The Wallace Collection

Treasure of the Month - May 2014

An English Elizabethan Salt, 1578

A fine example of English goldsmith’s work, this ornate drum salt would have been a star object on a nobleman’s dining table.

Termed 'drum salt' due to its cylindrical body and rounded foot, this object has been decorated using techniques known as repoussé (decoration added from the inside), chasing (decoration from the outside) and gilding (a thin layer of gold applied on the surface of the object). Using these techniques the craftsman has decorated every inch of the surface with grotesque masks, garlands of fruit, putti and swags, culminating on the lid with a moulded soldier holding a spear.

The hallmarks on the rim of the lid tell us that this salt was made in London in 1578. Hallmarks have been used since the fourteenth century as a way to regulate the goldsmith’s trade. Each object is marked with a symbol each for the country, the city, the year and the maker.  As is typical for objects from this period, the maker's mark takes the form of an image. Often these would be the same as the sign outside the maker’s shop, which allowed the shop to be easily recognised by a largely illiterate population. On this object, the maker's mark is a pelican, with outstretched wings and an open beak, facing to the left. Sadly, it has not been possible to identify the craftsman who made this piece.

The use of the salt was common throughout Europe from the Middle Ages through to the seventeenth century. Many aristocratic families had at least one salt in their possession. Hardwick Hall, the seat of one of the most powerful families in the country at time, had thirteen, of which only two weighed less than 5 ounces. They not only had a practical purpose, to serve salt, but also a symbolic and sometimes ceremonial one too. They were often set by the head of the household or the most important guest, and were used to denote the status and hierarchy of the guests at the table; less important guests would share a simple trencher or small pot of salt - this gave rise to the popular phrase ‘below the salt’.

It is usually thought that the size and importance given to the salt was due to the rarity, costliness and necessity of the condiment it held. However, by the time this object was made, England was importing salt from northern France, Spain and Portugal, which lowered its cost. One explanation is that the status of the vessel at the dining table reflected the symbolic importance of salt. Because of its role as a preservative in food, it is has been traditionally associated with healing and fertility, and also purity, which is an ancient concept that spans many religions and cultures. Since the act of dining has always been seen as a coming together of family or honoured guests, and as a way of strengthening personal relationships; it is possible that the presence of the salt was a symbolic way of reinforcing and preserving family ties and friendship, as well as wishing for the health, fertility and prosperity of those at the table.

Gallery Talks
1 and 29 May, by Carmen Holdsworth-Delgado, Curatorial Assistant    

Further Reading:
Schroder, Timothy, British and Continental Gold and Silver in the Ashmolean Museum, Vol 1, p 309.