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: The Exeter Salt and Two Notable Silver Cups Added to Collection


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Three important examples of English and American silver, acquired during the past year and now being exhibited for the first time, contribute further to the scope and distinction of the Bell Collection of silver in the Art Institute. Two of the pieces, the famous Exeter Salt formerly in the collection of Lord Swathling, and a fine two-handled cup by Ralph Leeke of London, were acquired from a fund given in memory of James S. Bell. The third example, a handsome two-handled cup by Bartholomew Le Roux of New York, is the gift of Mr. and Mrs. James F. Bell. The lavish style reflected in this second cup is seen in its original manifestation in an exuberantly decorated caudle cup of the Charles II period, presented by the late Mrs. John Washburn some years ago and shown with the Le Roux cup for the purpose of emphasizing the influence of English silversmiths and English styles on colonial craftsmen.The earliest of these pieces, the Exeter Salt, reflects the esteem in which a commodity, now common, was once held. Salt cellars, and drinking vessels were both among the first important articles of domestic plate made in England, but the salt was the most important of all during the medieval period. Being both costly and essential, salt was treated with respect, and it is probably for these reasons that the vessel designed to contain it were, from the beginning, carefully wrought and highly cherished. They were made in various sizes and of many materials, including gold, silver, silver—gilt, coral, and other stones, and were often adorned with jewels. They were usually covered sometimes with pierced tops that could be used as pepper shakers. In a noble household, the great standing salt was placed in the center of the host’s table, which normally stood on a higher level than other tables and at which guests were seated in order of rank. From this custom, no doubt, stemmed the idea that the great salt marked a distinction between guests of different tank and served as a sort of barrier between classes. The fact that other, smaller salts were placed not only on the host’s table, but on the tables of other guests, dissipates the notion that the position of guests with regard to the salt indicated their position in society.During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, standing salts were commonly made in the form of an hourglass with decoration in the Gothic style, but toward the middle of the century the influence of the Renaissance brought about a change in both form and ornament. The Exeter Salt, now in the museum’s collection, represents this style in full flower. Inasmuch as it is one of a limited number of extant Elizabethan pieces made outside of London, it is a rare example despite the fact that its style and decoration are perfectly characteristic of the best-known salts of this period. The right of provincial towns to carry on their business independently of the London Goldsmiths’ Company was enjoyed by only a few towns, among them Chester, York, Exeter, Newcastle, and Norwich. The Exeter Salt was made by a silversmith named Eston, or possibly Easton, whose surname, together with the Exeter town mark for 1582, appears on the bottom of the base.Like many others of its period, the Exeter Salt is of silver-gilt. It stands some eight inches high and is of the type known, because of its architectural character, as a pedestal salt. In this instance the body is circular in section and is richly decorated in the Renaissance fashion. The drum, resting on a boldly executed convex base supported by three feet in the form of demi-horses, is embossed with cartouches connected with strap-work bands. Large cartouches containing lions’ heads alternate with smaller cartouches decorated with circular bosses. The spaces between are filled with garlands of fruits and flowers that are repeated on the domed cover. The top of the body, terminating with a projecting cornice embossed with the same design as the base, contains a shallow salt bowl with a vertical rim over which the cover fits snugly. The vase-shaped finial, surmounted by the standing figure of a man holding a spear and shield, is one of the most ubiquitous elements appearing on pedestal salts of the period. Later, drum-shaped salts sometimes have a steeple cover, but as time went on the cover was replaced by shaped brackets on the rim of the salt. These were used to support a napkin as a cover, as in a broad, truncated hourglass salt of Irish workmanship of about 1640 which has been lent by Mr. and Mrs. Bell. Eventually, the elaborate great salts of the earlier periods were supplanted by individual bowls conforming to the tastes of the time. These, in turn, have been replaced by the individual shakers of today, which, however satisfactory they may be, are a far cry from such noble predecessors as the Elizabethan Exeter Salt.No comparable decline can be said to have occurred in the case of two-handled cups, of which the Institute now possesses three such outstanding examples, for these great vessels are still important as