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A parcel-gilt silver standing salt, unmarked, probably french or flemish

  • GBR
  • 2015-07-08
About the object
Rectangular, on elongated lion paw supports headed by acanthus below columns and hatched S-scrolls, the sides fitted with basse-taille enamel panels of The Annunciation and the Coronation of the Virgin, enclosed by engraved matted arabesques, interrupting embossed and chased panels of The Nativity and The Resurrection, detachable cover with similar enamelled lozenges of the Four Evangelists,  surmounted by warrior finial standing on a disc of marine ornament with basket of fruit above engraved arabesques, later French and Dutch control marks only
This exceptional Continental standing salt, or 'Great Salt' as they were known in contemporary English inventories, fits the type of 16th Century London-made examples which include extended square base and top sections, are raised on four feet, have figure finials and sometimes incorporate other materials such as rock crystal and enamel.2  A number of these have survived in British institutions.3  The closest example though in terms of construction and ornament is a salt in the Wallace collection catalogued as 'probably French, circa 1550.'4 (see detail) The 'Wallace salt' which is known in England from at least 1827 when it is first recorded at Stowe House, is thought to have been bought by the Duke of Buckingham on his grand tour in that year.5 Though smaller, it compares with the salt now offered in a number of ways that are specific enough to conclude that they were probably made in the same place and at approximately the same time.
In addition to the French enamels, a French origin for the two salts is suggested by a number of other elements. These include the application of busts in raised surrounds, on the Wallace salt. While not specific to France (Hans Holbein incorporated them in drawings of cups for the court of Henry VIII), similar busts are included on the Royal French Clock salt at Goldsmiths' Hall, London, and on two mother of pearl caskets with silver-gilt mounts,6 which have Paris hallmarks for 1535, 1532 and 1533.  The corners of those caskets are bound by pillars surmounted by S-scrolls, as are the salts. The elongated lion supports emitting exaggerated scrolling acanthus of both salts are found in drawings for the base of a candlestick7 and supports for a vase by the French architect Jacques Androuet du Cerceau,  circa 1550 (see detail).  While these comparatives might indicate a French origin, the mobility of goldsmiths and designs makes a firm attribution difficult.  The distinctive basket of fruit below the soldier finial, incorporating basket weave and simulated straps is normally associated with Antwerp-marked silver and, therefore, a Flemish origin for the salt cannot be ruled out.
The standing salt was an essential piece of the formal dining table, until the mid-17th Century.  It was placed to the right of the most important person and marked the spot above or below which the guests were seated according to rank. The standing salt would not have been the only salt on the table. As Philippa Glanville explains, contemporary English inventories of both `private households and wealthy institutions’ show a pattern of one or more large gilded salts with a cover weighing between 30oz and 60oz. These were accompanied by matching sets of smaller examples, perhaps sharing a single cover between them.8 An example of the arrangement of the high table at All Souls College, Oxford, in 1622 shows a clear distinction between the large gilt covered salt for the Warden, the smaller white salt for the sub Warden who still had his own and the Fellows who shared a matching set.9  The ceremony of the great salt is not clear, but from an account in the 15th Century it appears that after the removal of the fabric covering and the cover itself from the Great Salt, the server took pieces of square bread known as Trenchers (perhaps deriving from Tranches de pain) with a bread knife, placed salt on them by touching The Salt 'in four Partes' and then cut the square to form two triangles which were then placed by the guests to act as their salt holder.10 This may have been the reason that 17th Century German silver flat salts are often triangular.
Salt had a religious element to it, being used in the blessing of Holy Water and in the Sacrament of Baptism. Salts were frequently given as baptismal gifts. The English ambassador presented one on behalf of Henry VIII to Marie de Medici at the birth of her son Francis in 1544.  Though salt had this association with religion, the inclusion of religious imagery into a secular salt would have been particularly appropriate for a cleric. There is precedent in a surviving example which was given in 1517 by Richard Foxe, Bishop of Durham and Winchester (1448-1528) to the college he founded, Corpus Christi, Oxford. It combines prancing deer with panels on a blue enamel zig-zag ground of The Coronation of the Virgin and angels holding banners.
