1381.5
The mounts on the present flask bear the mark of William Elliott (1773-1855), the manufacturing silversmith of 25 Compton Street, Clerkenwell. The lack of any substantial information about him and his workshop in no way diminishes the exceptional quality of much of the surviving silver and silver-gilt which bears his mark. As in the retail/manufacturer relationships which existed between Rundell, Bridge & Rundell and Paul Storr and Kensington Lewis and Edward Farrell, there is good evidence to suggest that Elliott was chief supplier of new plate to the goldsmith and jeweller, Thomas Hamlet (1770?-1853).
William Elliott, who was born on 22 March 1773 and baptized at St. James’s, Piccadilly on 6 April following, was the eldest child of William Elliott and his wife, Rebecca.6 At the age of 14 in May 1787 he was apprenticed to Richard Gardner, Citizen and Goldsmith, of Silver Street, Golden Square, Soho, when his father was described as ‘of Warwick Lane London plate worker.’7
Richard Gardner (active ?1745-?1795) had been apprenticed in 1745 to William Cripps (1715-1766), a prominent London manufacturing and retail silversmith of the middle of the 18th century, who in turn was apprenticed in 1731 to the Huguenot goldsmith, David Willaume (1658-1741).
Elliott gained his freedom of the Goldsmiths’ Company upon completing his apprenticeship on 1 April 1795. In 1799 he was recorded as of Warwick Lane (not to be confused with his father at the same address) when he took John Angell, brother of Joseph Angell, as apprentice.8
Although for the next ten and a half years Elliott disappears from view, he was married and had two children: Richard William (1805?-1866) and Jane Rebecca (1805?-1860). The next firm date found for him is 6 October 1809, when he entered his first mark in partnership with Joseph William Story (1781?-1864), from 25 Compton Street, Clerkenwell.
A former apprentice of the smallworker Abstainando King (1764-1833), Story dissolved his partnership with Elliott in 1813. Story is then discovered as a silversmith in Southwark on 8 July 1821 when one of his daughters, Ann Sarah was christened at St. Saviour. On 28 December 1830, Story, his wife, Mary (née Gilbert), their six children and Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert arrived at Hobart Town, Tasmania on board the ship ‘Mary.’ Unlike the London silversmith Thomas Wimbush (1805/06-1869), however, who was transported to the island at Her Majesty’s pleasure in 1849, Story’s emigration was voluntary.9
William Elliott remained at 25 Compton Street for the rest of his working life. Among his apprentices there were Charles Fry (d. 1826) and his brother, John (d. 1859). Subsequently also working in Clerkenwell, the Frys entered their joint mark on 29 August 1822. Their work, which is not common, includes a pair of five-light candelabra, London, 1824/25, the bases of which are cast with the royal arms.10 It has been suggested that they might have been Elliott’s outworkers.
In 1842 Elliott apparently handed over the day to day running of the business to his son, Richard William. The latter’s mark, entered on 13 January that year, is seldom seen, however, which his hardly surprising because he was declared bankrupt less than two years later in November 1843.11 Meanwhile, his father, a widower, retired with his daughter12 to a five bedroom house at Northfleet Hill, near Gravesend, Kent, with ‘excellent soft water, commanding views of the river and country,’13 where he died in 1855. His will, signed on 12 March 1852, was proved on 17 September 1855 by his executors, his daughter and his nephew, John Julius Elliott (1821-1897).14
The following is a select list of items bearing William Elliott’s mark (sometimes erroneously attributed to the silver spoon and fork maker, William Eaton), which were or are believed to have been retailed by Thomas Hamlet:
1814 – a silver-gilt tankard, goat and putti pattern,15 engraved with the royal arms, said to have been from the collection of Frederick Augustus, Duke of York (1763-1827). (Christie’s, London, 25 March 1981, lot 151)
1818 – a pair of silver-gilt candlesticks, the stems in the form of young Chinese noblemen (Sotheby’s, London, 30 November 1967, lot 121)
1820 – a silver-gilt ewer and basin, engraved with the arms of Princess Augusta Sophia (1768-1840), second daughter of George III and Queen Charlotte. (Sotheby’s, New York, 6 April 1989, lot 93)
1820/25 – a silver-gilt toilet service, engraved with the initial M below a royal coronet for Princess Mary, later Duchess of Gloucester (1776-1857), fourth daughter of George III and Queen Charlotte. (Christie’s, London, 6 May 1959) Subsequently items from this service appeared at auction separately, including the mirror, 1825 (Sotheby’s, London, 14 December 1972, lot 63), and two caskets, 1820 (Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 14 February 1983, lot 46 and Sotheby’s, London, 2 June 1992, lot 126).
