The Victorian era brought with it great invention and discovery, both industrial and for the arts. The firm Elkington & Co. were the epitome of innovation and at the forefront of developments of electro-metallurgy.
Elkington & Co. honed their skills to create electroplate masterpieces and in particular electrotype facsimile copies of museum quality artefacts. They were also the only British company to consistently win the highest awards at all seven of the International Exhibitions held from 1851-1878.
Founded by cousins, George Richards Elkington and Henry Elkington, and financed by the steel pen magnate Josiah Mason, the company formed a relationship with the pre-cursor to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the South Kensington Museum, to produce facsimile copies of museum artefacts for educational purposes known as a ‘type pattern’.
Electrotype copies were used as design aids for artists, artisans and students in the government schools of design. This collection enabled people to look closely at both modern and historic objects that might otherwise be inaccessible. These reproductions were intended to improve the quality of Britain's manufacturing products by getting good design into workshops and refining the taste of the general public.
In order to re-produce these type patterns, a mould is first made of the original piece and then sprayed with a silver paint to help conduct electricity, dipped in a solution with copper wires this first helps connect the copper and then the silver. This complex process produces a structurally sound product that can be regularly handled and examined for further research.
The Bedford tankard was the third project between the South Kensington Museum and Elkington & co. It is the only known example where the name of the owner was credited on the piece. Various options were provided for the tankard with entirely copper costing 7l 7s to a gilt or parcel gilt with a price of 10l 10s.
Francis Bedford (1815-1894) loaned the 17th-century ivory tankard to the museum in 1854. He was the founder of the Photographic Society of London (later the Royal Photographic Society). Prince Albert had commissioned him to photograph items in the Royal Collection and even purchased an image of the tankard taken by Bedford which still resides in the Royal collections today (RCIN 2906112).
Though the purpose of the projects undertaken by the South Kensington Museum and Elkington & Co. was to provide educational tools, it must be noted that Elkington & Co. was primarily a commercial enterprise. Selling their wares, such as casting a handle rather than an entire piece, created a conflict of interest and may have been a contributing factor to why the relationship ended.
Today a silver-gilt mounted ivory tankard carved with the same version of the Silenus story but with a different finial remains in the Victoria & Albert Museum (accession number 880-1882), from the bequest in 1882 of John Jones, and is on display in the Whitely Galleries.
The two lots illustrated above featured in our March 2023 Silver & Objets de Vertu sale offered an interesting insight into the Victorian period where commercial industrial drive meets the desire to improve social and public order.
Lyon & Turnbull’s Silver & Objects of Vertu department currently hold two specialist auctions per year - alongside the annual Scottish Silver & Applied Arts auction in August - dedicated to both British and foreign silverware from the 16th century to modern day.
SILVER & JEWELLERY