Yesterday we heard from Tim about the sad decline of the “art and craft” of silversmithing in 19th-century England. And it’s true that an awful lot of Victorian silver is clumsy, overwrought, and gaudy. On a recent trip to London—when you could still get on a plane—I stopped by the Victoria & Albert Museum library and thumbed through design books from Elkington and Co., the prolific Victorian-era silver manufacturer and developer of the revolutionary technology of electrotyping.
It’s hard to describe what I saw in their books as anything but garish. That classic notion of English restraint—the balanced disposition that separates old English silver from its ornery European counterparts—was not merely discarded, it was mauled and left in a ditch. Page after page of chintz, picture after picture of schlock.
And yet…amidst this morass, Elkington was also producing some of the great works of the period. Here, from our inventory, is a piece created by Elkington’s master of repoussé, Léonard Morel-Ladeuil. The scene is from a production of The Merchant of Venice at the Lyceum Theatre in 1879. Henry Irving is Shylock—whom he portrays, for one of the first times in theatrical history, as a sympathetic victim rather than an anti-Semitic caricature—and Ellen Terry is Portia. The show was widely praised, including by twenty-six-year-old Oscar Wilde, who stayed in his seat after the curtain calls to write a sonnet to Terry’s Portia.
This plaque, along with renditions of Irving’s Much Ado About Nothing (now at the Boston MFA) and The Merry Wives of Windsor, are Morel-Ladeuil’s final creations, and they exhibit the best qualities that the Victorian era brought to English art: precision, craft, sophistication, and attention to detail. The scene is beautifully composed, tastefully presented, and executed with incredible skill. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Elkington had drafted Morel-Ladeuil from France, where industrialization was slower to take root and the apprenticeship model still reigned supreme. Morel-Ladeuil himself had apprenticed with the great designer Antoine Vechte.
It’s curious that both ideas could coexist in a single firm: the facility and rigidity of mass production, and the painstaking and elusive process of artistic genius. Yet the same could be said of Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory. It would be decades before the Bauhaus formally united artistry and industrial production, but here in Victorian England the foundations were already being laid.
There’s another chapter in the story of the plaque, involving Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, a remarkable coincidence, and a practical joke…but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for that one.