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: Geogian Silver Casters Acquired from James S. Bell Memorial Fund


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In a period when conveniences for daily living are produced almost before one has felt the need for them, it is difficult to envisage an epoch when changing social customs or the introduction of exotic foods and condiments demanded the invention of new, or the adaptation of old, objects to meet unforeseen needs. Once such a time does become credible, however, one is frequently amazed at the sure and practical manner in which early emergencies were met. The set of three George I silver casters recently acquired from the James S. Bell Memorial Fund is a case in point. They represent what might be called the third stage in the development of usual and decorative receptacles designed expressly for pepper and sugar, two commodities whose use had become fairly widespread by the first quarter of the eighteenth century but which were still in the luxury class. The very fact that early casters were fashioned exclusively from silver indicated that they were restricted to a limited group. Fine examples are therefore comparatively rare and the Institute is fortunate in having secured not one, but a set of these charming objects.Although they are variously known as casters, dredgers, and muffineers, the first seems to be the accepted name for them. Since it is defined as “small vessel with a perforated top from which to cast or sprinkle pepper, sugar, or the like in the form of powder,” it is the more general term of the three. A dredger is chiefly associated with sprinkling flour on roasting meat, although Beaumont and Fletcher, in Scornful Lady, speak of “Burnt figs dredg'd with meal and powdered sugar.” A muffineer, the smallest of the early caster type, was used for sprinkling salt or sugar on muffins. Today the term is frequently applied to a large caster from which powdered sugar is sprinkled on fresh raspberries or strawberries. It is notable that, with the exception of the muffineer—a small, cylindrical vessel with a strap handle very similar to contemporary kitchen salt-shakers—casters were rarely used for salt. From early times in England salt occupied a special position in the scheme of daily living and receptacles especially designed for it were among the most important examples of early plate. The Exeter salt in the Institute's collection and the Charles II circular salt with scrolled brackets in a loan collection are examples of the elaborate and handsome vessels made for salt. Casters, on the other hand, were intended chiefly for pepper and sugar. When encountered in sets of three, the larger of the three pieces contained sugar more often than salt and the two smaller pieces were reserved for Cayenne and Jamaica pepper.Such a set is that now in the Institute's collection. It was made in London in 1723 by Isaac Liger, whose name appears to have been entered on the roll of London goldsmiths in 1720. It is unusual for the period in that the pieces were fashioned of the high-standard silver which had been obligatory from 1697 until 1719-20, when the old standard containing a larger portion of alloy was again put in force. Thus the hall-marks include, in addition to the maker's mark and date letter, the figure of Britannia and the lion's head erased instead of the leopard's head crowned and the lion passant. Although it was no longer required, silver plate of high-standard silver was occasionally made after 1719-20.In all other respects the Liger casters correspond with those in high fashion during the first half of the eighteenth century. The pear-shaped form, inspired by Chinese porcelains, made its appearance in English silver towards the end of the seventeenth century. It is here given a pronounced curve about the moulding marking the junction of the hemispherical lower section of the body with the slender upper section. The gently curving line of the throat, broken once by a narrow moulded band, is prolonged by the tall, pierced cover whose silhouette swells almost imperceptibly above the moulded rim. The cover is extraordinarily graceful despite the severe character of the pierced design: vertical lines of lozenges and crescents alternating with fluted bands flowing up into a flattened, vase-shaped finial. The lower, rounded portion of the body is decorated with a widely radiating band of moulded chrysanthemum-like petals which flow, in turn, into a shallow moulded base.The simple form and restrained decoration of these casters are characteristic of all early examples. In contrast with the somewhat extravagant design of early salts, casters are marked by a simplicity which often borders on the austere. The first receptacles for pepper were not casters at all, properly speaking, but adjuncts to standing salts of the bell type popular during the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. In these examples a small pierced receptacle for pepper formed the upper section of the salt. It was not until the latter part of the seventeenth century that casters came into their own as separate vessels. These early casters, usually of cylindrical form, are not so appealing as the subsequent pear-shaped type, perhaps, but they are handsome pieces with a quality of dignity seldom present in later pieces. Two examples of cylindrical caster, one dating from 1694 and one from 1701, are to be seen in the collection of English silver now on anonymous loan.With the opening of the eighteenth century the pear-shaped caster supplanted the cylindrical form, although the latter continued to be made until well into the century. The pear-shape reigned supreme, however, and it is not to be wondered at. This form, as exemplified by Early Georgian casters such as those in the Liger set, is everything to be desired, usually in vain these days, in receptacles for pepper and salt. It seems to have been designed expressly to fit comfortably into the hand, it is capacious without being bulky, the top is pierced generously to allow a free flow of the contents, and it stands solidly on its low base. In the hands of early silversmiths, English or American, the pear-shaped caster became, moreover, an object in which beauty was wedded so happily to utility that no subsequent craftsmen have been able to improve upon the union. In acquiring the set of Early Georgian casters by Isaac Liger the Art Institute has added three further distinguished examples to its growing collection of English silver.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Set of George I silver casters made in London in 1723 by Isaac Liger. James S. Bell Memorial Fund.
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Source: "Geogian Silver Casters Acquired from James S. Bell Memorial Fund," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 40, no. 22 (June, 1951): 110-112.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009