Folding spoon and fork

WB.214     1825–72 • Silver-gilt • folding fork folding spoon pin dice ear-pick pen tooth-pick

Curator's Description

Folding spoon and fork, combined; silver; parcel-gilt; shaft of engraved octagonal section; collar set with garnets, sliding collar to confine the hinge, pierced and engraved; hinge with Pelican in piety in full relief; swimming ducks on reverse; prongs of fork fit into five loops at back of oval bowl, which is plain with stippled edge representing a lily; upper end with lion mask in relief and two circles with cupids holding chains attached to wyvern; top formed of pierced sphere containing two silver dice, released by unscrewing pin, in head of which is engraved crystal with two shield-shaped panels, gilt behind with two shields; spherical top unscrews withdrawing silver pen, in tube of which are hinged toothpick and ear-pick; inscribed. Openwork.

This object was collected by Anselm von Rothschild and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1991a:-

Origin: Uncertain; no silver punch-marks; previously described as “Flemish, 16th century”, but more probably German, second half of 19th century.

Marks: No punch-marks have been struck on this piece.

Provenance: Baron Anselm von Rothschild, Vienna, between 1866 and 1872 (cat no. 559).

Commentary: With one notable exception, the lack of any history prior to the second half of the nineteenth century is a common feature of the small group of similar pieces to which this example in the Waddesdon Bequest belongs. The one documented silver example in the group is very similar - though not identical in all respects. It is preserved in the Munich Residenz, having come from King Max I Joseph (reigned 1799-1825) and is known to have entered the Schatzkammer before 1820 (see H. Brunner, ‘Schatzkammer der Residenz München’, 3rd edn of the Catalogue, Munich, 1970, p. 273, no. 657, where the following measurement is also given: L. 19 cm). The back of the spoon bowl bears the one punch-mark, F.H. (for the Nuremberg goldsmith Friedrich Hillebrandt - master in 1579, died in 1608), and consequently this silver-gilt combined fork and spoon, which has been accepted as the work of that distinguished craftsman, is also catalogued as “Nürnberg, um 1590” (Brunner 1970, p. 273). His many documented works are listed in Marc Rosenberg, ‘Der Goldschmiede Merkzeichen’, 3rd edn, Frankfurt, vol. III, 1925 (R3 4017) and include a number of historic pieces in the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden; the Hermitage, Leningrad; the Reiche Kapelle, Munich; and the Hapsburg collections in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. In Rosenberg 1925, however, there is also provided a cautionary reference to a further six variants of the marked Munich combined fork and spoon, none of which has a documented history before the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition a seventh, but very exceptional, example - made of gold, set with gem-stones and richly enamelled - is mentioned as being in the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden, and as having a Harlequin figure as a finial. However, the enamelled gold figure of the dancing Harlequin is by Johann Melchior Dinglinger (died 1731) and in 1929 was removed, because the archival evidence proved that it had replaced the (now lost) original finial comprising a toothpick with the kneeling figure of a princess on the end of the terminal - a feature that can still be seen on the Munich Schatzkammer silver-gilt version by Friedrich Hillebrandt. Furthermore, the history of the Dresden gold version can be traced back to 1724, when it was received as a present from the 'Kronmarschallin' Mnisczek, in Warsaw, by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and, since 1697, King of Poland (see J.L. Sponsel, ‘Das Grüne Gewölbe’, vol. III, ‘Kleinodien der goldscheidekunst’, Leipzig, 1929, p. 188, pl. 11; also Joachim Menzhausen, ‘Das Grünes Gewölbe’, Leipzig, 1968 (English edn. 1970), p. 87, pl. 62, where it is illustrated without the Harlequin finial figure and the following measurement and reference number are given: L. 23 cm; inv. no. VI 7 m). Consequently, despite the differences, the general similarity in design between the Dresden and Munich examples has led to the former being described as “probably Nuremberg work, resembling that of Friedrich Hillebrandt, about 1600” (Menzhausen 1968, pl. 62), and so both these documented pieces are important for any assessment of the remaining variants, including those preserved in London.

