Silver Foulkes Nick Foulkes finds the antique splendours of the London Silver Vaults untarnished since his last visit and considerably more expensive
Nick Foulkes finds the antique splendours of the London Silver Vaults untarnished since his last visit — and considerably more expensive
AS A CHILD I was rather fond of silver. I had a silver bracelet, a couple of silver rings and a silver chain around my neck with one or two religious medallions on it. A little later I got into such arcana as old Sheffield Plate, learning to love the glow of the copper as, after generations of polishing, it began to show through the covering of silver and Britannia silver, with its silver content of 958 parts per thousand rather than the usual 925.
For a while I even became reasonably conversant with the hallmarks, and all this has been coming back to me as I have started to haunt one of the locales of my younger years: the Silver Vaults off Chancery Lane.
I love the Silver Vaults. A visit here is about as close as it is possible to get to the Fort Knox scene at the end of Goldfinger, with the chief differences of course that there is no Pussy Galore, no Oddjob, no WMD that needs defusing, and far more silver than gold… Oh, all right then, it is very unlike the Fort Knox scene at the end of Goldfinger, with the exception of the film set-like doors. And when it comes to merchandise the effect is more Charles Dickens than Ian Fleming.
<p> For some reason I tend to associate silver with Victorian England, or at a push the England envisaged by Lord Fellowes of Downton, in which Maggie Smith would be thrown into a convulsive conniption of class consciousness if someone were vulgar enough to serve the ketchup in the sauce boat that God (being an Englishman) had ordained was to be used only for the sauce tartare.
Still, having enjoyed the occasional dinner in grand surroundings, I can see where the Victorians were coming from and why a table laid with glinting silver is a stock feature of the Victorian novel. Along with the country house and heavy brown furniture the colour of melted Mars bars, silver was one of the ways in which you signalled you had arrived; and it is in this area that the Silver Vaults excels, featuring strongroom after strongroom piled high with sufficient silver to populate many more adaptations of Dickens than we are likely to see, even in this, Boz’s bicentennial year.
I was recently very taken with a silver cigar jar in the shape of a dog’s head (wearing a small smoking cap, as I recall) with a cigar clamped into its jaw. But I was not quick enough, as the next time I went down there it had gone. However, on my most recent visit I was still able to enjoy one of my favourite items down there: a superb centrepiece that had been commissioned to celebrate a British expedition to the polar regions.
Made in the wonderfully over-detailed high Victorian style, it fairly glowed with the optimism of empire, the distillation in precious metal of national pride and progress, solid, tangible and very heavy evidence in the middle of your massive mahogany dining table that the greatness of the British Empire was felt everywhere from the grandest dining room to the most remote and desolate parts of the planet.
The theme had served to inspire the silversmiths of that glorious (at least if you were rich and did not have to go down mines or up chimneys for a living) period to embark on an orgy of stalagmites, stalactites, polar bears and so forth. The last time I was so impressed with a piece of silver was in my friend Patrick Mavros’s shop, when I spied a pair of silver candelabra in the shape of some African tree — they were so heavy that I could barely lift one at a time.
MY RENEWED INTEREST in silver has come from buying silver medallions in Cuba. The Castro family’s Caribbean idyll is the sort of place where any revolutionary anniversary, no matter how recondite, is commemorated with the striking of a silver coin, and with my magpie-like eye for a shining trinket and glistening bauble I have been buying these things over time.
A while ago I set one of these coins into an Armada dish, something that resembles a cross between a teaplate and a quaich into which a coin slots rather nicely. For a cigar smoker this is a perfect present as you can use it as an ashtray, and I am of the opinion that you can never have enough ashtrays — in fact, if the editor of Spear’s permits me, one day I would like to fill this page with a hymn of praise eulogising this indispensable household effect, which as well as being functional can, when judiciously used, elevate an interior scheme to an artistic level.
But back to silver. I had not been to the Silver Vaults for some time, and while I was aware that prices had risen since I had last customised a piece of silver, it only hit me when I asked the price of an Armada dish and discovered that my budget was only sufficient for a frankly pusillanimous object, not much bigger than the coin I was minded to set into it. Indeed, if I had put a coin in, there would barely have been room for an extinguished match, let alone the waste products of an entire cigar. And it got me thinking that instead of buying silver, maybe I should be hawking the few scraps of the white metal in my possession instead.
It also sent my thoughts back to the late Seventies, when, as now, silver and gold prices spiked. With all the warm nostalgia afforded by endless reruns of Top of the Pops from the Seventies showcasing the oeuvre of the Bay City Rollers and Showaddywaddy, we are in danger of forgetting that it was also a very bleak time. Ted Heath went on the telly to advise us that Britain had not faced a crisis as grave since the war, the country went on the three-day week, rubbish was piled high in the centre of London and power cuts put the nation in blackout and life had to be conducted by candlelight. My memory may be playing tricks on me, but I even recall seeing a photograph of people shopping in a supermarket with candles on their trolleys.
Who knows, we may well be headed there again. Still, it is as well to look on the bright side: at least it will give me an excuse to visit the Silver Vaults or pop along to Patrick Mavros to stock up on suitable silver candlesticks.
Nick Foulkes is the author of books on James Bond, cigars, porcelain and the trenchcoat