The festive table should groan with culinary riches. However, no matter how impressive the gastronomic delights, even the hungriest guest can be distracted by a show-stopping centrepiece. These have formed the heart of table settings since the 1730s, by which time dinner had moved from the buffet to the dining-table in most houses.
“The best place to see how a traditional centrepiece should be used is at a State Dinner at Buckingham Palace,” says Michael Moorcroft, head of silver at Bonhams. “The table positively groans with silver gilt. There is an astonishing array on the table and the buffets. As it is of the traditional, older style the pieces are vast and one can only talk to fellow guests on either side. George IV was particularly partial to enormous and elaborate silver centrepieces; Queen Victoria [his niece] had 71 carts of the silver and furniture removed from Brighton Pavilion before she sold it.”
Things became less formal in newly wealthy Victorian households, although the old guard maintained their impressive luxury tableware. “There was a change in the way people ate, a diffusion of the idea of dinner. Also the new industrial money liked to show off their wealth but not with too much extravagance,” he says.
The Bonhams Fine Silver Sale on 21 November 2012 showcased two remarkable silver centrepieces: the Gare du Nord trophy (estimate £40,000-£60,000)made by Froment-Meurice to commemorate the joining of two major lines in the last quarter of the 19th century; and a delightful Victorian (1874/5) English piece by Hunt & Roskell (estimate £15,000-£20,000) of four doves drinking, based on Pliny’s Doves, the famous mosaic in the Capitoline museum.
“Larger pieces such as the Gare du Nord can translate into modern homes, not just on to the dining-table. The best place would be on a circular table in the hall,” says Moorcroft.
“The smaller piece is quite charming and more naturalistic. It would go smartly on the festive table in an English country house.”
“At George Pragnell we strive to source only the highest-quality luxury silver pieces that combine beauty, individuality and rarity,” says managing director of George Pragnell, Charles Pragnell. “The grandest centrepieces are made up of several pieces, designed to graduate upwards as a focal point within a table setting, usually holding fresh fruit in the cut glass dishes. Designs often indicate a family’s interests and status. For original pieces to have survived intact with little or no repair is rare, especially with the original glass.”
The Garniture (£28,500) made by Frederick Elkington and Co and hallmarked Birmingham 1879-1888, is a fine luxury piece. “A quality piece will have fine, hand-chased detail and the cut or frosted glass will fit exactly with a matching or complementary pattern. Glass that rocks indicates poor workmanship or that repairs have been carried out,” he says.
For the modern, creative luxury spectacle go to Patrick Mavros. His depiction of the natural world, designed and cast in silver on his estate outside Harare, Zimbabwe, will give even the easiest-going guest green eyes.
Patrick Mavros started sculpting alone, his first creation a pair of carved earrings for his wife, but now his four sons are involved, too. “I design the pieces and they are then modelled in wax,” says Mavros. “At this stage they normally end up on our family dining-table where they undergo a ‘practical’, with plenty of advice and criticism.”
Once family approval is received the pieces are made using the lost-wax process and the silver castings in solid sterling silver are signed and hallmarked.
Patrick Mavros scenes, including coveys of gamebirds, stags and elephants, offer breathtaking detail. “All are so accurate that if their feet are pressed into a butter dish, trackers and naturalists would be able to identify the bird or animal by its footprints,” he says. “If someone wants to see their table adorned with classical flat-topped acacia trees with 10,000 leaves lit by candles in the foliage and silver 8in giraffes shimmering in the light beneath, they are at the right place.” Prices for a single candlestick start at £3,700.
For a unique and colourful centrepiece, Ardmore Ceramic Art in South Africa provides sought-after creations made from white earthenware clay, which is fired, painted and glazed. “We are a self-sufficient business with heart,” explains Fee Halsted, founder of Ardmore Ceramic Art.
“Each piece is made by individual South African artists who express themselves freely.” The results are astounding: a tureen bursting with flora, lions and monkeys (R25,000) or a series of African and Arabic riders astride hippos, rhinos and other wild animals (from R5,000) winding along the centre of the table would make an eye-catching display.
“Around 50 pieces will be displayed and sold at Patrick Mavros in London,” she says. All hand-sculpted and hand-painted, these artworks are an African triumph of creativity that will enliven any table.
“A centrepiece must enchant and give pleasure,” says Theo Fennell, “and hold fruit, chocolate or other goodies. One commissions a piece for the satisfaction of being part of a work of art. Your own piece using your own subject matter and icons, favourite animals, hobbies, loves and so on, that is something quite different and shows much more style.”
Theo Fennell‘s pieces are made by hand in London. “We make the whole process really enjoyable because we design things that are original and make them beautifully,” he says. The jockey bowl (£11,950) is just the thing for the turf regular. “Perfect for racing people without being yet another horse-based thing,” he says. “I think the poses of the jockeys make it alive, something good silver should be.”
William & Son holds a Royal Warrant for its silverware. Its sterling silver swag and ribbon bowl (£18,390) would make an impressive addition to the right table. Standing at 32cm high it can be used as a rose bowl or a stylish wine cooler.
The London Silver Vaults is a collection of more than 30 shops specialising in antique and 20th-century silver, as well as jewellery and watches.
It houses the largest collection of English silver for sale anywhere. There is a wealth of expertise to consult about creating or sourcing your ideal tablepiece, such as the stylised galleon in full sail from Langfords (Berthold Muller, Chester 1900, £68,000).
At the The Goldsmiths’ Company the work of talented artists working with precious metals is showcased.
The Goldsmiths’ Company Fair, held every autumn, is an exceptional place to seek out and commission a bespoke piece.
Anna Lorenz makes vessels and centrepieces for flowers or fruit “that I envisage will be used at grand occasions”, she says. Approximately 38cm in diameter, the wire balls play with space and its surroundings. Delightfully different, the creative and inventive nature of the centrepiece is going strong.
Whether your taste is for a centrepiece so large it prevents conversation across the table or a modern, lower style, there are resplendent creations to grace the festive table. Now is the time to buy.
The Jerningham Wine Cooler
(Original London 1734/5; copy Birmingham 1884)
A goldsmith and banker called Henry Jerningham designed this massive cooler in 1737. Unable to sell it, he used it as a lottery prize to raise funds to build a bridge across the Thames. An electrotype copy stands in the V&A silver hall. The original is in the Hermitage in Russia.
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