trophies in sporting circles. They derive, moreover, directly from the large two-handled cups of the past. The latest example of this type in the group now on view is the Le Roux cup presented by Mr. and Mrs. Bell. It was made in New York between 1702 and 1712, and is important not only because of its beautiful craftsmanship and the masterly handling of the design, but because it represents an opulent type of silver which was comparatively rare in the Colonies, even in New York, where the influence of Dutch styles was predominant. It is one of only four known two-handled cups made in this country in its decade. There is reason to believe that it belonged to Lord Cornbury, who was Royal Governor for New York from 1702 to 1708. If this is true, it would limit the period of its manufacture still further. Lord Cornbury, who was an extravagant and outrageous character, is known to have patronized New York silversmiths; among them, Bartholomew Le Roux, the leading Huguenot craftsman of New York. When the Royal Governor was called home, he left owing Le Roux well over a hundred pounds and is presumed to have taken this two-handled cup with him. Later, it passed through marriage to the family of the Marquis of Winchester, whose arms it bears.The Le Roux cup, standing about nine inches, has a capacious, almost straight body slightly rounded at the bottom, and is mounted on a raised base decorated with a narrow gadrooned band. The lower part of the body is adorned with a band of vertical, repoussé acanthus leaves. Above, on two sides, appear the Winchester arms. Their treatment, together with the fact that one of the maker’s marks is particularly obliterated by the right wing of the falcon of the crest, indicates that they were added to the cup in England. The cover of the cup, gently domed and topped by a ball finial fluted on the upper half, carries a broad design of foliated leaves in relief. The treatment of the various decorative elements, and the vigor and grace of the cast caryatid handles, are characteristic of Le Roux’s finest work, which frequently combined line and repoussé elements.The decoration of this cup reflects the ornate style that became fashionable in the time of Charles II, when birds, acanthus leaves, tulips, and other flowers appeared in profusion on the swelling bodies of the covered two-handled caudle cups which were so much in vogue during the Restoration period. They were used to serve the popular caudle, a hot drink of sweetened, spiced wine, and posset, which was also made of sweetened wine, but curdled with hot milk. An impressive example of the caudle cup is seen in the Charles II cup presented to the museum by Mrs. John Washburn. It was made about 1660 or 1661 by an unidentified silversmith whose marl is the monogram S A with a mullet below in a shaped shield. The unidentified arms on this cup appear on one side below the rim, which swells out slightly after the contraction at the throat. The cast caryatid handles might almost have served as direct models for those on the Le Roux cup, so similar are they in style. They have, however, a bolder sweep, and a certain flagrant quality that would have accorded well with the Restoration spirit.The soberness that came over English silver toward the end of the seventeenth century is admirably reflected in the simple cup with cast paneled handles, ornamented with beading, made by Ralph Leeke of London in 1690. The decoration of this William and Mary piece is confined to the narrow band of gadrooning on the low molded base and the cut-card work that appears in a quatrefoil design where the handles join the body and in the foliated decoration of the raised area of the cover. This technique, of French origin, became widely popular during the latter half of the century. Cut-card decoration consisted of thin pieces of silver, often of foliate design, cut from sheet metal and applied to vessels such as this covered cup.At one time a distinction was made between cups of the Leeke and Le Roux type and the Charles II cup, the former being called porringers and the latter caudle cups. Such a distinction, of little importance to an appreciation of these cups, seems no longer to exist.However they were used, they must have given great pleasure both to their owners and to all that looked upon them. Happily, they have escaped the fate that overtook much old silver, and will continue, through the generosity of friends of the museum, to give pleasure to others in the future.Referenced Works of ArtCover. The Exeter Salt. Silver-gilt Elizabethan standing salt by Eston of Exeter, ca. 1582. James S. Bell Memorial Fund
  1. Covered two-handled cup with the Winchester arms by Bartholomew Le Roux
    New York, 1663-1713. Gift from Mr. and Mrs. James S. Bell
  2. Charles II caudle cup with repoussé decoration. Gift from Mrs. John Washburn
  3. William and Mary two-handled cup by Ralph Leeke of London, 1690
    James S. Bell Memorial Fund
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Source: "The Exeter Salt and Two Notable Silver Cups Added to Collection," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 39, no. 5 (February, 1950): 27.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009