Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Clermont's Silver Star

In a wealthy 18th century household, the dishes on your dinner table could make or break your dinner party:

"After having seized on the entirety of a Table decoration, the eyes occupy themselves with the details, and taking them piece by piece, in examining their execution. Each Guest praises or critiques its work, and more or less flatters the pride of the sumptuous Host. It seems to us, therefore, useful to everyone to introduce objects of Fashion which, by their universality, can justify our choice."  --Cabinet des Modes, 1786

So A Most Beguiling Accomplishment just posted this great image and translated description of a 1786 silver Soupière, and it immediately put in me in mind of Clermont's equally-dashing example that belonging to Chancellor Livingston around that same time.

This glittering gem of table wear is one piece of a complete set purchased by Chancellor Livingston in the 1790s from his friend Gouverneur Morris.  Produced by silversmith-to-the-stars Jacques-Nicolas Roettiers around 1775, it would have put the Chancellor's table display on par with some of Roettiers's other clients--most notably Catherine II of Russia and her famous Orlaff Service, an example from which is shown at right by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

In fact, the other two known pieces from the Chancellor's set are also housed at the Met, along with about eight total pieces from this silver maker. In particular, I love this ladle (from a different set) because the reeded handle with wrapped detail is reminiscent of the same detail just under the lid of the Chancellor's set (see above).

What does this mean for Chancellor Livingston?  Well in particular, the likely purchase date of the early 1790s means that the Chancellor may well have bought it as part of a larger shopping spree to outfit his glamorous new mansion he unimaginatively called New Clermont (now known as Arryl House).  The Chancellor was a known Francophile, and his house was papered with French wall papers, and the hall was adorned with precious tapestries from the Parisian Gobelins manufactory.  American luxury products were just not up to snuff with European ones yet so being able to put such a high-quality set of silver on the table meant not only a major financial investment, but also carried the cache of extreme exclusivity.  

Some years later the Chancellor was appointed as the American Minister to France and, just like his contemporary Thomas Jefferson, went shopping while he was there.  Amongst many other things, he purchased the amazing crystal chandelier that now adorns our  drawing room, the one-of-a-kind balloon clock, and a set of Dartes Freres china (below) and stowed them in his impressive Hudson River villa.  

It is likely that at least some of these things were passed on to his eldest daughter Betsy and her husband Edward Philip when the Chancellor died in 1813, along with two of the Rottiers tureens.  The tureens at least are detailed in Edward Philip's 1844 probate inventory:

2 tureens           $600

Considering there are three tureens in existance, I imagine that his other daughter Margaret Maria and her husband Robert L. may have received the third piece in this set. 

It is also possible that the Dartes Freres set is what is meant by:

1 dinner set white and gilt 200 pieces            $125

Basically, what this all goes to show is that the Chancellor was as preoccupied as his fellow Founding Fathers with displays of extreme wealth that linked them--at least on a material culture level--to the European aristocracy they were simultaneously trying so hard to differentiate themselves from.  That, and this particular set of silver was a really big score for the Livingstons' dining table.

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