Knife and two-pronged fork; rounded handles of dark grey onyx, mounted in gold and enamelled; human head at end of each, with green wreath and collar set with diamonds, similar collar at junction of blade and handle; modern silver-gilt blade and prongs.
This object was collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.
How big is it?
1.7 cm wide, 22.3 cm high, 1.3 cm deep, and it weighs 115.7g
Detailed Curatorial Notes
Text from Tait 1991a:-
Origin: German (?), c. 1600. Modern silver-gilt blade and prongs struck with London hallmarks for 1881 and the maker's mark, but the identity of the maker is now lost because of the defacing of the mark.
Provenance: None is recorded.
Commentary: In Read 1902 and again in Dalton 1927 the stone was described as onyx and the mounts were described as “Flemish, 17th century”. Whereas few would now disagree with an early seventeenth-century origin for these enamelled gold mounts, expert geological opinion has recently confirmed that the stone is an agate. Furthermore, the attribution to a Flemish workshop seems relatively difficult to sustain in the absence of documented examples of a comparable character. Indeed, the survival in Dresden within the Elector's Kunstkammer - the Grünes Gewölbe - of a jasper-agate spoon with diamond-set gold enamelled mounts of almost identical design and workmanship provides reliable evidence in support of the proposed German origin (J.L. Sponsel, ‘Das Grüne Gewölbe’, vol. III, ‘Kleinodien der goldscheidekunst’, Leipzig, 1929, p. 86, pl. 10, 3). Such strikingly similar mounts almost certainly stem from the same workshop, though whether at Prague or at Dresden remains uncertain. Sponsel has dated the spoon to the end of the sixteenth century, but its mounts and those in the Waddesdon Bequest could equally belong to the first three decades of the seventeenth century, when similar foliate motifs and enamelling can be found on a number of high-quality items, including the outstandingly opulent Insignia of the Most Noble Order of the Garter commissioned by William, 1st Earl of Northampton (1567/8-1630), and made shortly after September 1628. In April 1629 he was installed a Knight of the Garter by King Charles I in a ceremonial of unparalleled magnificence at Windsor Castle. The Earl's set of Insignia - and the splendour of the celebrations - reflected his enormous wealth and patronage, for the quality of the anonymous goldsmith's work (the modelling, the enamelling and the gem-setting) is of the highest order. (For a full description and discussion, see Hugh Tait, The Earl of Northampton's Insignia of the Garter, 1628, in ‘Princely Magnificence, Court Jewels of the Renaissance, 1500-1630’, ed. A. Somers Cocks, exh. cat., Victoria and Albert Museum (Debrett’s Peerage Ltd), London, 1980, no. 127, pp. 96-8, with col. pl.)
The Renaissance fashion for the Black African subject is discussed in the curatorial comment for WB.230, where reference was also made to the gem engravers' felicitous use of the layers within both agate and onyx and to the many examples from the Imperial Prague workshops of c. 1600 that can still be seen in the Hapsburg collections in Vienna today. The Wadddesdon Bequest Black African-headed handles are, like the Dresden spoon, part of the vocabulary of the Mannerist Courts of Europe, particularly in Italy and Germany. Significantly, many of the finest of these cameos came from the Milan workshop of the Miseroni, but the scarcity of Italian goldsmiths' work of this jewelled nature makes it difficult to gauge its distinguishing characteristics, and so a German attribution has been preferred.
Sadly, the loss of the original steel blade and prongs - perhaps because of corrosion - has led to a costly, but unsympathetic, heavy replacement in silver-gilt. The unidentified London goldsmith who in 1881 was responsible for this transformation has failed to recapture the correct proportions and sense of balance so essential for the harmonious design of a knife and fork. Nevertheless, these two splendid handles, seen in isolation, are a rare and remarkable survival.
- Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 206
- O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 206
- Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 3, The "Curiosities"', British Museum, London, 1991, nos.21-22, figs.245-247.
- Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
- Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
- Tait 1991a: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; III The 'Curiosities', London, BMP, 1991
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