Airgeadoir: – This is the Irish for silver. From April to June in 2005 the Crawford Municipal Gallery hosted the exhibition ‘Airgeadoir’- Four Centuries of Cork Silver and Gold.
Under a charter granted to the Dublin Goldsmith Company in 1637, that body became responsible for assaying or verifying that gold and silver wares offered for sale in Ireland were of the correct standard of purity or fineness. In the case of silver, this was normally the sterling standard defined as 92.5% fine silver. The balance of copper was necessary for working the metal, pure silver being too soft. Cork makers were expected to comply with the regulations and to send their wares to Dublin for assay. However the practical difficulties of securely transporting packages of silver to Dublin, and then back again rendered this generally impossible up to 1807, with the exception of the period 1714-1735 when perhaps a quarter of the city’s production was assayed in Dublin. After 1807 compliance with the rule of hallmarking all silver was the norm for work produced in Cork. In the 17th century wares were usually marked with a punch or two punches featuring the ship between two single towered castles depicted on the city’s arms. Sometimes the tower alone was applied. These became known as the Cork ‘town marks’. They were in widespread use in the city from the incorporation of the Society of Goldsmiths of Cork in 1657, until about 1715. Attempts by the silversmiths of Cork city in the early 18th century to establish a Cork assay office were constantly blocked by the authorities fearing the loss of revenue. Concerned about public confidence in their product, Cork silversmiths began around 1715 to impress their wares with the word ‘STERLING’ in one of several forms including abbreviations such as STER, and STERG, as well as with their own unique maker’s mark. This was a declaration of the purity of the silver, warranted by maker’s signature, whose integrity would be respected by his clients. Exception to this was the occasional use of melted Spanish coins (of known purity or fineness) as the source of silver, in which cases the word ‘DOLLAR’ was stamped. Croker Barrington (1750-1780) was a maker who was particularly associated with this practice.
Cork Silver prior to 1730- The earliest making was a traditional craft in a settled society. The earliest surviving silver items of Cork origin are ecclesiastical, and were made for, and presented by pious donors who usually inscribed their names upon the items. Amongst these is the ‘Alsona Miaghe’ chalice presented to the Catholic Church by a member of the Meade family in 1598. This chalice is particularly interesting as it bears upon its stem a punch in the form of opposed ‘c’s’, which is possibly the earliest known Cork maker’s mark.
The first attempt to regulate the trade locally was in 1631 when a charter of Charles 1st of England empowered the Mayor of Cork to appoint a clerk of assay. In 1656 the Company of Goldsmiths of Cork was incorporated. This coincided with a determined effort by the authorities to rid the city governance of the old Anglo-Irish Catholic families’ hegemony, and its replacement with loyal Protestants. Indeed, the city’s first Protestant mayor John Hodder took office in 1656. His direct descendant, George Hodder was an accomplished goldsmith and succeeded his ancestor as Mayor of Cork in 1754. The Protestant faith grew in prominence and commissions for church plates were made by city goldsmiths such as Walter Burnett, Caleb Rotheram, Richard Smart, William Clarke, Robert Goble and William Newenham themselves being Protestants. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries many of the names indicated their Huguenot origins, including Anthony Semirot, Samuel Pantaine and Adam Billon. These were Protestant refugees from religious persecution in France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The government at the time welcomed their arrival because of their religion but the established trade did not, fearing an increase in competition These Huguenots brought with them continental ideas of styling which influenced Cork-made silver in the following years. Goldsmiths played a prominent part in the life of the city and an Edward Gillet served as bailiff in 1715 and mayor in 1721.
Cork Silver 1730-1830 – In the middle third of the 18th century tastes in the applied arts became more sophisticated. Porcelain became popular, and thus silver teapots of the mid 18th century are generally rare. Cork however is the exception and a small number of Cork bullet and pear shaped silver teapots of the period are known. The 1740s and 1750s saw the widespread appearance of domestic table silver such as sauceboats and cream jugs, in helmet shapes with complex scroll handles and bearing cast shell knuckle hoof feet, or in the case of \cork makers the human mask knuckle feet, rarely found elsewhere. Rococo decoration appeared after about 1742. At first, this took the form of flat chasing in bands on domestic items such as salvers. The subsequent development of the rococo style in Cork led to the swirling profusion of flowers, scrolls, foliage and animal motifs seen in the 1770s and 1780s in the elaborate chased repousse coffee-pots, cream jugs and sugar bowls by John Nicholson of Cork, one of the greatest silversmiths this island has ever produced. His repousse (or high relief) chasing was of the highest order. He blended rural, domestic and agricultural decorative themes with traditional flamboyant rococo motifs in creations marrying artistic excellence with extraordinary technical skill. Growing economic prosperity amongst the middle classes increased the number of silversmiths operating in the city and by the 1800s it is estimated that some 70 silversmiths and goldsmiths were operating in the city. The city’s prosperity was due to the butter and provisioning trades and on the importance of the harbour as a staging post for naval convoys during the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars.