1821 – a silver coffee pot, stand and burner, engraved with the arms of Frederick Augustus, Duke of York (1763-1827). (Christie’s, London, 22 March 1827, 4th session, lot 82; Sotheby’s, London, 6 March 1997, lot 126)
1822 – a silver six-light candelabrum centrepiece, presented to the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, the base stamped: ‘Hamlet, goldsmith to His Majesty The Duke of York & Royal Family’
1823 – a pair of silver wine bottles or flasks, engraved with the arms of Peel of Drayton Manor, Staffordshire (Christie’s, New York, 17 October 1996, lot 246).16 These are copies of the pair of flasks, George Garthorne, London, 1690, which were in the collection of Frederick Augustus, Duke of York (1763-1827) (Fig.3).17
1826 – a silver entrée dish and cover, engraved with the arms of George Hamilton Chichester, Earl of Belfast, later 3rd Marquess of Donegall (1797-1883), against whom in of before 1834 Thomas Hamlet had secured two bonds for the repayment of £23,059 and £11,251 13s.18
1829 – a pair of silver candlesticks, the stems cast as figures of Pluto and Prosperpina after original Kloster Veilsdorf porcelain candlesticks, the original model for which is thought to be by Friedrich Wilhelm Eugen Döll.19 (Christie’s, London,18 May 1966, lot 14)
1829 – a silver two-bottle inkstand with table bell, inscribed: ‘The Gift of his Majesty King William the 4th to Prince George of Cumberland 27th May 1832’ (Christie’s, 12 June 2007, lot 27)
1832 – a pair of silver seven-light candelabra, the bases stamped: ‘Hamlet Goldsmith to the King’ (Christie’s, London, 23 May 1973, lot 48)
Thomas Hamlet, Goldsmith to the King
Thomas Hamlet’s is an altogether more complex story. He is said to have been one of the illegitimate children of the notorious Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer (1708-1781), a claim apparently first published in 1883 by William Chaffers (1811-1892), the well-known authority on silver and ceramics.20 He (Chaffers) may have had some private knowledge in that either he or his father, also William (1784-1867), established City of London pawnbrokers, dealers in coins, silversmiths, &c. was among Hamlet’s creditors. Likewise, one of these Chaffers was chosen as an assignee when Hamlet was finally declared bankrupt in 1841.21
Other reports published following Hamlet’s death in 1853 stated that he was born at Boughton, Cheshire about 1770. According to these, he left Chester as a poor boy to make his fortune in London. One local newspaper, hinting at some special knowledge, told its readers who might be interested in learning of Hamlet’s origins that his niece was married to William Jones, overseer in the 1820s at St. Oswald’s, Chester.22
According to Chaffers, Hamlet's rise began as one of the assistants, together with Francis Lambert (1778/80-1841, founder of Lambert & Rawlings), of ‘Mr. Clark, of Exeter Change, who dealt in cutlery, bronzes, clocks, watches, jewellery, and silver goods.’23 This was the hardwareman and toyman, Thomas Clark (1737?-1816), one of London’s ‘most singular and well-known characters,’ who is said to have died leaving a fortune of £300,000. It was he who in 1770 established the Exeter Change menagerie, where, or, rather, at the adjoining Lyceum, in 1790 he exhibited a rhinoceros - a ‘wonderful Herculean Quadruped’ - imported from India.24 The following year, Clark sold his business interests and retired to Upper Belgrave Place, Pimlico. This more or less coincided with the marriage on 25 April 1791 at St. George, Hanover Square, of his daughter, Elizabeth, to his young assistant, Thomas Hamlet.
