Once More Into the Weeds, Dear Friends

Terzameron Day 26
April 15, 2020
Tim Martin


“Although I have made a prolonged study of all the Royal plate at Windsor Castle, the Tower of London and the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace, I have failed to identify any vessels which can be assigned definitely to the hands of Christian van Vianen, or indeed to another goldsmith from the Netherlands, John Cooqus, who made the silver bedstead and other plate, provided by Charles II for Nell Gwyn.”—E. Alfred Jones, 1935.


John Cooqus (pr. cookus) is a name long known to scholars of seventeenth century silver. When he married Christian Van Vianen’s daughter, he became a scion of Europe’s most famous family of goldsmiths. Christian (son of the legendary Adam Van Vianen) had come to London from Holland to work as Royal Goldsmith for Charles I. He fled to Holland during the Civil War, and then returned to take up the post again for Charles II. When Van Vianen died, in 1667, Cooqus took over the business, including succeeding Van Vianen as Royal Goldsmith. For the next twenty-five years, for Charles II and then for James II, Cooqus made many of the greatest works in English silver, including, as mentioned above by Jones, an enormous and exceptionally costly bed for Charles’s mistress, “pretty, witty” Nell Gwyn. The bill for the bed survives. To give you an idea of the scale, well, it was a bed. It had silver models of African slaves crouched at the feet, the posts were decorated with silver cherubs and eagles and had crowns at the tops, and, on the headboard, keeping an eye out for mischief, was an immense embossed silver portrait of Charles himself.


Needless to say, through changing fashions or hard times at the Palace, vast amounts of Cooqus’s silver has been melted down. Nell’s bed was scrapped to pay her debts. And though there are today numerous Cooqus pieces still in the Royal Collection, the attribution is circumstantial. It is known they were made for Charles II or James II; Cooqus was the Royal Goldsmith, ergo, they are by Cooqus. The difficulty, described by Jones above, of finding something that can be “assigned definitely” to Cooqus, arises from curious circumstances that, first, the Goldsmith to the King did not have to send his silver to be hallmarked, and, second, the Goldsmiths Company was notoriously hostile to foreigners, and made it very hard for Cooqus to get things hallmarked.


Nevertheless, in a recent paper delivered at a symposium at the Rijksmuseum, Matthew Winterbottom, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Art at the Ashmolean Museum, revealed that a mark recorded as GC by Sir Charles Jackson in 1912, is Cooqus’s mark. Assigned. Definitely. It is one of the most momentous discoveries in the silver business in the last fifty years. How did it happen?



Well, in the late 1950s two extraordinary jugs “in the Van Vianen taste” came up in a London sale. They were nearly a pair, but on one, the quality of the auricular style (or kwab style) chasing was superb, and on the other it was…very good indeed. The lesser jug was marked, with a mark described in the catalog as IC with a pellet above and a fleur de lys below. But the better of the jugs was so great it was universally accepted as the work of Christian Van Vianen. The jugs were bought by a London dealer. Reasoning that “a pair of jugs by Christian Van Vianen” packed a more remunerative punch than “a jug by Christian Van Vianen with another made to match by an unknown silversmith,” he erased the mark on the lesser jug, and sold them to the Rijksmuseum as, mais oui monsieur, “a pair of jugs by Christian Van Vianen.”


Sixty years later, Mr. Winterbottom, going through an old file in an auction house, found a photograph of the since obliterated mark. I imagine him thinking: “if this is IC, and has also been recorded as GC, and in fact looks more like IGC, and it was struck on an object made in the Van Vianen style, but not made as well as one by Van Vianen himself, doesn’t it stand to reason that this mark would be the mark of John (or Jean-Gerard, his Flemish name) Cooqus?” Clearly, the answer is yes. It is wonderful luck that the photograph survived, and fantastic work to find it. Not only did it settle the question of the attribution of the mark, not only did it allow us to identify several other pieces as the work of this long-lost titan of English silversmithing, but it revealed to us, hidden in plain view, that one of the only three known fully-hallmarked pieces by John Cooqus, was, and is, conveniently, in stock.

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