Or are you looking for Search the Archives?

Please complete the form to email this item.

The Cassel Beaker

  • Object:

    Beaker

  • Place of origin:

    London (made)

  • Date:

    1496-1497 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Silver-gilt, raised and soldered

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased with the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund, an anonymous donor and the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths

  • Museum number:

    M.23-2005

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10a, The Françoise and Georges Selz Gallery, case 5

This remarkable beaker is an exceptionally rare survival, one of a handful of indisputably English drinking vessels dating before 1500. It is the earliest English silver beaker, and one of the earliest surviving pieces of English plate fully marked with a maker’s mark, date letter and leopard’s head. It is the only known work by this goldsmith, and one of only three surviving pieces made in the year 1496-7, the others being patens.

Physical description

A straight-sided drinking vessel of silver-gilt, with a slightly flared body, which has been raised from sheet silver. A heavy cast rim has been applied to the base, and ten vertical ribs have been soldered to the sides. The capital letters TW, separated by a stylised floral motif, have been pricked onto the outside of the beaker, just below the rim. It has been punched with three marks.

Place of Origin

London (made)

Date

1496-1497 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Silver-gilt, raised and soldered

Marks and inscriptions

'TW'
Engraved with the initials TW possibly for Thomas Whately (1685-1765) who may have been the first member of the Whately family to own the beaker.

V-shaped motif in a holly punch
Unidentified maker's mark

Date letter for 1496-7

London hall mark; a leopard's head

Crowned leopard’s head: for the sterling standard

Capital T: for London, 1496-7

Dimensions

Height: 8.9 cm, Diameter: 8 cm

Object history note

This remarkable beaker is an exceptionally rare survival, one of a handful of indisputably English drinking vessels dating before 1500. It is the earliest English silver beaker, and one of the earliest surviving pieces of English plate fully marked with a maker’s mark, date letter and leopard’s head. It is the only known work by this goldsmith, and one of only three surviving pieces made in the year 1496-7, the others being patens.

Just one other hall-marked cup is earlier in date, the ‘Anathema Cup’, of 1481-2, at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Other pre-1500 English marked vessels comprise a saucer of c. 1400 from Shrewsbury, a chalice and paten from Nettlecombe church, Somerset, of 1479-80, and a rosewater dish, of 1497-8, at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. The only other early English beaker is dissimilar to this one, and some 30 years later. It was made in 1525, and is in the Gilbert Collection, see Timothy Schroder, The Gilbert Collection of Gold and Silver, 1988, cat. no. 2, pp. 35-37.

By contrast with the written evidence, extraordinarily little English medieval or early Tudor silver has survived- probably rather fewer than 400 items in all. Most of these are either chalices or spoons, secular pieces being by far the rarest. The role of gold and silver plate cannot be over-stated in the hierarchies of social life in the middle ages. At the splendid feasts which were essential expressions of magnificence and power on the part of all medieval grandees, vessels of gold and silver were used both for display and to eat and drink from. Surviving examples of these, especially English ones, are extremely rare, although they are often described and illustrated, as in the late 15th century manuscript showing Richard II dining, where several beakers are depicted .

So few drinking vessels of precious metal survive from medieval England that the picture we have of them is very incomplete. However the story for Europe as a whole is clearer. The beaker-shaped vessel seems to have become fashionable in silver in early 14th century northern Europe. Numbers of French and German silver beakers survive from the 14th and 15th centuries, [see J.M.Fritz, Goldschmiedekunst der Gotik in Mitteleuropa, Munich 1982, nos. 357, 373-6, 621-636; R.W. Lightbown, Secular goldsmiths’ work in medieval France, London 1978, chapter 3]. Indeed, two French silver beakers of c.1350 have each been in English ownership since the middle ages- the Founders’ cups respectively of Trinity Hall, Cambridge and of Oriel College, Oxford [ Lightbown 1978, pp. 22-3,93 and pl. 19-20, 72 ].But from before 1500 , there is no indisputably English beaker earlier than the Cassel example of 1496-7, although descriptions of English beakers do occur from the 14th century. In 1448 a Yorkshire will elaborates ‘a silver gilt piece for sweet wine, in the shape of a beaker,’ [Gothic exhibition, V&A 2003-4, cat. no. 112].

The Cassel collection beaker is of small capacity and relatively unadorned, clearly intended as a personal drinking vessel, quite distinct from the very large cups and mazers drunk from communally or used on ceremonial occasions for most of the middle ages. The recent V&A Gothic exhibition showed a range of English silver drinking vessels dating from the 15th century [cat. nos. 184-5, 188, 190-2], but only one of these was a small cup, of 1493, clearly for the use of an individual drinker.

The beaker and its design

The distinctive and unusual vertical ribs set around the beaker probably had a practical origin, in allowing the drinker to get a firm grip on an otherwise slippery surface. Although unparalleled in silver, the origins of this design seem to lie in slightly earlier French and German glass vessels. Vertical ribs decorate glass beakers of 13th and 14th century date, such as an example in the Bonn, Rheinische Landesmuseum, associated with the upper and middle Rhine region, and one in the Musee du Petit Palais, Avignon from southern France [ see Plaisirs et manieres de table aux XIV et XV siecles, Toulouse, Musee des Augustins 1992, cat. no133. Glass was a costly luxury at the time, and distinctive beakers like these may well have inspired goldsmiths. In English silver, what may be an evolution of the design of the ribbed beaker can be seen on the fully Renaissance London- made wine cup of 1540, from Gatcombe on the Isle of Wight, with its more rounded ribs around the cup, [see Silver treasures from English Churches, exh. Goldsmiths’ Hall 1955, cat. 16 and plate].

