Review: Old Sheffield Plate serves up silver plate history to a new generation

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by R. M. Healey

The recent rapid rise in the value of silver is bound to affect the popularity of old Sheffield Plate (OSP), both negatively and positively. In these straightened times collectors will presumably choose the cheaper option of Sheffield Plate over silver when looking for something glamorous to grace the dinner table. Prices of OSP may rise accordingly, always presupposing that the supply of such plate in good condition remains stable. However, the news that investors with bigger pockets will always chose silver over plate, must surely be welcomed by collectors more interested in beauty and elegance than investment potential.

Old Sheffield Plate bookGordon Crosskey, Old Sheffield Plate: A History of the 18th Century Plated Trade; Treffry Publishing (distributed by the Antiques Collector’s Club), 2011; xx + 454, copiously illustrated in black and white. Hardback £85. ISBN 978-0-9568003-0-5.

However, it could be equally argued that the publication of Gordon Crosskey’s “Old Sheffield Plate, A History of the 18th Century Plated Trade,” the first on the subject to be both scholarly and visually stunning, might revive interest in the qualities of Old Sheffield Plate, as antique hunters become more appreciative of the technological and design history of the plated trade.

Before Crosskey, the great bible for Sheffield Plate collectors was Bradbury’s “A History of Old Sheffield Plate” ( 1912 ). Although reissued since, the book, for all its obviously scholarly qualities, was bulky and visually unattractive, and its very lack of glamour seemed to symbolize the fusty image of Sheffield Plate itself. However, Crosskey has changed all that, and the depiction of so many different examples of the plated trade since its inception in 1742, has brought its unique appeal into sharp focus. For the truth is that for all its obvious disadvantages over solid silver, the design qualities of early plated ware make it, in many ways, more visually attractive than much solid silver of the same period.

This may be because in using cheap base metal manufacturers could offer more daring designs and a greater range of ware, than those could who worked with the more expensive solid silver. Certainly, the rise of plate radically affected the dynamics of metalware production. For the first time, an increasingly appreciative bourgeoisie was able to afford household items that superficially resembled the silver that graced the homes of the professional class and the aristocracy that they sought to emulate; and it is characteristic of the aspirations of this new clientele that they sealed their perceived status by adding meaningless crests to their plate.

So it was that the increasingly popularity of Sheffield Plate, particularly during the period 1780 – 1830, reflected the inevitable rise of a class that was to dominate the social history of the 19th century. By charting the development of the trade using important primary source material, notably the Boulton Archive at Birmingham, Crosskey gives us a fascinating glimpse into the technological, social and aesthetic history of the Industrial Revolution in England.

The decline of the plated trade coincided with an era in design where heaviness was seen as somehow redolent of bourgeois solidity and seriousness, a change in emphasis which was particularly apparent in the design of candlesticks and entrée dishes, but which can also be observed in the increasing heaviness of late Regency furniture. And when it became obvious that the new process of electroplating was better able to produce these more complicated confections and more cheaply, the demise of Old Sheffield Plate, after nearly a century of brilliant success, came quickly.

Crosskey has produced a much needed fresh look at a trade that has been undeservedly neglected by historians of design and technology. His book – superbly organized and sumptuously illustrated – is likely to become the definitive work on the subject.

Crosskey’s book may be ordered from the Antique Collector’s Club website.

Mr. R. M. Healey is formerly the chief art book reviewer for Rare Book Review and a contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, The Art Newspaper and the Bristol Review of Books, among many other national titles.

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