Behind Ickworth’s dazzling collection of silver are intriguing stories about domestic life, grand entertaining and diplomatic rivalry, says James Rothwell
James Rothwell reveals the stories behind Ickworth’s formidable collection of silver
ICKWORTH in Suffolk contains one of the most important aristocratic collections of silver to survive intact in Europe
(Fig 2). It extends to nearly 1,000 individual pieces of the highest quality, style and exuberance by the finest makers of the latestuart and Georgian periods. The foundations of the collection were laid by the 1st Earl of Bristol, John Hervey (1665–1751), who, by the time he inherited the Ickworth estate in 1700, had already married two wealthy heiresses in a row and elaborately furnished a fashionable London house in St James’s Square.
The Earl’s meticulously kept diary and accounts survive and, along with extensive correspondence, they give a detailed picture of his and his family’s daily lives. Among the diary entries are details of his to-ing and fro-ing between Suffolk, London and elsewhere and such significant events as family births and deaths and even his own near fatality at Ickworth: ‘October 25th, 1717. Friday, I narrowly escaped from being drowned in my new Canall… for which & all other Gods great & wonderful mercies… towards me his most unworthy servant, his holy Providence be for ever adored.’
The accounts, laid out on the opposite page to the diary in the same leatherbound volumes, record a constant stream of silver purchases from October 1689, when, as a young father, John Hervey bought a silver hanging candlestick for the nursery for £5 11s. Over the next 62 years, up to his death, he accumulated pretty much every type of silver object that would have been expected in an aristocratic house of the time. Included among them was the magnificent cistern of 1680 by Robert Cooper (Fig 9), bought second hand in 1697 and part of the equipment for serving wine during dinner.
A more personal piece is a chocolate pot by Pierre Platel, probably made in 1708,
which bears signs of intensive use. Both the Earl and the Countess, Elizabeth Felton, were fond of the drink, consuming 100lb of it every year in the 1720s, and it was a particular favourite at breakfast. In a letter Lord Bristol wrote to his wife on September 6, 1721, he grumbled about his ‘ungovernable’ servants at Ickworth allowing hounds into the kitchen and the bread being ‘left all night in the oven and utterly spoyld, and not so much as a toaste left for me to eat with my chocolate’. Two years later, Lady Bristol, who was on her way to Bath, wrote ‘tis 8 a clock, & I am just going to drink your dear health in chocolate, and then set out’.
Judging by the pieces that survive, and the prices paid, much of the 1st Earl’s silver was of the simple, relatively unornamented style fashionable in the early 18th century. He did succumb to the greater elaboration of the French Régence in at least one case, however, because, in 1737, he bought what must have been a magnificent épergne (centrepiece) from the estate of the 4th and last Earl of Scarsdale.
The only surviving pieces are the central dish, dated 1724, and two sets each of casters (Fig 3) and cruet frames with bottles, all dated 1723 and bearing the mark of the most famous early-18th-century London maker, Paul de Lamerie. Although more than a decade old when it entered the Bristol collection, the épergne would still have been considered fashionable and by buying second hand, the Earl saved himself about a third of the cost of commissioning anew.
The other de Lamerie piece at Ickworth, also Régence, is a bread basket of 1731 (Fig 7), which was most probably acquired by the 1st Earl’s son and heir, John, Lord Hervey (1696–1743). It is one of an extensive group in this oval, naturalistic form produced in 1731–2, the great majority marked by de Lamerie, and is similar to one bearing the arms of Sir Robert Walpole which is now in the Gilbert Collection at the V&A. Hervey was a member of the Prime Minister’s administration and certainly dined with him, so perhaps he was inspired by the sight of his master’s new and superbly crafted basket?
‘The 2nd Earl adapted what he could of his father’s and grandfather’s silver’
Also likely to have been Lord Hervey’s, and even more lavish in style, are two ice pails by Philip Rollos II (Fig 6) that are undated, but may well have been purchased at the same time. Such pails are associated with intimate, after-dinner drinking and political dialogue and they are probably indicative of Hervey’s governmental aspirations.
Following Lord Hervey’s death in 1743, the 1st Earl of Bristol kept his grandson and ultimate heir, George William Hervey (1721–75), on a tight leash and out of politics. Immediately after succeeding as 2nd Earl in 1751 (Fig 5), however, George William became, according to his brother Augustus, ‘totally inclined to go [over] to the Court’ in order to pursue a political career, preferably in diplomacy.