The Munich silver-gilt version possesses the following relevant details:

(i) The shaft is very similar and includes the representation of the putto in a little roundel (on either side), but there is no piercing of the background nor any chain linking each putto to the dragon on the upper surface of the shaft - instead, it is more in the manner of WB.215.

(ii) Furthermore, the dragon is unmistakably intended to represent the legendary creature slain by St George, for an equestrian miniature sculpture of the Saint is also mounted on the upper surface of the shaft. It is shown moving towards the dragon, only moments before it is to meet its death - rather as in WB.215.

(iii) The iconography of Friedrich Hillebrandt's combined fork and spoon is completed by the inclusion of the miniature sculpture of the kneeling princess (with a little dog (?) beside her) who, according to the legend, was to be sacrificed to the dragon. Hillebrandt has introduced her as a finial figure, kneeling on top of the spherical terminal to the shaft - rather similar to the finial of WB.215.

(iv) The spherical knob unscrews - the thread turning in the direction that is normal modern practice, unlike so many medieval or early Renaissance threads - and, when withdrawn, reveals a silver tubular pen with a tip in the form of a writing nib and a long slit in the length of the side, which receives the two hinged instruments (the toothpick and the earpick) - rather as in both WB.215 and this example.

(v) At the other end of the shaft, the folding part of the fork consists of two prongs - not three. There is no representation of the Pelican in its Piety nor any recessed area with a hinged cover, but there are two silver birds (swans ?) attached as miniature sculptures to the upper surface (above the prongs) and, on the reverse, a female term or half-length figure in very high relief – the latter is repeated on the version in WB.215.

(vi) The bowl of the spoon has pointillé decoration, both on the inside and on the back of the bowl, but in addition the back has in high relief an applied female demi-figure with gem-set outstretched wings, under which the two prongs of the fork pass when the two parts are united. In this respect the Waddesdon Bequest version differs significantly both from the Munich silver-gilt and the Dresden gold examples, because its five small loops (to accommodate its three-pronged fork) are undisguised crude additions, completely lacking the sophisticated decorative qualities of the original gem-set and highly sculptural appliqué ornament - in silver on Friedrich Hillebrandt's marked example in Munich and in enamelled gold on the Dresden version. The floral pointillé decoration on the Munich and the Dresden examples is both superior in execution and different in style when compared with the feeble decoration on the inner surface of the bowl of the Waddesdon Bequest version.

In conclusion, the deliberate omission of the equestrian figure of St George and of the kneeling princess makes the retention of the miniature 'dragon' on the Waddesdon Bequest example seem pointlessly trivial, even though an attempt to relate it to the overall decorative scheme has been made by introducing a collar around its neck with chains linking it to the two putti on the sides. Iconographically, this motif has no precedent in the late Gothic or the Renaissance. However, having abandoned the theme of St George slaying the Dragon, the creator of this object has decided to retain the religious 'flavour' by creating the scene of the Pelican in its Piety - often used as a popular emblematic reference to the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross. Yet again the goldsmith has trivialised the scene not only by enclosing the nest within a neat wattle fence but by introducing, on the reverse, three miniature birds swimming away, which can be seen only when the hinged cover is lifted. It is strange that so contrived an embellishment as this hidden compartment should lack any meaning, especially if it had been made as part of a highly original commission from a wealthy Renaissance patron.

