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The catalogue of the Ashmolean’s English and continental gold and silver

Oxford’s greatest treasure trove

For the Ashmolean Museum, 2009 saw the culmination of two large and ambitious projects, its reopening embellished with the Rick Mather extension, and the publication of this three-volume catalogue of its silver. When Tim Schroder started work on the Ashmolean’s silver 20 years ago, it was a labour of love, springing from his previous involvement as curator of the Gilbert Collection, for which he wrote a large catalogue (1988). He was particularly well-suited to this challenge as his taste and experience were well matched by both collections, rich in pieces from the golden age of English silver, the late 17th and 18th centuries, not, coincidentally, a period of material prosperity for the silver-owning classes. Both collections also include continental silver, a personal interest since his youthful engagement with the strongly Germanic Schroder Collection.

Beautifully photographed (something hard to achieve with silver because of its reflectivity) and with the full scholarly apparatus of footnotes and essays, this is probably one of the last decorative art catalogues to appear in such a lavish and costly hardback print format.  Most museum cataloguing is now online, offering brief details and an image, but offering little space or opportunity for exercising discernment, making comparisons and discussing questions of authenticity (the Ashmolean website shows these 620 items with weights and provenance, but without the social history which enriches the printed catalogue). Essays introduce each of Tim Schroder’s 25 sections, replete with antiquarian detail, such as in “Drinking Vessels”, Dean Swift’s comment on a celebration fuelled by “the great tankard full of October ale…passed hand to hand and mouth to mouth”.

Thanks to four remarkable bequests, the first in 1946, the museum has striking riches in early modern silver, greatly enriched by major acquisitions over the last 20 years and by loans from Oxford colleges. However, this collection does not present a comprehensive historical survey, since the 19th century was out of favour when the major benefactors were collecting. Some enjoyable Arts and Crafts objects reveal a collecting taste which has been a driver for recent silver commissions made by British artist-designers.

Intense care has been lavished on this publication, from the photography to the 257 biographies of British and Irish silversmiths. A few small quibbles—St Giles “guest house” should be Inquest House, and Fynes Moryson was active around 1617, not 1671—do not mar this achievement.

o Timothy Schroder, British and Continental Gold and Silver in the Ashmolean Museum (Ashmolean Museum Publications), 3 volumes, 1,500 pp, £350 (hb) ISBN 9781854442208

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Oxford’s greatest treasure trove '