Having previously offended both George II and his long-time chief minister, the Duke of Newcastle, the new Lord Bristol had to work hard to achieve his aim and, as part of that campaign, he sent his silver to the workshop of Frederick Kandler to be fully overhauled and updated to make it impressively fashionable. The Earl was far from extravagant, however, and adapted what he could of his father’s and grandfather’s silver, unifying a disparate series of dishes by the addition of magnificent shell handles, adding Rococo chasing to plain candlesticks and duplicating such richly ornamented pieces as the de Lamerie
épergne and bread basket. He reserved his biggest investment, of more than £300, for a pair of oval tureens of 1752 (Fig 4), which rank among the most sculptural pieces of plate of the mid 18th century. The heavily cast Bristol arms are prominently displayed on either side of the billowing and wavy bases and the lids are liberally scattered with three-dimensional vegetables; their finely modelled handles are in the form of the Hervey crest of a chained snow leopard or ‘ounce’.
The justification was, undoubtedly, their prominent role as the focus of attention at the beginning of the meal. They would have been placed at either end of the table and have contained two different soups, such as the ‘Crawfish soop’ and ‘Soop Lorraine’ offered by the 1st Viscount Jocelyn at a dinner in July 1747.
Lord Bristol’s career finally took off in 1755, when George II somewhat begrudgingly sent him to Turin as British Envoy and he arrived there to find that his chief rival, the Marquis de Chauvelin, the French ambassador, was giving dinners for 30. In the 18th century, it was the habit to eat directly from silver plates, so several were required for each diner and the Hervey silver couldn’t compete. The Earl, encouraged by a vituperatively expressed loathing for Chauvelin, commissioned an additional 48 plates (bringing the total to 120) from the best Turin goldsmiths, Andrea Boucheron and Paolo Antonio Paroletto. He also found that circular tureens were needed as well as oval ones and that the fashion on the Continent was for them to stand on dishes rather than directly on the table. Further pieces were acquired, together with numerous other items, and, as a consequence, Ickworth possesses one of the largest assemblages of Turin silver outside northern Italy.
In 1758, Lord Bristol was transferred to Madrid as ambassador, a rank that entitled him to an allocation of silver and silver-gilt amounting to just under 7,000oz. In theory, this was a loan to uphold the dignity of the Crown, and thus all the pieces were engraved with the royal arms, but, in practice, it was always granted permanently to the recipient after a short delay. Lord Bristol was no exception.
As he was already well provided with dining plate, he devoted much of his allowance to a set of 12 four-light candelabra by James Peltro and Simon Le Sage (Fig 1). They are perhaps the largest and most exuberantly Rococo set to survive from the period and would have been intended for a great entertaining room—a saloon or gallery—where they would have been placed on furniture around the sides during evening functions.
The Earl and his silver had to make a rapid exit from Madrid when Britain declared war on Spain in 1761, but his devotion to William Pitt the Elder led to a distinguished political career at home and, for a brief moment in 1766, it looked as if he might even become Prime Minister. The plate thus continued to play an important role up to his death in 1775, by which time he was Groom of the Stole to George III.
The diverted attentions of his eccentric brothers, successively 3rd and 4th Earls— the former married to the bigamous Duchess of Kingston and the latter was the infamous Earl-bishop of Derry—saved the collection from being refashioned again
‘The public would visit Ickworth for the house, the gardens and the plate
and the careful tenure of the 1st to 4th Marquesses of Bristol meant that the 18thcentury silver survived virtually intact, with some fine early-19th-century pieces by Paul Storr added when it was passed to the National Trust in 1956.
H. D. Molesworth of the V&A, advising the government at the time, accurately predicted that ‘the public would visit Ickworth for the house, the grounds and the plate, and be well rewarded for their trouble’.
James Rothwell is the National Trust’s adviser on silver and has recently published ‘Silver for Entertaining: The Ickworth Collection’. For information about visiting Ickworth, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ ickworth or telephone 01284 735270
Fig 1 above left: Candelabra by Simon Le Sage, part of a set ordered by the 2nd Earl while ambassador to Spain. Fig 2 above: The 2nd Earl’s dining plate set out at Ickworth
Fig 4: Round tureen (left), made in Turin in about 1756, and oval tureen (right) by Frederick Kandler, 1752
Fig 3: Set of casters by Paul de Lamerie that were part of an épergne of the 1720s
Fig 5: The 2nd Earl of Bristol (1612–77) in a portrait attributed to Zoffany
Fig 7 left: Ornate Régence bread basket of 1731 by de Lamerie, similar to one formerly owned by Robert Walpole
Fig 6: One of a pair of lavish 1710 silver wine pails by Philip Rollos II
Fig 8: Dining à la française: The Supper of Prince de Conti at the Temple (1766) by Michel-barthélemey Olliver
Fig 9: A magnificent wine cistern of 1680 by Robert Cooper, acquired by the 1st Earl