Chaffers states that, ‘About 1800 Hamlet took a shop on his own account, together with Lambert, in St. Martin’s Court. . . Here they sold jewellery, second-hand plate, fishing-tackle, &c.’25 This may have been the case but in 1792 Hamlet was apparently there alone. That year, describing himself as a dealer in umbrellas, he prosecuted Mary Cockayne, a pockmarked 45-year old Londoner for having taken several umbrellas from a hook at his shop door.26 Hamlet then moved, perhaps as early as 1796, to 1 Princes Street, corner of Sydneys Alley, Leicester Fields (later Square), where he traded as a (retail) jeweller / goldsmith and toyman / silversmith and supplier of military and civil decorations.
Over the next 35 years and more, Hamlet traded with great success, building up his business, his clientele to include royalty and the nobility and in the process his own fortune (Fig.4). At one time his London residence was in Cavendish Square and in 1813 he purchased Denham Court, Buckinghamshire from Sir George Bowyer25 (1783-1860).27 With these properties to fill, Hamlet became a passionate collector of pictures, works of art and, probably, armour.28 His anonymous sale by George Robins on 3 February 1834 included ‘a small collection of Articles in taste and vertu – very limited in number, but exceedingly rare and precious in quality,’ which the auctioneer advertised as having ‘been deposited as a collateral security, and are now consigned to the uncertain fate of the hammer.’29 Among this group was ‘THE TWELVE CÆSARS IN MASSIVE SILVER . . . by the celebrated BENVENUTO CELLINI,’ more familiarly known now as the Aldobrandini Tazzas, which have been the subject of recent study and an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.30 Ellenor Alcorn and Timothy Schroder suggest in the catalogue of this exhibition that Hamlet may have been holding these items as collateral for the actual owner, perhaps a member of the royal family.31 While this might have been so, there is also the possibility that Hamlet may have owned them himself, including the ‘Twelve Caesars’; in 1841 it was revealed that at this time (1834) he was in financial difficulty and had ‘executed an assignment in trust of all his debts, securities, stock in trade freehold and leasehold estates [together with his ‘valuable books and paintings’] to [among others] John Linnit, of 9, Cursitor-Street, Chancery-lane, goldsmith . . . and William Elliott, of Compton-street, silversmith, for the benefit of themselves and other creditors. . .’32 This might also mean that from 1834 some or all of the profits from Hamlet's business were set aside for the payment of his debts.
In March 1826, Hamlet sold for £9,000 three paintings, the cream of his collection, to the National Gallery.33 The most important of these was Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne,’ which he had acquired in 1816. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was during the following month, April 1826 that Kensington Lewis was reported to have purchased the Aldobrandini Tazzas ‘at a large price’ and was clearly looking for a buyer.34 Given that Thomas Hamlet was an avid collector, could he have been that buyer?
