Collecting Irish silver is captivating and intriguing, useful and practical, and is a fascinating and historic pastime. The development of a collection of antiques can be a life long passion, whether your budget is large or small.
Before starting a collection, it is essential to learn about the hallmarks used in that country. Hopefully our blog is of use in that regard. This will allow the collector to solve the mystery of where, when and by whom the piece was made.
By the 1600s, it was clear that sub-standard goods were being sold in Ireland. To combat this, Dublin City Council ordered that all pieces of silver would be stamped with the goldsmiths own mark, and be submitted to the assay office for testing. On being found to be sterling silver (92.5% pure) three additional marks, those of a harp, a lion and a castle would be struck onto the piece. As the marks were applied in the Goldsmith’s Hall, they were called “hallmarks”. Unfortunately, no pieces bearing these marks survive today.
The current version of hallmarking began in 1637, with the granting of a charter form Charles I to the Company of Goldsmiths, conveying the authority to regulate the hallmarking of sterling silver. This charter, and the Company of Goldsmiths of Dublin, survive to this day. Goldsmiths were fined for not complying with the hallmarking regulations, and indeed many fell foul of the law in this regard.
The Harp Crowned guarantees the quality of the silver; the symbolism of the Harp and the Crown reflects both Ireland and the Royal Charter of Charles I. The date letter allows us to identify the year of manufacture, the letter changing annually, and the style or font changing every 24 years.
Later in, in 1730, another mark was added, that of Hibernia. This is a duty mark. From 1807 until Victorian times, another mark, that of the monarch’s head, was also applied.
It is important to check that the hallmarks are legible and in good condition. (For very rare pieces, exceptions can be made, but for a beginner it is best to stick to pieces with good quality hallmarks.) An example of a good set of hallmarks can be seen below, from Dublin
1. JS; this is the maker, John Smyth of Dublin.
2. Lower case “L”. This is the stamp for 1856
3. The harp crowned, the purity mark. This shows that the article is sterling silver.
4. Hibernia. Originally this was a tax “for the encouragement of tillage”, but after 1806 when Irish silver was struck with the king’s head duty mark it became the mark signifying the Dublin Assay Office.
5. The queen’s head. This was a duty mark.
Early Irish silver combines simplicity of form with a heavy gauge of silver, for example in this cruet frame below.
Many changes occurred in the 1720s and 1730s, including the introduction of the cream jug, and tenancy towards more ornate styles. The caryatid candlesticks made in Ireland from 1745 exhibit the distinctive freedom of design and spirit of independence that seems to bring Irish silver closer to American silver rather than English in style and design.
In fact, over the last 300 years, there is a distinct difference between Irish and English silver, one can always tell an Irish piece of silver before looking at the hallmarks, merely from a design point of view.
Sometimes a piece was not hallmarked; this could have been for a number of reasons, some honest and some less so. However, a knowledge of Irish style borne out of as much experience as you can gather will let you divine whether or not the piece is “correct”. Occasionally you will have to rely on instinct as much as anything else, but those are the cases that can be most memorable!
Silver was used as a store of wealth, as it is easily transported and does not degrade. It was also used as a show of wealth. The highest levels of society commissioned fabulous pieces of tableware to impress their guests and to demonstrate their superb taste. It was vital that these people showed that their taste and style was at the leading edge of fashion, so the silver that the owned reflected the tastes of the time. Broadly speaking, we can divide the 18th century styles into three categories; George the First, George the Second and George the Third styles. This was due to the incredible influence that the monarch and the royal court had on fashion, which eventually percolated through the whole of society.
George I Irish Silver
The first style we will look at is George I. In the early 18th century, Dublin was a relatively small town, with a population of about 7,000, and where Trinity College stood on its outskirts. Nevertheless, silver of great beauty and quality was being produced for Ecclesiastical and domestic use.
As 17th century items are virtually unobtainable, this period represents the earliest silver that one could start collecting. It is a period of simple design married with solid gauge of silver.
