This dish, a rare surviving example of the kind of functional plate found listed in late 16th and early 17th century inventories, is of a similar design as the dishes in the unique set now known as the ‘Armada Service,’ purchased in 1992 by the British Museum. As Dora Thornton and Michael Cowell observed in 1996, ‘Undecorated plate of this sort would have been particularly vulnerable in times of financial need, since its bullion value far outweighed its decorative appeal.’ They also state that of the original number of dishes comprising the ‘Armada Service’ when found in Devonshire in 1827, four of unknown size and weight disappeared before 1885.1
The 26 ‘Armada Service’ dishes in the British Museum were hallmarked in London between 1581 and 1602. Each is parcel-gilt and engraved with the arms of Harris impaling Sydenham for Sir Christopher Harris (1553?-1625) of Radford, near Plymouth, Devon and his second wife, Mary (1536-before 1617), a daughter of Sir John Sydenham. The two oldest dishes in the service, both hallmarked 1581, bear the same maker’s mark as on this present dish: three trefoils slipped.
Harris, who was knighted in 1607, was elected M.P. for Plymouth in 1584, largely through the influence of his employer, Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford (1527-1585). He appears to have shown little interest in Parliament, however, and following Bedford’s death he began representing Sir Walter Raleigh (1554?-1618) in local (Devonshire) matters. In 1592 Raleigh appointed Harris to look after the Mãe de Deus, a Portuguese treasure ship captured by the English on her return from a highly lucrative voyage to the East Indies. Its fabulous cargo comprised jewels and pearls, gold and silver coins, rich cloths in abundance, as well as tons of valuable spices, supposed to have been worth £500,000. In 1596 Harris was further advanced (and no doubt enriched) by Raleigh who appointed him deputy vice-admiral of Devon. As his biographer, P.W. Hasler put it, Charles Harris ‘was one and the same time country gentleman, servant of a great man and efficient local official.’2
The Goldsmiths’ Company’s pre-1697 maker’s marks registers
It is generally known among devotees of old English silver, that the names of the owners of London goldsmiths’ marks before 1697 have been lost to history. Heroic efforts by a number of scholars since the middle of the 19th century have sought to reunite these names and marks, most recently David M. Mitchell in his monumental Silversmiths in Elizabethan and Stuart London. But as he has written, the task is far from straightforward: ‘Unless marks consisting purely of devices are a rebus on the silversmith’s name, they can only be attributed by a process of elimination, i.e. by finding individuals whose working life fits the period of the surviving plate,’ adding, ‘Perhaps it is a fool’s errand to start such a search . . .’3
The root of the problem lies in the disappearance of the London Goldsmiths’ Company’s pre-1697 records relating to makers’ (or workmens’) marks from the 14th century, the time when such marks were first required by law to be registered. The author of The Touchstone for Gold and Silver Wares confirms that these records, or at least some of them, were extant in 1677, when his book was published. The Goldsmiths, he writes, ‘have also made, in part of their Hall, a place, called by them the Assay Office, wherein is kept, for publick view, a table or tables artificially made in columns, that is to say, one column of hardened lead, another of parchment for velom, and several of the same sorts. In the lead columns are struck or entered the workers’ marks . . . , and writ against them, in the parchment columns, are writ and entered the owners’ names.