The suggestion that the Cassel beaker might have belonged to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, on the basis of the initials TW pricked on it, is clearly a romantic 19th century fancy. From their style, the initials may have been applied not long after the piece was made, but they could equally date from the 17th century. The earliest certain owners of the beaker, the Whately family, who sold it in 1902, included several generations of men named Thomas, but to date no evidence has emerged as to how long the family had owned the beaker, before selling it. The earliest possible owner may have been Thomas Whately (ca.1685 – 1765), a prosperous London merchant who became Director of the Bank of England.

V&A collection

The Museum houses the National collection of English silver, as well as an outstanding collection of medieval works of art from all over Europe. Although relatively small, the medieval silver collection is uniquely able to illustrate the stories both of English silversmithing, and of developments in the design of English and continental table silver. Drinking vessels were of prime importance to the rituals of medieval dining, and goldsmiths lavished their skill upon a wide variety of forms, such mazers, bowls and horns. The National collection is fortunate to own examples of all these, several of the English pieces recently exhibited at the Museum’s Gothic exhibition in 2003-4, [see also P.Glanville, Silver in Tudor and early Stuart England, London 1990, cat. nos. 1-6] . The Cassel beaker, made in 1496-7, is still a Gothic piece, yet made just four years before the Campion font cup now in the V&A, which is fully Renaissance in form and decoration. The acquisition of the Cassel beaker adds a fascinating further dimension to the study of stylistic evolution and fashion around 1500.

Provenance

1902 the Whately family of Nonsuch Park, Surrey

Sold as the property of a Gentleman (a member of the Whately family), Christie’s, London, 28 May 1902, lot 68, £1,270 to Crichton

J.A. Holms of Paisley, until at least 1905

Rt. Hon. Sir Ernest George Cassel (1852 – 1921)

By 1930 Lady Louis Mountbatten

Thence by family descent

Exhibited

London, 25 Park Lane, Loan Exhibition of Old English Plate, 1929, cat. no. 223, plate III;
London, Seaford House, Queen Charlotte’s Loan Exhibition, 1929, cat. no. 54, plate XXVI;
London, Victoria & Albert Museum, English Mediaeval Art, 1930, cat. no. 969.
London, Goldsmiths’ Hall, The Goldsmiths and the Grape: Silver in the Service of Wine, July 1983, cat. no.12.

Descriptive line

Silver-gilt beaker; London, 1496-7

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Jackson, C., The History of English Plate, London, 1911, vol.2, p.683, fig.889; Catrin Jones and Vanessa Brett, Silver:Light and Shade, The Holburne Museum Bath 2016, p.9
Jones, A.A., "The Late Sir Ernest Cassel's Collection of Old English Plate I", Country Life, 8 December 1923, p. 844, plate 1
How, C.P. and J.P., English and Scottish Silver Spoons, Medieval to late Stuart, 1952, Vol.III, p. 50 (marks)
Clayton, M., The Collector's Dictionary of Silver and Gold (London, 1971), p. 30
Review Goldsmiths' Company, London 1981-2, p. 28
Jackson, C.J., Silver and Gold Marks of England, Scotland and Ireland, rev.edn ed. Ian Pickford,Woodbridge, 1989, p. 88
Schroder, Timothy, The Gilbert Collection of Gold and Silver, Los Angeles, 1988, cat.no.2, p.35
Oman, Charles, English Domestic Silver, London, 1947 pp.18-19 (2nd edition)
Oman, Charles, "Domestic silver at the exhibition of English Mediaeval art", Country Life, September 6, 1930, pp.299-300, fig.5
Campbell, Marian. 'Found in London, made in London - London connections for some medieval metalwork in the Victoria & Albert Museum'. In: 'Hidden Histories and Records of Antiquity': Essays on Saxon and Medieval London for John Clark, Curator Emeritus, Museum of London, ed. by Jonathan Cotton, Jenny Hall, Jackie Keily, Roz Sherris and Roy Stephenson. London and Middlesex Archaeological Society Special Paper, 17. London: London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, 2014. ISBN 9780903290685.
Jones, Catrin and Vanessa Brett. Silver: Light and Shade. Catalogue of the exhibition held at the Holburne Museum, Bath, 22 October 2016 - 22 January 2017. Bath: The Holburne Museum 2016. ISBN 978-0-903679-14-5

Labels and date

BEAKER
Silver-gilt
London, 1496
Maker’s mark a merchant’s mark in holly leaf surround
The initials TW possibly for Thomas Whately (c.1685-1765), Director of the Bank of England.

This beaker is one of the earliest surviving English vessels with hallmarks. It is also a very rare example of an English drinking cup from before 1500, and probably served wine. A Yorkshire will of 1448 mentions ‘a silver gilt piece for sweet wine, in the shape of a beaker’. The vertical ribs on the outside of the beaker recall earlier French and German drinking glasses and allowed the drinker to grip an otherwise slippery surface.

Formerly in the collection of Sir Ernest Cassel. Acquired by Private Treaty Sale with additional funding from The National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund, The A.H. and B.C. Whiteley Family and The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths
M.23-2005 [06/11/2006]

Production Note

This is the only known piece to bear the unidentified maker's mark of a V-shaped motif in a holly punch.

Materials

Silver-gilt

Techniques

Gilding; Raising; Soldering

Categories

Containers; Drinking; Food vessels & Tableware; Household objects

Collection

Metalwork Collection

Large image request

Please confirm you are using these images within the following terms and conditions, by acknowledging each of the following key points:

Please let us know how you intend to use the images you will be downloading.