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Museum Feature

Museum Feature – Gorham Silver Old Masters Fish Serving Set

Old Masters is just one of the many creative flatware designs produced by the Gorham Manufacturing Company in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Designed by Antoine Heller, the Old Masters line depicts a variety of great artists, including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velazquez, Anthony van Dyck, and many others (twenty-five in all). The pattern comprises several different piece types; the artist depicted on a particular piece type is dependent on the size of the piece in relation to the size of the portrait. According to Gorham literature, “the size of each bust is carefully adjusted to fit the handle of the piece to which it is assigned. The bust of Velazquez, for instance, assigned to a Tea Spoon, would look ridiculous on a Soup Ladle, or vice versa.”

The two-piece fish serving set from our museum featured this month depicts Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, a Dutch artist most famous for his portraiture, landscapes, and illustrations of mythological and Biblical scenes. The “Rembrandt” fish knife measures 11 1/2 inches long, and has a handle tip sculpted in the shape of Rembrandt’s portrait and graceful, intricate etchings along the length of the handle. The “Rembrandt” fish fork is 8 5/8 inches long, with the same design. Many of the opulent tableware patterns produced during the Gilded Age comprise hundreds of flatware and serving pieces. However, there are only six known Old Masters pieces featuring Rembrandt (many of the artists in the series only adorn one piece type). Old Masters pieces decorated with Rembrandt’s portrait include: a crumb knife, a cheese scoop, a berry spoon, an asparagus fork, and the fish serving set showcased here.

Antoine Heller, the designer for the Old Masters pattern, was born in France in 1845. As a young man, Heller apprenticed with M. Chaplain, a well-known engraver. According to Charles Carpenter Jr. in Gorham Silver: 1831-1981, Heller received a scholarship to study in Paris in 1864. There, he was trained in the Beaux Arts style, a highly ornate classical style that combines Baroque and Rococo elements balanced with a sense of precision and planning. In 1870, Heller received a Gold Medal from the Paris Salon. Heller came to America in the late 1870s to work for Tiffany & Co., where he helped design and cut their Olympian pattern. Gorham hired Heller away from Tiffany in 1881, and Heller’s first work for Gorham, Fontainebleau, debuted in 1882. In 1883, Gorham produced two more Heller patterns, Medici and Cluny, followed by Nuremburg and Old Masters in 1884-85, St. Cloud in 1886, Versailles in 1888, Coligni in 1889, and Marie Antoinette in 1891. Heller’s Mythologique, regarded as one of Heller’s most famous flatware designs, debuted in 1894. Although many of Heller’s designs were hugely successful, he was just one of many noted designers at Gorham Silver, regarded as one of the preeminent silver companies in the world.

Jabez Gorham was born in 1792 in Providence, Rhode Island. At fourteen years old, Jabez gained an apprenticeship with New England silver patriarch Nehemiah Dodge. After his seven-year apprenticeship with Dodge, Jabez formed his own jewelry business with four other partners. This partnership dissolved after five years, and Jabez continued in business alone. From 1818 to 1831, Jabez and his small staff produced a number of jewelry items, and during this time he was the first to produce "French filigree" jewelry. In 1831, Jabez partnered with another silversmith, Henry Webster, and began producing coin silver spoons, which were gaining popularity in New England at the time. The enterprise was successful, and Jabez was able to retire comfortably within ten years, selling his jewelry business to investors while Webster maintained control of the silver business. Soon however, Webster offered to turn the silver company back over to Jabez. Jabez agreed, and brought his son, John, aboard to run the company. By this time, John was an accomplished businessman himself, and led the company’s expansion into many sectors, including silver hollowware. Gorham soon became the world’s leading force for silver, dominating American silver production during the Gilded Age of the 1890s.

Over their 180 years of production, Gorham has produced such treasures as the tea and flatware service purchased by First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln for the White House in 1859, the Century Vase created for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibit in 1876, the monument of George Washington in the Capitol's Rotunda, and the Borg-Warner Trophy for the Indianapolis 500. The White House has used Gorham silver services during many administrations. Mary Todd Lincoln purchased an impressive tea and flatware service for use in the White House, Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant asked Gorham to commemorate the country's one-hundredth anniversary with a spectacular Century Vase that contained over 2,000 ounces of sterling silver, and Gorham Chantilly was used aboard Air Force One during the presidency of George H. W. Bush. Gorham’s reputation for excellence endures today, and the company has expanded into other dinnerware product categories, making high-quality stainless steel flatware, as well as delicate yet versatile china, and high-quality crystal.

The Gorham Old Masters fish serving set in our museum is not for sale, but we do have a set available for purchase in our inventory. Replacements, Ltd. also carries a other fantastic Old Masters items; be sure to browse our web site. And remember that we always invite you to visit our facilities – here you’ll see a stunning variety of silver, china, crystal, and collectibles! Our retail store and museum are open from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm ET, 7 days (except holidays); free tours are available from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm ET, 7 days. The retail store and museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. We look forward to seeing you!

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