The salt now offered is built around the larger basse-taille enamel panels which had been mounted previously to another object. Their diamond shape, uncommon in the 16th Century is found in widely dispersed ornament of the 14th. This would include the knopped stems of chalices or processional crosses, which were often fitted with enamels. The panels illustrating scenes of The Virgin, pierced twice on each side for previous mounting, must have come from a relatively large object. A shrine, 59cm. high in Kloster Reichenau on Lake Constance dated to 1320,  is made up of square panels, centred by diamond shaped scenes from the Life of Christ with engraving in the corners, like the salt, but with the latter’s arabesques replaced by 14th Century figures and leafage.11  Similar large diamond shaped enamel panels are fitted to the broad collar on a 1374 bust reliquary of St. Donatus in the Treasury of the Assumption of St Mary in Friuli.12
The enamels
The enamel panels on the salt have been published as French, first half of the 14th Century13 and compared with those on a Virgin and Child, given by Jeanne D’Evreux, wife of Charles IV, to the Abbey of St.-Denis, sometime between 1324 and 133914.The comparative panel from this Virgin and Child illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, the 'Binding of Isaac' shares a number of features with those on the salt. These include blue translucent enamel laid onto a scored ground of pronounced zig-zags; red opaque enamel in the margins; the unwritten Word of God delivered on a vacant banner; black enamel in the hair, beards, eye sockets and mouths and used to delineate relatively large areas of plain silver-gilt;  and simple leaves drawn with mid-rib and blades but no veins.
Scientific evaluation
The blue, green and yellow enamels of the salt were analysed in 2015 using a hand-held X-ray Fluorescence spectrometer and trace elements of the silver were identified by the Goldsmiths’ Company in 1995. No evidence of 19th Century technology was discovered. The Goldsmiths’ analysis which used a database of proven English silver, concluded that the samples of metal taken from 5 parts of the salt including the back of one of the large enamel panels had 'very high impurity levels  typical of pre 1600 silver.' In addition, the sample taken from the enamel panel had a silver-standard of 94.25% silver. This level of purity necessary for the process of enamelling, which requires silver to have the highest possible melting point was consistent with silver taken from 14th Century basse-taille enamels.15
Sotheby's is grateful to Marion Campbell for her help in assessing the enamels.
1. On the death of Mayer Carl Rothschild the works of art at his Frankfurt country estate, Gunthersburg were divided into five catalogues. Five of his daughters drew lots for their portion. The salt is catalogued as lot 211 of the first portion which had been drawn by Berta Clara. The cataloguing reads: 'Salzfass in form eines Viereckingen Kastens auf löwen füssen mit 4 Ecksäulchen, an der Seiten Rautenförmige Einsätze, 2 Translucide en basse taille, 2 in Relief, auf dem deckel ebenso 4 email. Kleine Rauten, Evangelisten zeichen, Spitze bäri. Kriegerfigur. Durch 17cm Hohe 34cm.'
2. In the 1937 and 1943 sales the salt was catalogued as English.
3. Notable amongst these are the 'Vintners' Salt,' Affabel Partridge, 1569-70, 31.7cm. high, (Vintners' Company); the 'Simon Gibbon salt,' 1576-7, 35cm.  high (Goldsmiths' Company); the 'Cosway salt,' 1584-85, 21cm. high (British Museum)  and the 'Vyvyan salt,' 1592-93,  34cm. high (Victoria and Albert Museum).
4. The two salts comparative features include: Similar lion paw supports headed by identical foliage and scrolls. The side pillars and S-scrolls are almost identical, as are the stamped foliate borders above the foot and below the salt receptacle. Inside, a similar hollow rod with internal helix runs from the receptacle to a similarly crude base plate held in place by a comparable bolt with its head pierced in the same way. The enamel panels of the Wallace salt may have been added later, but certainly before 1827.
