A Mannerist Silver-gilt Ewer and Basin
Until the nineteenth century, when water began to be widely available from taps, sets comprising a matching jug (ewer) and basin in which to wash your hands or face were familiar objects in households throughout Europe. This magnificent set of ewer and basin, made from gilded silver, could in theory be put to practical use but, in reality, it is highly unlikely that they would ever have served any purpose other than display, for example on a buffet in a ceremonial space.
It is difficult at first to take in all the extraordinary embossed decoration which covers virtually every part of the surfaces of both ewer and basin. This over-abundant decoration is typical of the style known as Mannerism, popular throughout Western Europe during the period c. 1520-1600. Forming a bridge between early Renaissance art and the 17th-century Baroque period, Mannerism saw artists moving away from the serene balance and order of the earlier Renaissance, instead placing greater value on movement, as well as the virtuosity of the artist. Certainly the goldsmith who made this pair of objects was making a strong claim for his virtuosity.
The ewer is quite conventional in its decoration, with strapwork, vegetable motifs and little cartouches depicting sea monsters, referring to the association of ewers with water. The handle in the form of a dragon’s body is especially exciting and inventive. The basin’s decoration on the other hand forms a more coherent programme, in fact an allegorical presentation of the cosmos. In the outer field are figures in chariots representing the then known planets, interspersed with Biblical and Classical heroes and heroines. In the well are four large cartouches with allegorical representations of the four Elements (water, earth, air and fire) together with figures denoting branches of learning; finally, around the boss are the four Seasons. The planet gods are based on engravings made in 1563 by the German artist Nicolaus Wilborn, but this does not necessarily mean that the ewer and basin are German. In fact, around 1570 Mannerist style was so international that it is very difficult to attribute pieces to a particular school. It has sometimes been thought that the ewer and basin, which are accompanied by a group of smaller silver pieces, are most likely to have been made in Portugal around 1560-70. When they were lent to an exhibition by Sir Richard Wallace in 1881, they were said to have come from the collection of the counts of Anadia in Lisbon, but this may have been a dealer’s invention. Further evidence that some 19th-century dealer wanted to bump up the value of the set, perhaps before selling it to Sir Richard, comes in the clearly modern coat of arms of Pope Pius IV (reigned 1559-1565) in the centre of the dish. artly because of this, the ewer and basin have in the past been condemned as forgeries. Recent examination suggests however that they are likely to be largely original and, as such, with their wonderful workmanship and layers of hidden meaning, are spectacular examples of the Renaissance goldsmith’s art.
© Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2011. Text by Jeremy Warren.
Tuesday 6 and Tuesday 27 September at 1pm with Jeremy Warren.
- John Hayward, Virtuoso Goldsmiths and the Triumph of Mannerism, 1540-1620, London 1976.
- Timothy Schroder, Renaissance Silver from the Schroder Collection, London 2007.*
*Available in the Wallace Collection Shop