Last of its Tribe

Terzameron Day 29
April 18, 2020

Tim Martin


When I was a kid I was interested in Native American life. I was fascinated by “Ishi, Last of His Tribe,” purloined from my dad’s library, about a native American who came out of the mountains in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. He was the last survivor of the Yahi tribe. He had been living alone for about five years before being captured trying to find food in what is now the town of Oroville, California. I was amazed that so much knowledge—of language, craft, culture—could be gleaned from the providential appearance of one surviving man, and I thought how different it would be if he had not survived.


So, though obviously trivial by comparison, I love it when we at Shrubsole find something from a lost world, or a lost part of a world—something that shines a light on what must have been in a certain time or place. And rarely in my field is the phenomenon so concentrated as it was when I saw a tankard, very recently, at the Union Club in New York. The tankard is owned by a group of men called the New York Farmers, a social and philanthropic club for gentlemen farmers that was established in 1882.


I’d been asked to give a talk about the Farmers’ silver. Donated and bequeathed by various members over a long span of years, the collection is a mix of utilitarian and decorative goods. The items range from the mediocre to the very nice, with one glowing exception: the tankard shown above. This Terzameron post draws on the talk I gave that evening, but, as the Farmers asked me to give the presentation after drinks and dinner, trust me, it is far more coherent.


Nearly all English tankards are round in section, but this one is sort of cushion shaped, with little pointed corners and bulging edges between—you see this shape in coffee pots and soup tureens by the very best silversmiths, such as Frederick Kandler and George Wickes, but I don’t recall another tankard of this type. This is the only picture I have, so you can’t see the details, but the handle, thumbpiece, and finial are all robust and unusual. The tankard was made in 1741 by John Le Sage, who would later become subordinate goldsmith to the King. In addition to its rare form and its beauty, it is remarkable for its history—specifically, the fact that it exists at all. You see, it is engraved with the arms of Sir Thomas Coke (pronounced Cook), later the Earl of Leicester, and to tell why that matters, I must both digress, and name-drop.


Several years ago I visited the Earl and Countess of Leicester at Holkham Hall in Norfolk. My godmother set it up for me. Her grandfather had been the Earl; she’d been born at Holkham in 1937 and spent her childhood there. The Earl I met was her cousin, Eddie Leicester. Probably the greatest Palladian house in England, Holkham was designed by Lord Burlington and William Kent, and built for Sir Thomas Coke, the original owner of the Farmers tankard. Coke had inherited a vast fortune. He was a grand tourist par excellence, a collector, connoisseur, and even briefly the owner of the Godolphin Arabian. He spent a fortune on the house, until he invested heavily in the South Sea Company and nearly went broke. He recovered, and continued building. He bought up so much of the land around him that late in life he somewhat woefully wrote “my nearest neighbor is the King of Denmark.”


The visit was a real treat. I saw all the pictures by Claude, the amazing collection of antiquities, and the vast and treasure filled library—formerly the home of Leonardo’s “Codex Leicester”. I was on the point of asking if they needed a grounds-keeper when I remembered I already had a job and asked about the silver instead. It was then I was led to “the plate room.” Don’t have one? Pity. It’s an octagonal room, about fifteen feet across, with twelve-foot ceilings and a chandelier in the middle. Each side of the octagon opens to baize-lined shelves groaning with row upon row and stack upon stack of silver—candlesticks, plates, tureens, etc. But when my eyes adjusted, and I’d finished ogling the room, I started to look closely at the silver, and, frankly, it’s a bit of a letdown. Lots of nineteenth century stuff, some late eighteenth, perfectly nice, but remarkable mostly for the quantity. Why would a house bursting with every other kind of treasure not have great silver?


In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, if you were as rich as the Cokes, you kept up with fashion, and, unlike ancient statuary, rare books, and old master paintings, silver was a fashion statement. If you had your friends over and wanted to impress them in 1770 or 1820 or 1860 you’d no more have old-fashioned silver than a man on the make today would wear a corduroy suit and drive a Yugo. So, tragically, the Cokes had all their silver refashioned, again and again, until nothing was left from any of the best periods of English silver.


I’ve been dealing in silver for twenty-five years. I’ve been close to my godmother and hearing about Holkham all my life. Up till that evening with the Farmers, I’d seen two pieces of silver that had to do with the place, and both were trinkets given away as sheep-breeding prizes in the 1820s. I’ve also looked at thousands of auction catalogs and books, so I am pretty sure this tankard is the only surviving piece of silver from the early days of Holkham Hall, when Coke and Burlington and Kent were building the place. The form, so unusual and stylish, hints at the wonders that must have been in that fabulous, new-built, ultra-fashionable house at the time. The tankards were like this? Just imagine the tureens, the tea and coffee services, the candlesticks. It makes you realize just how much wealth and beauty have been consigned to the melting pot, at Holkham and elsewhere, for fashion. Amazingly, it survived the melting pot because the man who inherited Holkham, the famous farmer Thomas Wenman Coke, known as “Coke of Norfolk” presented it to his Farm Bailiff in 1782. The presentation of the item by a famous farmer to a farm employee caught the interest, years later, of one of the New York Farmers. In 1927, James Watson Webb gave it to the club in memory of his father, William Seward Webb, at once preserving it, and, till now, hiding it away from general knowledge.

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