5. Suzanne Higgott, The Wallace Collection, catalogue of Glass and Limoges Painted Enamels, London, 2011, p. 235, note 4
6. Michèle Bimbenet-Privat, L’Orfèvrerie Parisienne de la Renaissance, p.100 and nos. 73a and 73b. These caskets are in The Louvre and the Diocesian museum Mantua
7. Op cit. no. 64
8. Philippa Glanville, Silver in Tudor and Early Stuart England, London, 1990, pp. 279-282
9. op cit. p 281
10. The enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York in 1465. Quoted by Phillipa Glanville op. cit. p. 279 and in Silver in England, Oxford, 2006,  p. 43
11. Johann Michael Fritz, Goldschmiedekunst der Gotik in Mitteleuropa, Munich, 1982, nos.  203/204
12. Marie-Madeleine Gauthier, Émaux du moyen âge occidental, Fribourg, 1972, no. 187
13. Michèle Bimbenet-Privat, op.cit. p. 60
14. Les Fastes du Gothique: le Siècle de Charles V, Galerie nationales de Grand Palais, 9 October 1981-1 February 1982, no. 186, pp. 232-233
15. In addition to the Fluorescence Spectrometer tests of the enamel and analysis of the silver already mentioned, comparative data was taken from a study of Enamel conducted by the Cleveland Museum of Art, from whose study the quotations in the text below are taken. See:  Rainer Richter, 'Between Original and Imitation: Four technical studies in Basse-Taille Enameling and Re-Enameling of the Historisicsm Period,' The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 81. no. 7 (September 1994) pp. 222-251. The summarised findings of the data are as in the following:
The Green enamel is coloured by copper, which appears in the earliest recipes and which after the early 19th Century might be coloured by Chromium. No Chromium was found.   Nickel, also considered indicative of 19th Century manufacture were present in the blue enamel but only traces of it, which can be explained by the presence of Cobalt. As the Cleveland Museum states, 'Nickel can be found in medieval glasses but is present only in combination with cobalt.'
The yellow is coloured by Iron. Again iron oxide (rust) is used in the earliest recipes for yellow enamel which might be replaced in the 19th Century by another agent such as 'silver stain.'
Under UV radiation the enamel of the salt does not fluoresce. It behaves consistently with 'medieval colorants,' which when 'used in enameling over silver do not fluoresce.'
The impurities (gold, lead, copper) found in the silver of the salt, are consistent with those found in early silver alloys. In the Cleveland Museum’s analysis of both 14th Century and 19th Century enamelled silver plaques, the levels of impurities in the silver were measured and found to be higher in the 14th Century examples than the 19th.  This reflects the refining techniques of the earlier period which were less efficient at removing other metals from the silver alloy.  In the 14th Century Cleveland group, gold content is 0.40-0.87%, consistent with the salt which is 0.643%. Gold content of the 19th Century group is 10 times lower at .040-.050%.
The equivalent figures for Lead are 0.28-1.34% for the older Cleveland group, 0.85% for the salt and 0.20-0.04% for the 19th century group.  For copper the figures are 2.00-4.20% for the older Cleveland group, 4.20% for the salt and 1.5-2.0% for the 19th Century group
A pure silver alloy was necessary for translucent enameling for two main reasons.  It allowed the enamel to melt before the silver and avoided a dulling of the enamel’s translucency caused by a high copper content in the silver backing.  The purity of silver in the salt’s enamel plaque is 94.25% (sterling is 92.5%) and consistent with the 94.6-95.7% of the authenticated 14th Century examples in the Cleveland Museum.  This compares with the 19th Century Cleveland examples when refining techniques had advanced and the purity of the metal achievable, was higher at between 97.6 – 98.4%.

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