Pair of Torchères
- Place of origin:
Giovanni Franchi and Son (maker)
- Materials and Techniques:
Electroformed copper, electroplated with silver
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
These torchères were bought by the Museum in 1868 from Giovanni Franchi and Son of Clerkenwell, London for £35. They are electrotype copies of silver versions dating from around 1660 belonging to Knole House in Kent. They were bought with 23 items copied from the house including their companion table and mirror. The originals are rare survivors whose existence was publicised in 1836 by the antiquary, Henry Shaw in Specimens of Ancient Furniture. The ensemble was a design source for students in the government schools of design under the aegis of the Department of Science and Art.
The Museum bought electrotypes as part of its growing collection of reproductions. This collection enabled students to look closely at both modern and historic objects that were otherwise inaccessible. Multiple copies of objects allowed many schools to study them at once. Electrotypes provided the same function as the Museum’s collection of plaster casts. the 19th century art critic, Charles Eastlake, felt electrotypes were more instructive than contemporary silver productions: '... so far as the interests of art are concerned it is better to possess a copper-gilt flagon of a good design than a modern trophy cup of twice its weight in gold.'
Silver-plated copper electrotype of a candlestand at Knole House in Kent, on tripod base, with circular tops and stems of multiple knops and balusters, the whole embossed with flowers, fruit and foliage.
Place of Origin
Giovanni Franchi and Son (maker)
Materials and Techniques
Electroformed copper, electroplated with silver
Marks and inscriptions
Height: 1125 mm, Width: 520 mm maximum
Object history note
These torchères were bought by the Museum in 1868 from Giovanni Franchi and Son of Clerkenwell, London for £35. They are electrotype copies of silver versions dating from around 1660 belonging to Knole House in Kent. They were bought with 23 items copied from the house including their companion table and mirror. Surviving silver furniture was rare so the ensemble was a design source for students in the government schools of design under the aegis of the Department of Science and Art.
The Knole electrotypes were the subject of financial controversy in the Museum. Their final cost was considerably more than Franchi's original quote. Giovanni Franchi and Son were award-winning imitation-ivory producers who later turned to electrotyping. A surviving document in the Museum files records the stringent conditions applied to subsequent purchases from Franchi with his shaky signature at the end sealing the agreement.
Historical significance: As electrotypes these torchères are examples of 19th-century design models. Electrotypes play a key role in helping us to understand the V&A in its earliest days.
The V&A grew largely out of the Great Exhibition in 1851 and, under the guidance of Henry Cole, sought to arrest the perceived decline in British design. The Museum aimed, initially, to collect ‘modern manufactures’ for the education of manufacturers, designers and the public. Cole was also in charge of the Government Schools of Design, which he set about reforming. Cole passionately believed in the potential of both museums and the schools of design, to raise standards of taste.
The appointment of John Charles Robinson as curator of the Museum in 1853 heralded a change in focus. Robinson persuaded Cole that historic works of art were as instructive as contemporary work. For Cole and Robinson, if historic works of art could not be acquired, copies were the next option.
The Museum bought electrotypes as part of its growing collection of reproductions. This collection enabled students to look closely at ‘historic’ objects that were otherwise inaccessible. Electrotypes provided the same function as the Museum’s collection of plaster casts.
Electrotypes are also relics of 19th-century industrialisation and mass production. The process of electroplating and electrotyping favoured companies that could afford large factories and expensive technology. The power of the machinery and new technology now at the disposal of the silver industry allowed modern mass production to develop. Electroplaters could create thousands of identical objects using a fraction of the amount of silver to create “a degree of mechanical finish it would be difficult to surpass” (Art Union, 1846). The focus of silver and silver product manufacture moved from London to the new factories of Birmingham and Sheffield.
Some smaller companies trying to keep pace with industrial change suffered. The large vats of potassium cyanide required spacious, well-ventilated factories. A report at the Great Exhibition claimed workers in smaller companies suffered blistered skin, headaches temporary blindness and nausea.
Historical context note
These torchères are electrotypes, exact copies in metal of other objects. Electrotypes were a by-product of the invention of electroplating (silver plating by electrolysis).
ELECTROPLATING: Electricity revolutionised the trade of coating base metal objects with silver. Patented by Elkington and Company in1840, this technique was the fulfilment of a century of research into the effects of electricity on metals. A negatively charged silver bar, suspended in a vat of potassium cyanide, deposited a coating of silver on a positively charged base metal (mostly copper, later nickel-silver) object immersed with it. Electroplated objects were fully formed in base metal before plating.
ELECTROGILDING exploited the same technique but used gold bars instead of silver. It was safer than traditional mercury gilding.
ELECTROFORMING transferred the metal deposits directly into the moulds in the plating vats. When enough metal had been deposited to create a self-supporting object the mould was removed. Developed by Alexander Parkes, electroforms so accurately mirrored the moulds in which they were created that multiple copies could be created (ELECTROTYPES).
These torchères were therefore electroformed in copper from moulds of the originals and then electroplated.
Early experiments in electroplating, often by amateur scientists using Elkington’s home electroplating kits, involved coating fruit, flowers and animals in silver or gold “with the most perfect accuracy”. They “retained all the characteristics of the specimens before their immersion” (Penny Magazine, 1844). The Art Journal enthused in same year, “The electrotypes are perfect; the finest lines, the most minute dots are as faithfully copied as the boldest objections”
Henry Cole, the first director of the South Kensington Museum (V&A), quickly grasped the educational potential of this new technique. He employed Elkington’s and Franchi & Son of Clerkenwell to take moulds of historic objects in the Museum (at their own risk), create copies in a base metal and then electroplate them. These could be sold freely as reproductions, with a gold, silver or bronze finish, provided they bore the South Kensington Museum’s official stamp. To avoid breaking English hallmarking laws, all marks were to be deleted from copies of silver objects.
Elkington’s display of electrotypes at the 1867 Paris Exhibition proved extremely popular and prompted Cole to organise a convention at which 14 European countries agreed to exchange works of art. Representatives of Elkington’s and the V&A sent staff to Germany, Sweden, France, Denmark and Hungary. The most ambitious trip, to Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1880, secured copies of over 200 items from the Kremlin and the Hermitage, including the celebrated Jerningham Wine Cooler and much Elizabethan and Stuart silver sent as ambassadorial gifts to the Tsars. By 1920 the V&A held over 2000 electrotypes. Copies toured the country as part of the museum’s educational programmes and were sold to the public and to museums and art schools.
Electrotype (electroformed copper, electroplated with silver), Franchi and Son, London, 1868, the originals silver, ca. 1660 at Knole House in Kent
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Glanville, Philippa, ed., Silver, Victora and Albert Museum, London, 1996, pp. 60-1
John Culme, The Directory of Gold and Silversmiths, Jewellers and Allied Traders 1838-1914, Antique Collectors' Club, Woodbridge, 1987, p. 164
Henry Shaw, Specimens of Ancient Furniture, William Pickering, London, 1836, ill.
Timothy Schroder, The National Trust Book of English Domestic Silver 1500-1900, Penguin, London, 1988, p. 119
Angus Patterson, "The Perfect Marriage of Art and Industry: Elkingtons and the South Kensington Museum's Electrotype Collection", The Journal of the Antique Metalware Society, Vol. 20, June 2012, pp. 56-77, ill. p. 69
Furniture; Household objects; Metalwork