In 1788 almost 28,000 silver teaspoons were recorded in the ledger of the Dublin Assay Office, an institution established in 1637 – and still in operation today – to assess the purity of all gold and silver manufactured in Ireland. Teaspoons were especially popular both because their small size made them more affordable than other items in the same metal, but also thanks to the rise in consumption of drinks such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate, all of which were sweetened with sugar. By the late 18th century, for example, the average annual consumption of tea in this country is estimated to have been two or three pounds per person. This fascinating information, and much more beside, can be found in a newly-published study of Silver in Georgian Dublin by Dr Alison FitzGerald.
While Irish silver has been well explored by Douglas Bennett and others, the focus of these connoisseur-driven investigations has usually been on matters of style and authorship. FitzGerald on the other hand is representative of a new generation of art historians keen to explore the character of material culture and thus contextualise the object of their attention within its period. This is what she has done so admirably in the present book, which looks at the production, distribution and consumption of silver in Georgian Dublin, and beyond. So, for example, when discussing the increasing popularity of tea over the course of the 18th century, assisted by a gradual reduction in its price, she looks not only at silver tea pots but also the greater use of ceramic vessels, preferable because less expensive. So a household might have a ceramic teapot but also silver sugar tongs (selling for 12 shillings in 1772).
The choice of retail premises from which they could make their purchases, while never as great as that in London (where some Irish grandees preferred to shop for such goods) certainly improved over passing decades, and for local clients had the advantage of offering credit for purchases: FitzGerald provides a number of instances where goldsmiths such as Isaac D’Olier had to advertise that all accounts owing to him had to be settled immediately and in full. Then, as now, it was often cheaper to buy at auction, and these events regularly took place, often following a collector’s death: Charles Cobbe, who became Archbishop of Dublin in 1740 acquired a considerable amount of silverware at the sale of his late father-in-law Sir Richard Levinge’s effects. And silver was regularly melted down and refashioned as tastes, and consumer requirements changed.
Some items survived better than others, not least teaspoons. The set of ten shown above above, dating from c.1800 and carrying the mark of Carden Terry and Jane Williams, was recently sold by Adam’s of Dublin for €2,500. On the other hand, buckles – once a staple in every gentleman’s wardrobe – gradually disappeared as styles of dress altered. In 1788 more than 24,000 silver buckles were sent to be assayed in Dublin, mostly intended for shoes and knee breeches: by 1800 that number had dropped to a mere eighteen. Once deemed redundant, they faced recycling, and accordingly only a certain number can now be found. The pair shown below, today in the collection of the San Antonio Museum of Art, were made c.1790 by Joseph Jackson of Dublin.
Drawing on a huge range of sources ranging from diaries and letters to contemporary guild accounts, inventories and trade ephemera – not to mention the archives of the Dublin Assay Office – Alison FitzGerald’s book is a wonderfully informative, entertaining and engaging read, absolutely packed with information and profusely illustrated with illustrations that complement an already eloquent text. A terrific addition to our knowledge of this period.