- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008


Long before the Davis Cup and Oscar statuette, the country’s best known trophies were large silver urns made for military heroes and politicians. The most exquisite of these commemorative tributes were forged by Thomas Fletcher and Sidney Gardiner, the nation’s most famous and influential silversmiths during the early 19th century.

The gleaming designs by their firm, considered the Tiffany & Co. of its day, are the subject of “Silversmiths to the Nation” at the Winterthur Museum. This luxurious, 100-piece salute to Early American patriotism, which premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, is well worth the two-hour drive from Washington to the former Henry Francis du Pont estate.

Winterthur curators Donald L. Fennimore and Ann K. Wagner organized the exhibition to reflect the range of the Fletcher and Gardiner practice, from golden sword hilts to silver tureens. The partners began their business in Boston and three years later moved to Philadelphia, where they worked from 1811 to 1842.

The exhibit impresses from the start with the “heaviest, tallest and most complex work in silver ever produced in North America,” according to the catalog. This nearly 30-inch-high urn was made by Fletcher and Gardiner in 1813 to honor Isaac Hull, captain of the U.S.S. Constitution, whose defeat of a British warship marked the United States’ first decisive naval victory during the War of 1812. A group of Philadelphia citizens paid for the $3,000 award, which took a year to make.

The magnificence of this over-the-top design, the first such cup by Fletcher and Gardiner, proved that this country’s artisans could match the monumentality of European silver. (A symposium planned for Sept. 5 and 6 at Winterthur to coincide with the exhibit will provide an overview of early American silver.)

Each element of the 34-pound Hull urn is meant to thrill with artistry of differing techniques. Chased and cast heads of Neptune decorate the base supported by animal paws. On the smooth bowl, a scene showing the Constitution is flanked by allegorical figures of Fame and History. Cast rams’ heads support the handles and an eagle clutching a thunderbolt tops the lid.

Such neoclassical details, based on reproductions of Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, were widely embraced by early American artists and architects as representing the bravado and aspirations of our upstart democracy. Versions of them reappear in several smaller awards made by Fletcher and Gardiner for other War of 1812 heroes, including an eagle-laden urn commissioned by the “Ladies of South Carolina” for Andrew Jackson.

The most unusual of these is a spherical punch bowl meant to simulate one of the bombs fired by the British upon Fort McHenry near the Baltimore Harbor. The bowl, its matching cups, ladle and tray were awarded to Lt. Col. George Armistead who defended the fort from the 1814 siege made famous in our national anthem. (“The Star-Spangled Banner” is one of several patriotic tunes piped into the gallery to emphasize the connection.)

Soon such gifts of silver were being given to bankers, lawyers and politicians in recognition of their accomplishments. Two of the most extravagant of these tributes honor New York Gov. De Witt Clinton’s role in building the Erie Canal. Fletcher and Gardiner completed the paired urns in 1825 after winning a contest sponsored by a group of New York merchants. Their invention was to layer American-inspired motifs, including scenes of canal locks and aqueducts, onto a copy of the Warwick Vase, a Roman antiquity widely admired by European artists.

Renown for such ambitious trophies led fashion-conscious consumers from all over the country to purchase tableware from Fletcher and Gardiner, whose work came to be widely imitated. A wealthy widow from Georgia, for example, sent her old silverware and coins to the Philadelphia smithies so they could use them to create a pitcher for her son-in-law who helped settle her estate. The design’s eagle-topped handle, dolphin finial and gracefully curved bowl represented the latest Greek style.

Some of the silversmiths’ most delightful touches were applied to sauceboats, which began to appear on American dining tables during the 1720s. By the early 1800s, these curvaceous vessels assumed naturalistic details with handles shaped into snakes and leaves. One of the more unusual designs features a female head set into the handle tip; she unhappily gazes downward as if disapproving the gravy.

For those visitors wondering how Fletcher and Gardiner made all their ornate designs, the exhibit includes a fascinating section on their innovative methods. One of these was to stamp out ornamental strips of silver in a hand-powered mill resembling a pasta maker. The die-rolled bands were applied to the rims of pitchers and barrels of tankards.

Other motifs were punched into the metal surface from both the front and back and cast from molds, as shown in a silver pitcher covered in leafy borders. Sculptural elements, such as feet, were bolted onto vessels to achieve the firm fit characteristic of the era’s French silver.

Preparatory drawings for some of the designs by Fletcher and Gardiner are also included, though few of these faded studies are as engaging as the exuberantly decorated silver. The appeal of these vases, tea sets, cake baskets and wine coolers stems from their spirited symbolism of our nation’s earliest achievements as much as from their superb craftsmanship.


WHAT: “Silversmiths to the Nation: Thomas Fletcher & Sidney Gardiner, 1808-1842”

WHERE: Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, Route 52, six miles northwest of Wilmington, Del.

WHEN: Through Sept. 21; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

ADMISSION: $20 adults; $18 students and seniors; $10 ages 2 to 11

PHONE: 800/448-3883 or 302/888-4600

WEB SITE: www.winterthur.org



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