Indeed, the two heraldic devices that have been substituted for the finial figure of the kneeling princess on this piece are equally improbable on such a luxury Renaissance object, for they do not help to determine the identity of the owner, nor would the two shields have functioned effectively as a signet, although that is their apparent purpose. In the sixteenth century the great refinement introduced into the more expensive forms of armorial signet rings was the use of a clear, transparent hardstone (usually crystal or chalcedony), on which was engraved in intaglio the reversed form of the coat of arms (so that it could be used for making impressions), while, on the reverse side of the hardstone, the coat of arms was painted, using the appropriate colours (often employing coloured foils), so that it would be seen in its correct form when viewed from above through the thickness of the clear stone. (For a full account of this fashion see Hugh Tait, ‘Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum, I: The Jewels’, London, 1986, pp. 218-20, figs 183-6, pl. XXIXA). The advantage of this new refinement was that the engraved surface could be used for making impressions without wearing away the colours of the coat-of-arms which lay protected on the underside, within the bezel.

Although the same principle has been adopted by the creator of the Waddesdon Bequest combined fork and spoon, nevertheless a close examination of the intaglio cutting of the two shields reveals that the shield on the left has no armorial devices, whereas the shield on the right has a few very crudely incised lines which defy any precise description in heraldic terms. Consequently, as the intaglio pseudo-armorials could not function as a signet, they have no validity. Similarly, the gilt armorial decoration (on the reverse of the rock-crystal medallion) cannot be interpreted, partly because the shield on the right has a non-heraldic device and the other has only a pair of initials, HS, under a symbol denoting an abbreviation - almost as if it had been loosely borrowed from the Sacred Monogram IHS. The significance of the initials above - V.G.M.A. – remains conjectural because the two shields, which might have held the clue if they had borne authentic coats of arms, cannot be identified.

In the light of the foregoing comments, the age and origin of this combined fork and spoon must be in grave doubt. In some respects its design is even more ambitious than Friedrich Hillebrandt's marked example in Munich, and yet in general it is noticeably inferior in its workmanship. Pastiches of this kind were probably made in Germany - perhaps even in Munich itself - during the third quarter of the nineteenth century (see E.-L. Richter, ‘Altes Silber, imitiert, kopiert, gelfälscht’, Munich, 1983, pp. 63 ff. figs 68-70). The workshop that was responsible for this fabrication was, apparently, following the standard practice of mid-nineteenth-century fakers, like Reinhold Vasters in Aachen and Salomon Weininger in Vienna, who were always careful to introduce a number of minor changes into the design so that their fakes would not be immediately recognised as direct copies.

In Read 1902 and Dalton 1927 the origin of this piece had been attributed to a Flemish workshop, and in the most recent Belgian exhibition of Renaissance silver there were several three-pronged folding forks combined with a detachable spoon (‘Zilver uit de Gouden Eeuw van Antwerpen’, Rockoxhuis, Antwerp, 1988, pp. 116-23, cat. nos 66, 77-80). They bore the punch-marks of Antwerp and were variously dated between 1586 and 1612 (depending on which cycle of date-letters they were thought to be), but as none has a history beyond the late nineteenth century they do not offer firm evidence. However, they are all significantly different in design from the Waddesdon Bequest example and serve to reinforce the present view that the latter is not influenced by the Flemish tradition but is a direct pastiche of the Nuremberg prototype by Friedrich Hillebrandt.

Finally, the German tradition of grand presentation forks combined with spoons can be traced back to the fifteenth century, and no more handsome examples exist than the very large silver-gilt pair made by Albert Sommer, a goldsmith of Lüneburg, in 1480 and still preserved among the civic plate of the famous Lüneberg Treasure (Kunstgewerbe Museum, Berlin; see H. Appuhn, ‘Das Lüneburger Ratssilber’, Lüneburg, 1956, no. 6; also J. M. Fritz, ‘Goldschmiedekunst der Gothik in Mitteleuropa’, Munich, 1982, p. 279, fig. 669).


  • 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. 214
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 214
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. II. The Curiosities', British Museum, London, 1991, no.48, figs. 394-400.Image: Group photographs depicts registration numbers: WB.214 and WB.215.
  • References

    1. 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
    2. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    3. Tait 1991a: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; III The 'Curiosities', London, BMP, 1991

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