Antiques: The Huguenot silversmiths info


To those countries which afford asylum to the victims, national persecutions frequently bring a reward far greater than was anticipated.

America was largely colonized by people fleeing from religious, economic, or political oppression, and in the latter part of the seventeenth century England absorbed several thousand Huguenot refugees and soon left her neighbour, who cast them out, far behind in commercial and industrial enterprise.

These Huguenots lived largely in the provincial cities where they virtually controlled such industries as papermaking, silk and woollen weaving, stocking- and glove making, and being essentially merchant-minded, the French export trade.

Among them were a sufficient number of silversmiths to leave definite impress on both English and American craftsmanship of the eighteenth century.

It is amazing how little the essential features of persecution vary through the ages. A page from the seventeenth century or from the twentieth, the unlovely story runs much the same. First, a series of oppressive measures Curtailing civic liberty; then religious intolerance, culminating, in the case of the Huguenots, in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Finally, seizure of property and extreme cruelty whereby, harried beyond endurance, they were yet forbidden to leave the country. But, of course, they went just the same. The French seaports were closed to them and outgoing boats were searched, but there were still land borders and over a period of years several hundred thousand managed to escape to Holland, Switzerland, the German principalities, and thence to England and America.

The reason for the considerable number of silversmiths among them was probably as much economic as religious. The wars of Louis XIV and the building of his palace at Versailles had been military and architectural extravagances costly almost to the point of ruin. Private purses were so depleted by taxes that clients for fine plate were few. And even had there been orders, material for making pieces was almost nonexistent since Louis had ordered all plate melted down to furnish currency for his ventures. Many a silversmith found himself out of work and naturally moved on to greener pastures. In fact, we find them in England even before 1685. Granted there was a little trade jealousy at first, it soon disappeared because of the national sympathy evoked by religious persecution, a sympathy all the more fervent because of the incidents leading to the Revolution of 1688. America, already a refuge for the oppressed, proved fertile territory for the many Huguenot émigrés who presently arrived.
So England gained such masters of their craft as Paul Lamerie, Pierre Platel, and Lewis Mattayer ; while American silversmithing was enriched by Bartholomew Le Roux, Cesar Ghiselin, Rene Grignon, Simeon Soumain, Thauvet Besley, Paul Revere, and many others mostly found in the larger centres.

All things considered, one would expect to find these Huguenot master craftsmen with registered marks re-establishing themselves in London and various American centres, but careful study of records does not disclose a single name that can with certainty be considered that of a master workman with a recorded mark in his native France. On the contrary, the refugee craftsmen seem to have been journeymen who rose to enough prominence for a registered mark only after they settled in England, and some of them, like the great Paul Lamerie, actually learned their trade there.

In America, although there was a distinguished group of Huguenot silversmiths from shortly after 1700, we cannot be sure that any of them came directly from France. Some arrived here from the Low Countries; others came by way of London. Otto de Parisien migrated from Berlin; Daniel Christian Fueter seems to have started from Switzerland, worked a few years in London where he had his mark, and then moved on to New York, where he stayed until the gathering war clouds of the American Revolution influenced his return in 1770 to the peace of Switzerland. His son Lewis remained in the New World.

George Ridout, who was working in New York in 1745, had a London mark in 1743. Bartholomew Le Roux, founder of the Le Roux dynasty of New York Huguenot silversmiths, came to America from London about 1690. His son, Charles, was at one time official silversmith to New York City. One of Bartholomew's apprentices was Peter Van Dyke whom he allowed his daughter Rachael to marry, an unusual concession for the clannish Huguenots of the eighteenth century.

Johannis Nys was born in Holland; Simeon Soumain, in England. Cesar Ghiselin, the first silversmith to ply his trade in Philadelphia, also came from England, as did Appollos Revoire, who was born on the Island of Guernsey, came to America as a boy and learned his trade in Boston, where he was apprenticed to John Coney. He was among the first to Anglicize his name. Thus it became Paul Revere, so well known through his son, Paul II, in both American history and silvermaking. Representative of the second or third generation of Huguenot silversmiths in this country was Elias Pelletreau of Southampton, Long Island, whose apprenticeship was served under Simeon Soumain and whose son and grandson were Long Island silversmiths.

Huguenot silversmiths worked in practically all the centres of wealth along the Atlantic seaboard from Boston to Charleston, South Carolina. The greatest number were, of course, in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Not because of a special concentration of Huguenots in those places, but because they naturally attracted more followers of the craft than smaller communities.

Among the earliest to reach America was Captain Rene Grignon, who settled in Oxford, Massachusetts, in 1691 five years later he moved to Boston and in 1707 to Norwich, Connecticut, where he died in 1715. Among his apprentices was another of the same strain, Daniel Deshon, to whom he bequeathed his silversmithing tools. Another who moved about was Peter Feurt, who worked first in New York and then in Boston, where he died in 1737. Cesar Ghiselin deserted Philadelphia for Annapolis, Maryland, about 1715, where he remained not quite fifteen years and then returned to Philadelphia for the remainder of his life. His silver is excessively rare, only about two large pieces being known. These are an alms basin and a beaker belonging to Christ Church, Philadelphia, for which they were made as the gift of Margaret Tresse. In the light of the exhibition of French domestic silver held at the Metropolitan Museum in 1938, both are much simpler than those current at the time in France.

