At various points during each series of Downton Abbey, Carson the Butler and whichever footman was employed at that moment (Thomas, William or James) would be shown, with all due care, setting the table for a formal dinner.
There would only be a few glimpses of the process which, in reality, takes Highclere’s own team of Luis, Jorge and Matthew well over an hour to achieve for a dinner party of 14 guests. Wearing white gloves and using a keen eye, everything is carefully positioned and assessed for being sufficiently polished. This applies not just to the cutlery but to all the various silver decorative pieces that are used to set a formal table.
Of course, gold and silver have been valued for their value and rarity for eons which rode hand in hand with the need to preserve and prove that value. In the UK, the Goldsmiths Company is one of the twelve original livery companies of the City of London, receiving its first royal charter in 1327. Responsible for testing the quality of gold and silver goods, gold and silversmiths were required to bring their work to the Goldsmiths Hall for assaying and marking, hence the ‘Hallmark’. Beautifully elaborate and high quality items could be created for wealthy patrons and valuable skills passed from generation to generation, through a thriving apprenticeship system.
In the 18th century, well-to-do families commissioned canteens of family silver which was for use (rather than purely ornamental) and which also helped mark and establish their position in society. Ever practical, the wooden boxes could be locked and carried from their country seats to London for the “Season”.
The industrial revolution with its rise in technology and production values enabled larger quantities of high quality merchandise to be available at more competitive prices to an emerging consumerist middle class. Silver was without doubt a status symbol. Thus Charles Dickens, in the novel “Our Mutual Friend”, described the Veneering family through their dining room and polished shiny silver: everything was shiny “bran new people, in a bran new house”, from their friends, to their footmen and of course the plate.
As described in books by Evelyn Waugh or those of P G Wodehouse to real life examples, nothing has symbolised the decline of aristocratic characters more than the sale of the family silver. Every large house when pressed, has found less need for silver canteens which take hours to polish and furthermore, cost money to insure. In modern parlance, “selling the family silver” as a quick economic solution has entered the lexicon as short hand for describing unwise asset stripping.
Highclere has also faced challenges and some 25 years ago my father-in-law took the difficult decision to sell some outstanding silver pieces to help finance much needed and major repairs (including stonework) to the Castle. In this case it helped reinforce capital assets and thus support future revenue.
Other pieces were nevertheless retained and we have now created a display room for them, not far from the Egyptian Exhibition. The Egyptians of course attributed a high value to silver as it was so rare. The silver room is a good way of sharing the history of collecting, as well some information about individual pieces and thanks to the silver, Highclere is still here – in this case it helped reinforce capital assets and thus support future revenue.