PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — The legend is that my late father-in-law, an immigrant from Greece, returned home one day bearing a silver-plate tea set and said, “now we have this.” It still glowers dully on an engraved tray in our living room, a permanent memorial of his trajectory from poverty in Chios to the middle class in the United States. Elsewhere in our house is a single silver serving spoon, polished to near knife-like thinness and engraved with a calligraphic D. It is the lone survivor of the “Dungan silver,” a set that was carried in ever-diminishing numbers by my ancestors in their westward push across the American continent as pieces were sold or lost.
These artifacts speak to the totemic power of silverware in Western culture, though it is a power now glimpsed through the rearview mirror. The hold of silver has loosened in part because it was discontinued in US currency in 1970. Before that, silver half dollars and dimes clinked in pockets and purses, and a silver tea set was money made visible. To boot, silver’s moonlight-on-water gleam has been fully replicated, without the problem of tarnish, in cheaper stainless steel. Just look at Jeff Koons’s damned “Rabbit.”
An exhibition at the RISD Museum, Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850-1970 offers a glimpse into the silver culture of yore, though on a scale of artistry far beyond my grandmother’s spoon. Gorham Silver, founded in Rhode Island in 1831 as a craftsmen’s workshop, went on to become the predominant silver manufacturer in the country by taking advantage of advances in mass production and maintaining its commitment to handicraft.
Both of these strategies feature in the exhibition; naturally, however, it highlights the spectacular one-offs, the artistry that justified and fueled the demand for the mass production. The most extreme examples of this are two full-scale table sets — chairs and all — handmade from an insane amount of silver with an outrageous degree of ornamentation, first displayed at the 1900 Exposition in Paris and then at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. These are also indicative of the sheer variety of objects that Gorham made, many of which are on view, including one of the most alarming baby rattles I’ve ever seen. The full roster of products is listed on a wall at the entrance. These range from “ale mug” to “yo-yo,” with items like “egg spoon,” “gravy boat,” and “pickle stand” in between.
The focus of the exhibition is on the objects and their production rather than the social context in which they were used. Yet it’s not hard to figure out that these were objects for the very rich — the individual winners in the 19th- and 20th-centuries’ exploitation of natural resources, cheap (or slave) labor, railroads, industrial development, and colonialism. As a reflection of this dominion, there is a sense of the Gorham phenomenon consuming everything to make its products. Hardly a decorative program goes untapped, Japanese, Indian, Classical, Art Nouveau, and Baroque auricular among them. Even the natural world is tossed into Gorham’s crucible to be vaporized and recast in silver.
The “Narragansett” line of vessels and implements — named after one of the indigenous peoples of Rhode Island — manages to combine both cultural and natural inspirations (or rather, appropriations). Rather than evoking the art of the Narragansett people themselves, the line is a Robinson-Crusoe-style, romanticized interpretation, the conceit of which is that everything is constructed as if from the results of a particularly thorough day of beach combing. A serving fork and spoon are a gull’s foot and an oyster shell, respectively, rendered as if lashed to a reed handle. The tureen looks as though it is cast from the ridged sand of a tidal flat and should only be used for serving sea water.
While the “Narragansett” line employs natural items as décor or in bits, like bird feet, the “Terrapin Ensemble” adopts a whole animal into its design scheme. The ensemble is dominated by a large, extremely detailed tureen in the shape of a turtle, used to serve turtle soup. Disconcertingly, the turtle cranes its head up, all the better for diners to ponder its tragic little turtle frown (oops, I meant turtle frown) as they eat. The set is completed by an assortment of smaller lidded turtle dishes to scatter, as if freshly hatched, across the table.
The tur(tle)een, as the curators note, is an example of Gorham’s response to the food trends of the time — turtle soup was considered an extremely classy first course. Another such item was the ice bowl, which became popular when year-round ice, harvested from winter ponds and kept frozen through the summer in ice houses, was becoming more widely available. One bowl on display, double hulled for better insulation, takes the form of an iceberg topped with two snarling polar bears, its interior as complexly wrought as the exterior. Despite the insulation, condensation must have collected on the bowl, dripping naturalistically from its garland of icicles, melding container and contained.
Gorham absorbed not only styles to make their products, but also techniques. The ice bowl is made in the ancient method of repoussé, in which the metal is beaten into the desired shape from its interior. (This is sometimes accomplished, I learned from an informative display, with the use of a device deliciously called a snarling iron.) Gorham artisans also practiced several different kinds of enameling, and Asian motifs were rendered in Asian techniques, such as mixed metal laminates and appliqués. Later, technological advances like electricity made possible electrodeposition, in which silver decoration could be directly applied to glass or ceramic.
Despite the artistry on display in the exhibition, I found it difficult to suppress a kernel of class hatred in looking at it. These gorgeous silver objects, all of them easy to substitute with utensils in cheaper materials and simpler forms, were luxuries for their owners, but burdens for their owners’ employees. Left for any length of time, silver will tarnish, and this can only be removed through vigorous rubbing. The gleam of the silver in the current exhibition is thanks to some 70 specially trained volunteers, but in the past it was servants, usually women, often Black, who did the work. Clean silver is a measure of busy hands, a guarantee of your servants’ industry.
Ultimately, the exhibition speaks to the many ways in which people weave metals into their lives. Endlessly able to be divided and dispersed and then gathered and transformed, we hand it our hopes for eternity and use it to measure our wealth. Yet metalwork, no matter its significance, is always at risk of being destroyed in order to extract its raw materials. There is no doubt a formula that could be devised to describe the point at which the value of the material in an object overpowers its artistic value. In that way, the exhibition is both a register of astonishing artistry and a testament to our remaining on the artistic side of that formula — for now.
Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850-1970 continues at the RISD Museum (20 Main Street, Providence, Rhode Island) through December 1.