It would appear that these records were accidently destroyed as early as 1681:
‘London, Novem. 23. This Morning about 4 or 5 a Clock, broak forth a dreadful Fire in Goldsmiths-Hall, which burnt very vehemently for two hours, and consumed some part thereof, occasion’d by some carelessness in or near the Say-Office: Some say, that the day before they had a more than ordinary fire to try several quantities of wrought Plate. Others report, that Women had been a washing, and left their fire negligently, which occasion’d the mischief: But by the application of Engines which were brought within the Square, the same was extinguished, and the Hall and Parlour stands entire; but the loss is said to be considerable, having burnt some of their Books, and the Clarks House ruined and consumed.’4
Surviving plate bearing the 'three trefoils slipped' mark
Although the name of the goldsmith whose mark was 'three trefoils slipped' has been lost, a number of significant examples of silver and silver-gilt bearing this mark have survived, including:
1570, circa – silver-mounted white Siegburg stoneware pot (Victoria and Albert Museum, museum no. 130-1908)
1576 – The Gibbon Salt, the gift of the goldsmith Simon Gibbon to the Goldsmiths’ Company, London on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1632. (Simon Gibbon, Citizen and Goldsmith of London, will proved, London, 17 March 1645 (National Archives, PROB 11/192)). (Fig.1)
1579 – silver-gilt and agate ewer (The Duke of Rutland)
1581 – silver-gilt and agate basin (The Duke of Rutland)
1581 – two dishes, 34.5cm. 27.1cm. diameter, from the ‘Armada Service’ (British Museum)
1582 – silver-gilt standing cup and cover (Mr. and Mrs. Ernest R. Innes, Christie’s, London, 11 December 1935, lot123; Lord Harris of Peckham, Christie’s, London, 25 November 2008, lot 56, unsold; private collection)
1585, circa – Chinese blue and white porcelain flask, Wan Li period, mounted in silver-gilt as a ewer, circa 1585 (thought to have belonged to William Cecil, Lord Burghley , Burghley House, Stamford, Northamptonshire and thence by descent; sold Christie’s, London, 7-8 June 1888, lot 256; J. Pierpont Morgan; J.P. Morgan Jr.; sold 1944 to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession no. 44.14.2)
1585, circa – Chinese blue and white porcelain bowl (same provenance; sold 1944 to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession no. 44.14.4)
1585, circa – Chinese blue and white porcelain dish (same provenance; sold 1944 to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession no. 44.14.1)
1585, circa – Chinese blue and white porcelain bowl (same provenance; sold 1944 to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession no. 44.14.3)
1585, circa – Chinese blue and white porcelain bowl (same provenance; sold 1944 to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession no. 44.14.5)
1585– Chinese blue and white porcelain ewer, Wan Li period, mounted in silver-gilt (Victoria and Albert Museum, museum no. 7915-1862)
1585 – standing cup and cover (A.E. Jones, The Old English Plate of the Emperor of Russia, London, 1909, pl. III, no. 1
1586 – the silver dish in this lot
1590 – silver-gilt standing cup and cover (Victoria and Albert Museum, museum no. M.356: 1, 2-1927)
Philippa Glanville suggests a possible Flemish connection for the 'three trefoils slipped' mark, which could entail an English goldsmith with knowledge of the most up-to-date ornament and techniques from the Low Countries.5
There is no record of any item of London hallmarked silver dated later than 1590/91 (date letter N) which also bears the 'three trefoils slipped' maker’s mark .6
It is to be regretted that so few pieces with the 'three trefoils slipped' mark are known. That said, the design and quality of much of what does survive is exceptional. Mrs. Glanville describes as ‘magnificent’ the Gibbon Salt and the Duke of Rutland’s ewer and basin (see 1576, 1579 and 1581 in the above list) and of the silver-gilt strapwork on the various blue and white Chinese porcelain vessels from Burghley (circa 1585 in the above list), she says is of ‘incomparably higher quality’ than that on most mounted pieces of the period.7
Queen Elizabeth I’s goldsmiths
The workmanship of these objects is similar in quality to that of some of the best contemporaneous silver and silver-gilt work, including that bearing the goldsmith’s mark of a bird. The latter has been convincingly attributed by Timothy Schroder and Mrs. Glanville to Affabel Partridge (1520?-1602).8 Soon after Queen Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne in November 1558 she appointed Partridge as one of her ‘chief & Principall Goldsmiths,’ the other being Robert Brandon (d. 1591).
Could Brandon have been the owner of the 'three trefoils slipped' mark? If so, his reputation would not have suffered had he been known as the original purveyor of the Gibbon Salt and the Rutland ewer and basin or have been responsible for the mounts on the Burghley pieces. Both Partridge and Brandon were senior members of the Goldsmiths’ Company, which they served in various capacities including that of Prime Warden: Partridge in 1578/79 and Brandon in 1582/83.
