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Home | Articles | Know Your Antiques—A Primer of Silversmith Paul de Lamerie

Fig. 1: Camperdown basket marked by Paul de Lamerie (1688–1751), London, 1747. L. 14". Engraved with the arms of Duncan for Adam Duncan (1731–1804), Viscount Camperdown. Courtesy of Shrubsole Corp., New York.

Ever since interest in collecting antique silver began in the early nineteenth century, Paul de Lamerie (1688–1751) has been recognized as England’s most important silversmith. The Victorians compared him to the exemplar of Renaissance craftsmanship, Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571), the most acclaimed silversmith of his time. The famed Regency silversmith Paul Storr (1771–1844) made exact copies of Lamerie’s work as early as 1810, and in his own day, it took Lamerie only four years after completing his apprenticeship to become known as the “King’s Silversmith,” a meteoric rise to prominence unparalleled in English silver history. What made Lamerie so special?

Lamerie apprenticed under Pierre Platel (ca. 1664-1719), a leading craftsman and member of the London Huguenot silversmithing community, a French expatriate group known for its advanced technical expertise. Based on Platel’s tutelage and guided by an innate talent, Lamerie created silver of exceptional craftsmanship, as exemplified in the detailing of the Camperdown basket illustrated in Figure 1. The plump shell bursting from the basket’s rim (Fig. 1a) and the subtle modeling of the cherub’s face (Fig. 1b) on the foot exude the quality that would catch a king’s eye, making Lamerie’s silver so desirable.

It often takes more than talent, however, to attain success. Many highly skilled silversmiths of the period failed in their business ventures. James Schruder (active 1737–1749), one of the best, went bankrupt and eventually worked for Lamerie; Schruder was a fine craftsman, but little else. Lamerie, however, was successful because of his full range of talents.

First, he was a shrewd businessman—sometimes to a fault. When Lamerie’s father died, for instance, he was given only a pauper’s funeral despite his son’s considerable wealth. And English law students still study the case of Amoury v. DeLamirie involving a brooch brought into Lamerie’s shop for valuation that was returned to its owner without its gems!

Fig. 1a

Fig. 1b

Lamerie was also adept at attracting and keeping influential clients. Nobles such as the Earl of Mountrath, Viscount Trantham, the Earl of Thanet, and Baron Foley were faithful customers over many years. However, the upper classes were notorious for not paying their tradesmen, and Lamerie was equally happy to cater to the rising middle class. One of the most powerful of these clients was Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745), who as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer virtually ran England from 1715 to 1742. His extensive patronage, no doubt, influenced others to frequent Lamerie’s establishment.

Part of Lamerie’s appeal was his inventiveness. He was careful to monitor new social customs and develop the accoutrements those customs might require. As a result, he was the first in England to produce a number of the silver items we now take for granted: He created the earliest silver soup tureen in 1722, the first wickerwork-style basket in 1724, the first complete tea equipage in 1735, the first fish slice in 1741, and the first shell-shaped basket in 1747. A number of these forms had already made their debut in France, the social capital of Europe. As Lamerie was of French Huguenot descent, with strong ties to his mother country, he kept abreast of trends as they made their inevitable way to England. By taking advantage of this knowledge, Lamerie positioned himself at the forefront of English fashion and design, making his products all the more desirable.

Most importantly, Lamerie was on the cutting edge of artistic style. He was among the first to introduce and fully embrace the rococo in England in the 1720s, a lighthearted style that conveys charm, evanescence, and whimsy. The Camperdown basket, mentioned above and illustrated here, is one of the fullest expressions of the rococo style. The restless motion of the asymmetrical scrolls and elaborate details, which swirl around the basket’s frame, create a sense of constant action. The intertwining, naturalistic flowers and leaves suggest sylvan growth. Extensive piercing and openwork casting lighten the overall effect. And charming details, such as the sweet cherubic faces on the feet as well as the bees and moths perched along the rim, complete the whimsical appeal. It is a tour-de-force few other silversmiths could even attempt to match.

James McConnaughy is a Vice President of the well-known antique silver firm of S. J. Shrubsole on 57th Street in Manhattan. He lectures regularly at Parsons School of Design.

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