Either way, the mid 1820s were a critical moment in Hamlet’s life. On the surface he appeared to be the exceeding prosperous owner of a flourishing business. Out of sight, however, he was clearly over extending his finances in a number of projects for which the year 1825 became notorious for its plethora of risky commercial schemes. For instance, he involved himself as chairman in the General Pearl and Coral Fishery Association (capital £500,000), a ‘wild and unprofitable’ venture which eventually yielded nothing in the way of discoveries.35
Hamlet’s speculations in property were no more successful.36 In the spring of 1828, with the opening of his Bazaar in Oxford Street, intended as a fashionable resort, with its ‘British Diorama’ consisting of four 27 by 35ft. pictures by well-known theatrical scene painters and stands let at so much per foot for selling luxury goods, he hoped to recoup his losses. Unfortunately, at the end of May the following year the Bazaar was destroyed by fire. Hamlet was determined to rebuild and the new structure opened as the Queen’s Bazaar in late 1829 or early 1830. In 1838 he began to covert the building into a theatre, the Princess’s, which opened with a series of promenade concerts in the autumn of 1840. But six months later, Hamlet was adjudged bankrupt, which created ‘a good deal of astonishment in money circles, he being considered a very wealthy individual.’37 The Princess’s was sold and prospered under a succession of managements, including that of Charles Kean with his series of ground-breaking Shakespeare revivals throughout the 1850s. The theatre was closed in 1902 and demolished in 1931.
This was the end of Hamlet’s career. He retired with his daughter, Elizabeth38 to live at 5 Park Place, St. James’s Street, where he died on 21 February 1853. He was buried a week later at All Souls Cemetery, Kensal Green.
Thomas Hamlet, who had had such an exciting, even extraordinary career as a shopkeeper goldsmith, was ultimately the victim of his own enthusiasms and overreaching ambitions. Immortalized by Thackeray in The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond (1848/49) as ‘the great jeweller, Mr. Polonius,’ it was the journalist George Augustus Sala who had the last word. He recalled that Hamlet had ‘amassed an immense fortune, but muddled it away on disastrous speculations, among which was a large investment in Royal Bonds which were never paid.’39
1. Geoffrey de Bellaigue, ‘Samuel Parker and the Vullimays, purveyors of gilt bronze,’ The Burlington Magazine, London, January 1997, pp. 26-37
2. Brighton, Monday, 26 August 1822, p. 261
3. The Bath Chronicle, Bath, Thursday, 5 November 1818, p. 1c
4. The Morning Post, London, Monday, 21 June 1819, p. 3c
5. Illustrated in the frontispiece of John Britton’s Graphical and Literary Illustration of Fonthill Abbey, 1823. This piece, now stripped of its mounts and in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, is discussed in Gillian Wilson, Mounted Oriental Porcelain in the J. Paul Getty Museum, revised edition, Los Angeles, 1999, p. 4, figs. 2 and 3.
6. His younger brother, Richard, who was born on 18 December 1780 and baptised at St. Olave, Southwark on 10 January 1781, became a noted Wesleyan minister in Devizes, Wiltshire. He died in 1853. In his will, signed on 19 August 1848 and proved on 17 March 1853, he bequeathed to his brother, ‘William Elliott of Northfleet Kent Gentleman the sum of nineteen pounds and nineteen shillings as a small token of my regard.’ (National Archives, Kew, PROB 11/2168). Richard Elliott was buried in the Tottenham Court Chapel. There is an engraved portrait of him, published in 1831 by Rudolph Ackerman, in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
7. London Metropolitan Archives, ELJL/1181/89; A.G. Grimwade, London Goldsmiths, p. 503
8. A.G. Grimwade, London Goldsmiths, 1990 edition, pp. 424 and 735
9. Archives Office of Tasmania, Series Number: MB2/39/1/1
10. Sworders, 17 April 2018, lot 269. See A.G. Grimwade, London Goldsmiths, p. 516. Charles Fry’s will, signed on 6 March 1826 was proved on 10 August following (National Archives, Kew, PROB 11/1715)
11. The London Gazette, London, Friday, 1 December 1843, p. 4228a. For further information, see John Culme, The Directory of Gold and Silversmiths, Woodbridge, 1987, vol. I, p. 143. R.W. Elliott was married to Emma Venner on 15 January 1842 at the Parish Chapel of St. Pancras. Following his bankruptcy he re-established as a dealer in plaster of paris but failed again, registering as a bankrupt on 26 March 1863 (The London Gazette, London, Tuesday, 28 April 1863, p. 2286). His will was proved by his widow on 7 June 1866, when his effects were valued at under £100.
