Jeremy Thornton looks at the work of Birmingham’s Georgian silversmiths and why their pieces have become so sought-after
The skill of the Birmingham silversmiths has always impressed me when I handle the small delicate work they are famous for. Some of the finest exponents of the silversmith craft were working in the late Georgian and early Victorian period with Nathaniel Mills being widely acknowledged as one of the greatest of his time. Mills was renowned for his fine engraving and repousse work – a method whereby the design is achieved in relief working from the back or inside of the piece. Often his image of choice would be a castle, and these designs quickly became the most sought-after. Mills, who was born in 1756 and lived to the ripe age of 84, had premises in Caroline Street in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.
The quality of his designs, and that of his contemporaries, is even more impressive when the cramped and ill-lit conditions in which they worked are taken into consideration. I am fascinated by the stories and insights into living conditions that simple day-to-day objects can tell us about the past – I suppose it’s the historian in me trying to get out! I think the snuff boxes, vinaigrettes and card cases which Nathaniel Mills & Sons excelled in making are perfect examples of these stories. Snuff boxes came in two sizes, the most common being the small ones designed to fit in a pocket, made to hold a few ounces of snuff for daily use. Far rarer are the larger boxes used for sharing snuff with colleagues. I believe a communal snuff box is still kept in the House of Lords and you occasionally see table boxes at military messes, often in the traditional ‘rams head’ style. The quality of the silversmiths’ work is striking when you open a snuff box today and consider it was made 200 years ago. The lids are still amazingly tight fitting, the accuracy is astounding. The word ‘vinaigrette’ is from the French for vinegar and in this situation is used to describe the small container with a perforated top, used to contain an aromatic substance such as smelling salts.
Ladies, especially in the Victorian era, used them to combat the foul smells that wafted from the open sewers and waste that the growing cities of the times were known for. Finally, card cases are from the elegant age when it was the correct etiquette to call and leave a card with someone prior to meeting, consequently everyone needed a stunning card case. So, what would it cost you if you wanted to buy one of these marvellous pieces of silver to display in your own home? Well, the beautiful William IV silver castle vinaigrette box shown here weighs in at 27 grams and has a silver value of less than £10 – but when identified as the work of Nathaniel Mills it’s worth more than £1,000. At today’s price the same weight in gold costs around £700 – so finally we can say that silver really has been turned into gold!