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by Wendell Garrett
|Paul de Lamerie must rank as one of the stars of that finest period of English silver, the first half of the 18th century. He was the most prolific silversmith of his time in England. The quantity, range and quality of silverware that bears Paul de Lamerie's mark suggests that he was skilled not only in his craft but was also a shrewd businessman. His fame derives from his pre-eminent position as the maker of wrought plate in the Rococo style.
A kettle, stand, lamp and salver by Lamerie, dated 1737, is currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection.
Lamerie was born in 1688 in Bois-le-Duc, a town in the Netherlands where his French Huguenot parents were lodging. Along with many other French Huguenots, the family chose to follow William of Orange to England during the Glorious Revolution. In 1703 the 15 year-old boy was apprenticed to Pater Platel, London goldsmith, for a term of seven years.
His apprenticeship ended in 1711, and Paul de Lamerie worked on as a journeyman with Platel while he saved money and made arrangements to receive his freedom by service. In 1713 he entered his maker's mark at the Assay Office in Goldsmith's Hall.
Living and working within the close-knit Huguenot community in London, Paul de Lamerie took 13 apprentices of his own between 1715 and 1749. He attracted business from both the nobility and the wealthy middle class. Probably his most influential client was Sir Robert Walpole, called "the first British Prime Minister" (1721-42), for whom Lamerie made first the square salver, engraved with the Second Exchequer Seal of George I. A remarkable number of members of Parliament figure among Lamerie's customers. One wonders how many were following the example of the Whig leader.
Lamerie had been fortunate in learning his trade from a master of the quality of Platel, one of the most fashionable and skillful interpreters of the French Régence style, with its well-proportioned forms, balanced ornament and architectural motifs, the designs often based on engraved illustrations by Daniel Marot.
Lamerie was fortunate in living and working in the French Protestant refugee community with its own cultural identity and where conversation was still mainly conducted in French. He was able to mix with artists in other fields besides silversmithing, and he proved to be particularly receptive to the many ideas being exchanged around him. It was this eclecticism as well as his tough attitude to business that marked his success.
At the start of his career in his own workshop, the astute Paul de Lamerie had been willing to carry out orders for plate of simple design in the English Queen Anne style to please his more traditional and sober patrons, yet proved perfectly capable of producing really elaborate pieces when the opportunity arose. It was the advent of the Rococo style to which he responded most successfully. The essential characteristic of this style was movement, and the need for novelty and innovation perfectly suited Lamerie as a designer.
His workshop produced a vast range of objects and obviously the same casting patterns were in use many times, yet seldom were items made that were identical. Lamerie was at his most inventive on the small scale, especially with coffee pots, from small pear-shaped versions to exceptional examples where the sculptural form and decoration united successfully.
Paul de Lamerie's reputation was such that he is the only 18th-century silversmith who is remembered by name rather than just by the style of his silver. The fame of Lamerie, which uniquely survived into the 19th century, probably derived from the bravura and quantity of his Rococo silver.
While comparatively immune to direct French influence in his silver, he produced French-style silver of far greater sophistication. His achievement was the development of a particular ornamental style, which used chiefly late Baroque decorative forms to express the freedom and vigor of the new French Rococo style.
The full effect of the goldsmith's art became a reality about the time of Lamerie's birth at the end of the 17th century. The immense confidence of the Baroque style swept across Europe largely due to the power of the papacy and the influence of Louis XIV in France. The style was one of grandeur: the ultimate embodiment of the princely state.
In almost direct contrast, the Rococo style that followed was the product of peace. In silver, the style was characterized by asymmetry, curves and spontaneity, which were frequently mixed with naturalistic elements. Almost as soon as the Rococo had taken its wayward hold on Europe, a new renaissance was underway.
The Neoclassical style, born of an accurate study of the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, sought to reintroduce the "true principles" of design: those constants which had endured since the ancient world. Beginning in France and swiftly moving to England, an Anglo-French style emerged in the mid-18th century built on the foundation of the Palladian tradition.
Silver is a unique medium in the arts. For most of history it has had a value equal to that of coin, and it is infinitely recyclable. As fashions changed, silver was melted down to reemerge in new forms, or if funds ran short silver was converted into coin. Because of its intrinsic value most European centers of production devised a system of assaying silver to determine its purity, subsequently indicating this with a hallmark. These marks frequently provide an accurate method of dating the piece, and even identifying the maker. Thus antique silver is the most reliable barometer of wealth and taste available to the historian.
When Lamerie's obituary appeared in the London newspapers following his death in August 1751, he was identified as "an eminent silver worker" who "was particularly famous in making fine ornamental plate, and has been very instrumental in bringing that branch of trade to the perfection it is now in." In 1911, Sir Charles Jackson, the historian of English plate, wrote that "in recent years, examples bearing his mark have been competed for with avidity." Exactly the same could be said today.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American Decorative Arts at Sotheby's.