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Museum Feature

Chased Repousse Floral Design Sterling Silver

For our Museum Feature this month, we’re showing beautiful examples of chased repousse floral sterling silver, a design that became widely popular in 19th century America. “Repousse” is an ancient form of metalworking, where artisans hammer a design into the inside surface of a piece of metal, so that the ornamentation appears in relief on the outside. Most often the design is then worked from the outside with a pointed or patterned punch. This technique, called “chasing,” sharpens and defines the repousse ornamentation and enhances the three-dimensional effect of the design. Some of the best-known pieces of this type of metalwork date from antiquity – Greek armor plates crafted in the 3rd century B.C. A very similar technique, where precious metal was pressed against a die to create an effect similar to repousse, is far older, dating back to 3,000 B.C. Pointed punches and patterned punches used to decorate the exterior of metal pieces are nearly as old, dating to 2,000 B.C.+

Most of us would associate the technique of repousse with the making of jewelry, armor and helmets, and gold, silver, copper, or brass vessels for serving food, water, or wine. Surprisingly, the technique is utilized by sculptors and other artists to produce pieces very large in size. For Americans the most famous example is the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island, NY, formed of pieces of copper repousse!

Widely used in Europe for jewelry, hollowware, religious icons, and other items, repousse was not popularized in North America until 1828, when Baltimore, MD, silver maker Samuel Kirk introduced chased repousse to the design of his works. Born in 1793 in Doylestown, PA, Kirk was apprenticed at the age of 17 to James Howell, a silversmith in Philadelphia, PA. Following his apprenticeship, Kirk moved to the port city of Baltimore, and set up his own shop in 1815. Kirk’s company is considered to be the oldest silversmith firm in America. According to the Maryland Historical Society, Samuel Kirk’s clients included the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon Bonaparte. Three of his sons would join Samuel in his trade. Henry Kirk, Sr. began to train as a silversmith with his father at the age of 16, and in 1846, joined the business as a full partner. The name of the firm was changed to “Samuel Kirk & Son.” Henry took over running the business when his father died in 1872.

At first glance the 5 pieces in our Museum Feature appear to be a set of the chased repousse floral pattern popularized by Samuel Kirk & Son. Most noticeable in the handles is the ram’s head, often employed by Kirk in his designs. Closer inspection reveals, however, that the floral designs differ. In addition, these pieces were crafted by different silver makers. The creamer and teapot on the left bear the mark, “S. Kirk & Son,” so they were made by the firm of Samuel Kirk & Son. Significantly, these pieces are also stamped, “hand decorated,” which indicates that these are “luxury,” high-end pieces, probably tooled by one of the principal silversmiths, but certainly not by an apprentice.

The sugar bowl with lid and the waste bowl on the right of the image, however, bear the stamp, “W. M. Saxton.” Our curators have not been able to find information about Saxton. It is possible that there was a business relationship between Saxton and Samuel Kirk & Son. Saxton’s sugar bowl with lid certainly bears a close resemblance, with its ram’s head handles and the whimsical leaf handle on the lid, to the Kirk teapot. But it’s also possible that Saxton was simply engaging in the sincerest form of flattery, that is, imitation. Kirk’s repousse designs became so popular and so imitated that repousse designs are sometimes simply referred to as “Maryland Silver.”

Finally, there is the hot water urn at the center of the image. The chased repousse floral pattern, the ram’s head handles, the roping design at the base of the piece and at the point where the vessel joins its stand – these are typical of Kirk’s designs. Yet curiously, this large piece carries no mark whatsoever, so we can’t say with absolute certainty that it was produced by Samuel Kirk & Son.

While the origins of our Museum Feature chased repousse floral design silver are shrouded in mystery, two things are perfectly clear – the magnificent beauty of their design, and the exquisite quality of their craftsmanship. While these Museum pieces are not for sale, we have a wide array of Kirk Stieff patterns that you may peruse, along with the patterns of hundreds and hundreds of other high-quality sterling silver makers. Be sure to browse our web site. And remember that we always invite you to visit! Here you can see an absolutely stunning variety of silver, china, crystal, and collectibles! Our Showroom and Museum are open from 9:00am to 7:00pm ET, 7 days a week (except holidays); free tours are available from 9:30am to 6:00pm ET, 7 days a week. The Showroom 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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