The most noted of all the silversmiths was Carden Terry. He was born in 1742 and apprenticed to the trade in 1758 at the age of sixteen. He became a Freeman of the city in 1785. John Williams his son-in-law became his partner and after John’s death in 1806, Terry’s daughter Jane Williams joined her father in partnership she was known as ‘Cork’s only female silversmith’. They continued to produce superb and varied items until Carden died in 1821. The workshop closed soon after this and Jane died in 1846. Neo classical shapes became popular towards the end of the 18th century. These lent themselves to ready expression in silver. Bright cut decoration made its appearance in the 1780s as a logical progression of the rococo style. This type of decoration is so called from the faceted cutting, particularly along the edges of flatware, which reflected candlelight much like the facets of diamond jewellery. Towards the end of this period appeared the particular style of plain, pointed end flatware, sometimes called Celtic point. With shell bowl forms and very plain handles, its plainness was a sharp contrast to the elaborate bright-cut patterns.
Famous Civic Silver- Cork silversmiths produced many famous civic maces. The Mace of the Trade Guilds of Cork by Robert Goble dates from 1696 and is housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Cork silversmiths made maces for the boroughs of Bandon, Castlemartyr, Youghal and Midleton and these may be seen on public displays in the country. The mace of Kinsale also survives but now does it duty as the mace of the Borough of Margate in Kent, England, having been sold by Sotheby’s in the 1860s. Cork’s own city maces are still carried before the Lord Mayor on civic occasions and two of them bear the maker’s mark of William Bennett, a Cork goldsmith and the date is 1738. A more common example of civic silver is the freedom box, with and within which, it was customary to present the honorary freedom of a city or borough to a distinguished visitor. These were round or oval or rectangular in shape, and typically bore the arms of the borough on the top with a presentation inscription on the base. This inscription was by no means universal, and many extant boxes bear no such inscription. Indeed, one author says that Dean Jonathan Swift indignantly returned his freedom box to the City of Cork, on the grounds that it was not inscribed. The custom of the presentation of the freedom of Cork in a silver (or sometimes gold) box dates back to the 1660s.
Silver in the Later 19th century- From the beginning of the century the silver trade was in decline, partly due to the removal by the Act of Union (1800) of tariff protection on imported English goods, making mass produced silver from Birmingham and London more cost competitive than the native artisan produced silver. The other cause was the huge reduction in government contracts for supplies after the Napoleonic Wars. This reduced the prosperity of the merchant classes who were the main customers for silver. Following the advent of the railways, the ease of transportation of manufactured goods into provincial areas was another factor. The silversmiths either abandoned their trade completely or else mixed their businesses with retail jewellery and watch making. By the 1850s no working silversmith remained in Cork city and it is likely that with the exception of the model of the Church of St. Ann, Shandon, made by William Egan & Sons Ltd for the Cork Exhibition of 1863, no item of silver was made in Cork for the rest of the 19th century.
Silver in the 20th Century- In 1910, William Egan & Sons Ltd. Recommenced the practice of making hand-wrought silver in the city of Cork. The catalyst for this was a commission received by the firm from Sir Bertram Windle, president of University College Cork. Windle was a university administrator of great ability and vision. He strongly believed in the concept of creating in UCC, a university for the whole of Munster. He ordered a mace for the university from Egan’s as symbol of the university’s enduring authority to govern itself, stipulating that it should be entirely made in Cork. Since the skills for accomplishing this commission had died out in the city, Egan’s sent to Dublin for a number of master-silversmiths to whom were apprenticed boys from the North Monastery School on condition that they attend drawing classes at the School of Art. Thus the art of hand-wrought silver making in the city was revived. The UCC mace is a triumph of Celtic revival craftsmanship and is still used in the context of formal occasions within the university. William Egan & Sons produced accomplished work in both Celtic revival and classic styles until they eventually closed in 1986.
Republican Silver – Between July and September 1922, during the Civil War, Cork was in the hands of the Anti-Treaty forces, and was isolated from the rest of the country. It was not possible for Egan’s to send finished silver to Dublin for assay and hallmarking so in order to continue working the firm had special punches made which they applied to the items produced. There were three punches: the first, a two masted sailing ship facing left, usually applied centrally between two applications of the second punch, a single castellated tower. The third punch was an incuse maker’s mark ‘W.E’ enclosed within an oblong. The eighty or so pieces produced by the firm bearing these marks are known collectively as ‘Republican Silver’, a unique category in Cork. The punches were not used after the resumption of normal conditions. Other ‘Cork’ marks were used in conjunction with Dublin hallmarks in the 1920s and 1930s by Egan’s, in order to mark their work as different to the standard work of the metropolis and nowadays these items can sometimes be mistakenly described as ‘Republican Silver’ which of course they are not.
The Later 20th Century– The purchase of silver items as gifts, special presentations, or items for regular use, tended to decline during the 20th century. The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in 1966, and the application by the Assay Office of a special extra punch (the Sword of Light) during that year, sparked for silver commemorative and gift items. Further commemorative punches were applied by the Assay Office to mark Ireland’s accession to the EEC (European Union) in 1973 and the millennium in 2000.
The Present– The making of hand-wrought silver in the traditional way continues in Cork to the present day. After Egan’s closure two former silversmiths of the firm carried on working independently. These were Cyril O’Mahony, who retired around 2000, and Sean Carroll whose firm continues in the hands of his son Chris Carroll in Rutland Street. Their work has been produced in small quantities and will no doubt stand the test of time following surely in the footsteps of their predecessors and becoming collector’s items of tomorrow.