12. Jane Rebecca Elliott, who died early in 1860, was interred at Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington (plot Sec. C03, Index 1S10)
13. Kentish Independent, Woolwich, Saturday, 9 June 1855, p. 1b
14. National Archives, Kew, PROB 11/2219
15. A number of silver-gilt tankards of this pattern have been recorded, the earliest of which bears the mark of Joseph William Story and William Elliott, 1812 (Sotheby’s, London, 27 February 1992, lot 152) and the latest, William Elliott, 1827 (Sotheby’s, London, 9 November 1999, lot 123)
16. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, in memory of Judge Irwin Untermyer, 2016 (Accession nos. 2016.710.1 and 2016.710.2)
17. Described as a pair of ‘Scotch flaggons,’ Duke of York’s sale, fourth day, Christie’s, London, 22 March 1827, lot 87; E. Alfred Jones, The Gold and Silver of Windsor Castle, Letchworth, p. 36, pl. XVIII
18. The Era, London, Sunday, 25 April 1841, p. 7a
19. For a pair of these porcelain sticks, see Sotheby’s, London, 1 May 2018, lot 251
20. Gilda Aurifabrorum, p. 95
21. The Era, London, Sunday, 11 April 1841, p. 7a
22. Chester Chronicle, Chester, Saturday, 5 March 1853, p. 8b. For Jones, see Chester Chronicle, Chester, Friday, 11 August 1820, p. 2c, &c.
23. Gilda Aurifabrorum, p. 95
24. N. Burt, Delineation of Curious Foreign Beasts and Birds, London, 1791, pp. 9 and 10; T.H. Clark, The Rhinoceros from Dűrer to Stubbs, 1515-1799, London, 1986, p. 73
25. Gilda Aurifabrorum, p. 96
26. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 23 May 1792
27. At the time of Hamlet’s bankruptcy in 1841, Sir George was one of the debtors to the amount of £12,246 (The Era, London, Sunday, 21 April 1841, p. 4b)
28. For further comment, see Mark Westgarth, 'A Biographical Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Antique & Curiosity Dealers,' The Journal of the Regional Furniture Society, vol. XXII, 2009, p. 113. It is likely that the large collection of armour, sold anonymously at auction by George Robins at the Queen’s Bazaar, Oxford Street (premises owned by Thomas Hamlet) on 13 March 1834, belonged to Hamlet. (The Morning Post, London, Saturday, 11 January 1834, p. 4e)
29. The London Courier and Evening Gazette, London, Tuesday, 21 January 1834, p. 1d; The Gentleman’s Magazine, London, April 1834, p. 418
30. Julia Siemon, editor, The Silver Caesars, A Renaissance Mystery, exhibition catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2017
31. ibid. ‘The Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century History of the Tazze,’ p. 205, note 13
32. The Era, 25 April 1841, p. 7a.
33. The Globe, London, Tuesday, 25 April 1826, p. 3d.
34. The Morning Chronicle, London, Saturday, 29 April 1826, p. 3c
35. The Morning Chronicle, London, Thursday, 17 March 1825, p. 1b
36. See, for instance, correspondence and plans for the proposed development of part of the Crown’s Estate at Millbank (National Archives, Kew, CRES 2/682)
37. The Times, London, 8 April 1841, p. 7b
38. Elizabeth Hamlet was born on 22 May 1795 and baptised on 18 June following at St. Anne, Soho. She died unmarried on 17 May 1865 at 13 Great College Street, Westminster, a boarder in the house of William Underwood Whitney, a surgeon (1861 Census). Her will was proved on 9 June following, with effects valued at under £200. For further information, see Peter James Bowman, The Fortune Hunter, Oxford, 2010, p. 138 et seq.
39. The life and adventures of George Augustus Sala written by himself, London, 1895, vol. I, p. 125
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