Because these Huguenot silversmiths moved from one place to another as opportunities for better business dictated, and because there was a general tendency in the second and third generations either to Anglicize their family names or drop them entirely and substitute English translations for them, I doubt if it will ever be possible to compile a complete list of those who worked in America. Those who became followers of the craft in the third or even fourth generations, of course, worked entirely in the American tradition.

Studying known examples of the early Huguenot silversmiths who worked in America, it is noticeable that their work is usually very simple and lacks the ornate decoration and details of execution characteristic of French silver during the first part of the eighteenth century. One or two exceptions to this include the pair of beautifully decorated salt dishes by Charles Le Roux, believed to have belonged to Peter Jay and Mary Van Cortlandt who were married in 1728 ; the three-piece tea set by Peter de Riemer, with the Van Rensselaer crest and initials of Philip Schuyler Van Rensselaer for whom it was made; the graceful yet restrained cream pitcher by Elias Pelletreau, in which the inverted pear shape persists, but with circular base; the classic urn-shaped sugar bowl with cover by John Germon of Philadelphia; and the fine, two-handled presentation bowl by Bartholomew Le Roux, now in the Garvan Collection at Yale University.

One cannot say with any certainty that these Huguenot silversmiths originated any design, but they were excellent workmen and most adaptable. They seem not only to have worked faithfully in the styles of the various countries in which they took refuge, but to have been quick to learn new forms. For instance, the only drinking vessel current in France at the time of the Huguenot exodus was the cup or beaker without handle. Yet the number of tankards, cans, and mugs, bearing the touch marks of Huguenot smiths who settled in America is impressive. Both tankards and mugs were made extensively in Holland and England where the refugee Frenchmen were quick to learn to make them. Consequently, tankards and related pieces were among the important forms which they made in America. They even followed the style trends of the particular locality where they settled, with the result that when members of the De Nys family moved from New York to Philadelphia the tankards they made there followed the New York tradition strongly.

One form which we always think of as typically American is, I believe, of French descent. That is the deep basin-shaped dish with an earlike handle, known as a porringer. It is quite unlike the dish of the same name which was made in England late in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. English porringers were practically the same as the two-handled Caudle cups produced by American craftsmen.

The origin and use of the American porringer, which was made in both silver and pewter for nearly a century and a half, has always been a mystery. The following theory seems tenable. As early as the middle of the seventeenth century, a piece of silver with two handles called an "ecuelle" was made in France. Quite often it had a cover and early examples had handles similar to the American porringer ears. It was used for soup or other individual portions of food. I believe that there is a direct relationship in design between the French ecuelle and the American porringer.

Therefore, it is probable that the porringer, as we know it, travelled to America by way of the French craftsmen who migrated into the Low Countries. Possibly, it was first made here by silversmiths of Holland training or ancestry. At any rate, it was popular enough in America so that it was made by practically all our silversmiths. I doubt if porridge was served in it; nor do I believe that the term "bleeding bowl," applied by some English writers, reflects its original use. We have many instances of fine porringers being given as wedding presents, appropriately engraved with the initials of bride and groom. Wedding presents are not likely to lean heavily to either the prosaic or the medicinal. It seems more likely that such a well-wrought, handsomely engraved silver dish would lend itself to sweetmeats or relishes.

Shortly after the middle of the eighteenth century, American silver began to take on distinct rococo characteristics, but the inspiration came from England, not France. American Huguenots might still speak French in their family life, but their direct connection with their mother country had been severed. In England, on the contrary, Huguenot craftsmen gave definite impetus to the trend toward the rococo style which was in full flower there between 1720 and 1760. Being originally from the provinces, however, and of a Puritanic turn of mind, they tended to interpret it in a more restrained manner, which admirably suited the English and their colonists across the Atlantic. Then, with the years, the rococo vogue passed and the classic designs of the Brothers Adam influenced silver as well as architecture. Again the adaptable Huguenots worked in this manner, fine examples being the John Germon sugar bowl, now in the Garvan Collection at Yale, and the fluted urn-shaped sugar bowl and cream pitcher by Paul Revere II. The chaste Adam style with its classic background well fitted the temper of the times and appealed to a young nation acutely conscious of its republicanism. The artistic influence of a much earlier republic now expressed itself in architecture, furniture, silver, and other things used by man. Some of Paul Revere's finest work was done in this style. Not so well known but nowise lacking in craftsmanship was his contemporary, Abraham Du Bois, who worked in Philadelphia from 1777 on and made silver in the classic manner. Also of this period was Elias Pelletreau most of whose long life was spent on Long Island. The turn of the nineteenth century found a number of silversmiths of known Huguenot ancestry working in America, but most of them had become so completely assimilated that they were far more American than French. Further, by the last decade of the eighteenth century, another French migration had begun-but that is another story, and not to be confused with that of the Huguenot silversmiths.

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