Watch: Tempus explores the London Silver Vaults for a unique Christmas centrepiece
Brush off the family silver and get inspired by our favourite antique and contemporary silver pieces perfect for the festive season
Nestled underground beneath Chancery Lane are the London Silver Vaults, the largest collection of fine and antique silver in the world, with unique items dating from the 1600s to present day. It's the perfect destination for a unique Christmas shop or exploration of the site's rich Victorian history, or to find out more about the investment potential in silver wares.
But the Vaults are not just a retail destination, proprietors have also authentically kitted out shows such as Downton Abbey, and sold to famous buyers including royalty, Liberace, Anthony Hopkins and Twiggy over the years. With Christmas fast approaching, Tempus was invited down to the Vaults to take a look at some of the most unique and dramatic centrepieces and tableware – and find out how to make the most of this fine metal.
William Walter began his antique silver company after World War I, setting up shop near Christies auction house. He was forced to move his collection to the safety of the Chancery Lane Vaults during the Blitz in World War II, and became one of the first silver dealers to have a showroom at what is now the London Silver Vaults. Now owned by William's grandson, John, William Walter Antiques still specialises in early antique silver –like the 1819 Roccoco candelabras featured in our animation, priced at £26,000.
"Buy what you love but make sure it is in good condition. You and your family should be using it for a lifetime," advises John. "With silver you always have the metal value but the value is really down to what the market likes at the time. The famous makers, such as Paul Storr, always hold their value. In silver you always have the hallmark so you know the town, date and maker – that is what you should look for on your own silver." >>
Another of the Vaults' earliest dealerships, I. Franks is now in its fourth generation. In addition to flatware and antique silver, I. Franks has an astonishing collection of statement structures – including the three neff sailing ships and articulated pheasant centrepieces in our video. "My advice is the same for any antiques – just buy things that give you pleasure and you can't go wrong," Jonathan Franks said. "Past that, if you have an interest in silver, it's worth getting acquainted with the hallmarking system and learning how to read hallmarks. With British silver it’s very easy to check if the item is silver or silverplate and know how old it is. All the information is encoded in the hallmarks and with a little practice can be easily deciphered."
As for what stands out, Franks says it's all about the rare. "I love the novel, the unusual and the frivolous - a toast rack with a heater underneath, a claret jug in the shape of a monkey, a folding biscuit box to impress your guests. In a time when we had no mass entertainment, most antique silver was about adding that extra sparkle and delight to meals and leisure time. It was about living with a bit more panache. I think that should still hold true today!"
Novel pieces that caught our eye include the life-sized articulated lobster caviar dish made by Williams Comyns in 1995. Priced at £17,800, the lobster is sold by Langfords. "It's marvellous quality. The accurate, cast and hand chased model has a removable cover that reveals a gilded caviar dish, with room beneath for a little crushed ice. The large pincer claws are articulated and the model is accurate in every way, with the pattern based on a real lobster. Please note that no harm came to the lobster during the making of the model – although we are reliably informed that it was delicious."
Langfords also provided a Victorian silver plated 'Well & Tree' dish & cover (£4,800). "This 1895 Victorian meat dish and cover was made by Frederick Elkington, considered to be the finest maker of silver plate. The dome is beautifully hand-engraved and has a bead pattern border to match the base. It is rare to find an original pair of base and cover, and this is a particularly fine example." >>
Another animal-inspired centrepiece is S & J Stodel's silver and wooden salmon. "The large salmon with serving knife was made to hold a whole salmon but would look possibly even more impressive and on trend if, when the lid was pulled back, a fabulous array of sushi was revealed. From second half of 20 century and Italian."
The experts in Chinese and Japanese silver also have a collection of art deco pieces, including a selection of cocktail shakers that twist to reveal favourite recipes. "The cocktail shaker, which revolves to reveal the exact ingredients and measurements to mix the perfect drink, is a popular item that is usually made in silver-plate. We currently have three silver-plated models in stock. However, the example we've used in the video is actually silver, with the contrast in colour coming from the inner part and measuring-cap being gilded. Priced at £2,850."
Elsewhere in the Vaults, John Hamilton specialises in cutlery – including our felt-lined wooden silver cutlery box, by William Gibson & John Hangman, London 1895 – while family business Silstar Antiques offers Victorian and modern items such as candlesticks, animals, bowls – and, of course, the fine Victorian goblets featured in our video. For a pop of colour, Linden & Co Antiques suggests a set of 1868 Henry blue Holland salt bowls (£950 for four), or if you prefer a contemporary appeal, John Surtees' range of silver brandy beakers (2017) are lined with gold wash for an improved taste and texture.