Both Partridge and Brandon were among the prominent City of London goldsmiths who ran their businesses from Goldsmiths’ Row on the south side of Cheapside near St. Paul’s Cathedral. Several descriptions of this magnet for wealthy visitors tell of the importance of the shops there. Thomas Platter in 1599 wrote that, ‘In one very long street called Cheapside dwell almost only goldsmiths and moneychangers on either hand, so that inexpressibly great treasure and vast amounts of money may be seen there.’9 And in 1613 the Duke of Saxe-Weimar was equally impressed, recording that: ‘Goldsmiths Street [sic] is the finest and richest in the city. Numerous goldsmiths dwell here, all near together, where immense stores of silver and gilt drinking and other vessels, as well as gold and silver coin, are daily displayed.’10
Robert Brandon became free by redemption (i.e. by the payment of a fee) of the Goldsmiths’ Company on 3 February 1548. Following his tenure as Prime Warden, he was elected on 8 January 1583 to the important office of Chamberlain (treasurer) of the City of London. By his first wife, Katherine (née Barber, d. 1574) he had a number of children: a son, Edward, and 5 daughters. Of the latter, Alice (1556-1611) married at St. Vedast, Foster Lane, on 15 July 1576, her father’s apprentice, Nicholas Hilliard (1547?-1619), the renowned miniature painter, son of Richard Hilliard (d. 1594), Citizen and Goldsmith of Exeter in Devon.
Another of Brandon’s daughters, Mary (b. 1566) was married at St. Vedast on 23 May 1586 to Captain John Martin (1560?-1632), third son of Sir Richard Martin (d. 1617), Citizen and Goldsmith of London, of which company he was Prime Warden in 1592/93, Master of the Mint (1582-1599) and twice Lord Mayor of London (1589 and 1594). Sir Richard was also an investor in Sir Francis Drake’s 1577-1580 circumnavigation and also in Drake’s 1585/86 expedition to annoy Spanish ports in the Americas. The latter’s fleet included the Benjamin which was commanded by Brandon’s son-in-law, Captain Martin. Sir Richard also invested in at least one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ventures.11
In 1607, Captain Martin became one of the original leaders at Jamestown of the Virginia Colony and in 1616 he was given a grant of land on the south side of the James River, which became known as Martin’s Brandon Plantation.
The West Country, specifically the Devonshire and the City of London connections of these men – Harris, Raleigh, Brandon, both Martins and the Hilliards and their circle – form a fascinating backdrop to the creation and assembling of Sir Christopher Harris’s collection of silver known as the ‘Armada Service.’ The fact that the two earliest dishes of 1581/82 in the service sprang from the same outstanding source (maker’s mark 'three trefoils slipped') as our present dish of 1586/87 raises a number of as yet unanswerable questions. What is beyond doubt, however, is that all these dishes are exceptional survivors. They recall the necessity among the wealthy classes in Tudor and Stuart England for extensive services of plate, both for dining and display.
1. Dora Thornton and Michael Cowell, ‘The ‘Armada Service’: A Set of Late Tudor Dining Silver,’ The Antiquaries Journal of the Society of Antiquaries, London, 1996, pp. 153-180
2. P.W. Hasler, ‘HARRIS, Christopher (c. 1553-1625), of Radford, Devon,’ The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, London, 1981
3. David M. Mitchell, Silversmiths in Elizabethan and Stuart London, London, 2017, p. 611
4. The Impartial Protestant Mercury, London, Tuesday to Friday, 22 to 25 November 1681, p. 1a
5. Philippa Glanville, Silver in Tudor and Early Stuart England, London, 1990, p. 98
6. This goldsmith may have had two near identical marks, one of which (as noted on the present dish and other items) has a diagonal flaw.
7. Philippa Glanville, Silver in Tudor and Early Stuart England, London, 1990, pp. 98 and 99
8. Timothy B. Schroder, The Gilbert Collection of Gold and Silver, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988, p. 53; Philippa Glanville, Silver in Tudor and Early Stuart England, London, 1990, p. 322
8. From the wording of Partridge’s grant of arms (British Library, Add MS 14,295, fol. 90 and Harley MS 1172, fol. 45)
9. Quoted by Janelle Day Jenstad, ‘Public Glory, Private Gilt; The Goldsmiths’ Company the Spectacle of Punishment,’ Anne Goldgar and Robert I Frost, editors, Institutional Culture in Early Modern Society, Leiden, 2004, p. 199
10. Quoted by Philippa Glanville, Silver in Tudor and Early Stuart England, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1990, p. 181
11. Sir Walter Sherburne Prideaux, Memorial of the Goldsmiths' Company Being Gleanings from Their Records between the Years 1335 and 1815, London, 1896, p. 89
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