A BRIEF HISTORY OF CUTLERY

Today we use the word cutlery to cover all the implements we use to eat with, namely knives, forks and spoons but centuries back cutlery simply meant some form of cutting blade: a knife or sword or dagger. Flatware came to mean any other utensils on the dining table that were not knives.

Knives were the first eating implement and people would carry their own to use away from home. In the First Century AD the British were introduced to the more sophisticated knife designs of the Romans with their iron blades and figured bronze handles.  Roman spoons had round or oval shaped bowls with long, thin spindly handles quite unlike the more comfortable flatter shapes of later designs. The Apostle spoons of the 1500s still echoed this design.

In England, the centre for cutlery manufacture came to be Sheffield thanks to a plentiful supply of the necessary wood and water for manufacture. It was known for the excellence of its knives as early as Richard I’s reign in the 1180s.

Another breakthrough came with the creation of the steel blade. Steel, a mixture of iron and a carbon material such as charcoal, had a much better cutting edge than pure iron. That is why we have steel blades in cutlery sets even if the handles and other pieces are silver.

Right up until the 16th Century spoons were largely an imported item. They would be in silver or bronze and still brought to the table by their owners. The Italians were early adopters of the fork but the British male shunned this item as altogether too foreign and effeminate.

The Silver Service

The fork, with three prongs, started to make its appearance here after 1660 when the English court of Charles II returned from exile on the Continent. Put with knives and spoons you started to see the appearance of the Silver Service, provided by the host, along with silver plates and dishes.

In the 1700s the pistol grip handle was popular for knives and made from decorated ceramics or natural materials like ivory. The blades were also rather swashbuckling with a curved scimitar sword shape. In the later part of the century we copied the pointed French blades, part of the general taste for French design.

Once the host was setting a place at his or her table you started to see special patterns emerge to decorate spoons and forks to give matching sets. One of the earliest French designs we adopted was the Trefid in the 1600s. The handle was flat and ended in what looked like a three leaf clover.

Spoons and forks would be placed face down with the ends turned up towards the diner. With the service displayed on the table like this any decoration or family crests would adorn the backs. Into the 1750s the spoons flipped over, but the forks stayed face down and gained a fourth prong

In Queen Anne’s time, in the 1700s, the curves of the Trefid detail softened and the Dog Nose evolved.  The most important pattern of the 18th Century, with the arrival of George I from Germany in 1714 was the Hanoverian pattern, around until the 1770s.  It is an elegant simple design which is till popular.

Hanoverian flatware was the precursor of one of the most familiar patterns, Old English. Now the preference was for the spoon to sit bowl up and for the end to be turned down.  And on the reverse of the handle tip was the familiar moulded Old English ‘drop’.

Famous makers of the 18th and 19th century were G W Adams, Francis Higgins, Hester Bateman, Richard Crossley and J S Hunt. Variations on the Old English pattern were a beaded effect along the edges of handles, or a simple ridge known as the Thread, the latter copied from the French. Edges could also be Feathered or Bright Cut, a cut-out effect very popular with Irish makers.

One of the most popular Old English styles was the Fiddle with the fiddle shape at the base of the handle and the sharp shoulders just below the bowl. This was another style we copied from the French.

As the architecture and interiors of the well- to- do Victorians lost the classical lines of the Georgian era and became more bulbous and fussy, so the cutlery designs became more showy. The King’s and Queen’s-shaped patterns are typical with their rococo festoons of climbing vines or roses, stag or boar hunts or cornucopia.  Coburg and Cambridge were design variations.

The Patterns on cutlery handles which typify the later 19th Century Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements were the stylised floral patterns embedded with enamel or coloured stones. Architect-designed ranges appeared such as those by William Burgess and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Silver designs of the mid 20th Century are less likely to hark back to these older styles.  So we have the famous and distinctive motifs of designers like Gerald Benney, Stuart Devlin, C J Vander and Charles Mellor of the fifties and sixties which were more in tune with the simple, chunky designs coming out of Scandinavia.

Collecting

British cutlery enjoys world-wide renown for its quality, wealth of designs and patterns and durability. You may decide to start a silver cutlery collection for use at home or for starting a canteen of cutlery as part of a wedding present or wedding list.  This background will give you some signposts to the different patterns of English silver cutlery. Obviously the more rare a pattern, the harder it will be to find pieces to make up a set.  The expert dealers at the London Silver Vaults can advise on which are the more easily collectable and which are more rare and therefore more valuable.

Sources:

Exhibition Brochure ‘The Art and Evolution of Cutlery’ The Goldsmiths’ Company

Silver Flatware, Ian Pickford

Bradbury’s Book of Hallmarks

Adapted from Fact Sheet: English Cutlery & Flatware, produced for The London Silver Vaults February 2008 by Pippa Roberts

Cutlery patterns

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