Items up to 1730 will typically have two hallmarks; the harped crowned, and a date letter, in addition to a maker’s mark. The use of silver in a domestic setting was in its infancy, before this most silver produced was for use in churches. Silver from this era is usually very plain, almost totally devoid of decoration. The beer jug below, for example, has only a tiny bit of embellishment, and is broadly plain in style.
The photos below reinforce this idea; all of the items, are dead plain, simple and functional. The more ornate styles came along later, during the George II era. The bowl has a scratchweight on the base. This is the weight “scratched” into the cup by the assay office, to record the weight. Over the course of time it is not unusual to lose a small bit of weight, but the item should never weigh more than the scratchweight!
ONe of the leading silversmiths of the era was David King. Like many silversmiths in the early 18th century, King was an influential person, and served with the City Council. He is remembered today on King Street, in Dublin. Note again the plain form and solid shape; though relatively small, the tankard has a scratchweight of 25 ounces. There is a beautiful original armorial on the front of it, which is that of the first owner.
Handles were often made by another person, and hallmarked separately, though in this case there is no reason to think that King did not make the handle himself. It is remarkable that after nearly 300 years the hinge and handle are in such good condition!
The piece is hallmarked beside the handle. This is typical, and is the first place one should look for a hallmark in this type of piece; the other common location of hallmarks would be on the base.
One final point to note is that they are all very solid, and of heavy gauge. This is hard to describe in some ways; yes, it refers to the actual weight. However, it is also about the thickness of the pieces, and a slightly intangible “feel” in the hand. They have heft, and are robust items, made to last. Even with ones eyes closed, it should be obvious that a piece is early.
George II Silver
After the plainness and restraint of the early part of the 18th century, people became more exuberant in all fields; art, music, sculpture, and, of course, silver! The Rococo style was a perfect bedfellow to the malleability and ease of decoration of silver. Pieces became grander and grander, with wilder and wilder decoration. The photos below should give a taste of this. On the basket you can see swags and garlands, while the whole bowl of the base is elaborately decorated with repousée detailing. The third photograph is of the base of a pair of candlesticks, and shows very ornate detailing.
George III Silver
The final main style is the George III style, also known as Neoclassical or Adams style. It is less ornate than the Rococo pieces, but more ornate than the early pieces. The decoration is more ordered, less wild than the George II period. The swags that one sees are “neater”, and the whole pieces seems a little more restrained. The images below, of a teapot and of a pair of silver tea caddies, shows this off very well. Later pieces, from 1770 onwards, often feature Neoclassical designs, ornate but symmetrical, with swags and gracious repetitive ornamentation.
Dish rings, or potato rings as they are sometimes called, were manufactured in Dublin from circa 1730 until 1790, and later from 1890 to the present day. They are of circular or elliptical form, and are often elaborately pierced or chased. The wooden bowl was placed on top, into which potatoes were placed. This protected highly polished tables from damage. Sometimes a blue glass liner was inserted to highlight the decoration. Obviously, glass liners tended to get broken at some point, so modern examples are typically replacements. This does not affect the value. Today, Georgian dish rings can command prices from 6,000euro up to 15,000euro. Originals carry great scarcity value, and are recommended as a solid investment in the heritage of Ireland.
While we have focused on Dublin silver, it is worth mentioning centres of production in towns such as Cork, Galway, Limerick and Kinsale. These are much rarer, and consequently more expensive. However, one or two good pieces could form an excellent centerpiece to a collection. A different system was used to mark silver in these areas. As it was too dangerous to send the pieces to Dublin for hallmarking, the silversmiths would mark the pieces themselves, usually with the word “Sterling” and their maker’s mark.
Silver from the provinces is dealt with on our silver pages, see the link at the very top of this page.
To sum up, when starting go get into collecting Irish silver it is worth hunting through some shops, or viewing online, to see what grabs you attention. It may be early silver, it may be a particular maker, or may be a certain time period. Start small, perhaps a spoon or small piece of tableware, and only collect pieces with good marks and no repairs. As your collection develops, your taste may change and evolve, so it is worth working with a dealer who might be able to guide you in this journey. The most important thing is love; be sure to collect only what brings you pleasure!!