Vintage Silver of the Aesthetic Period

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Vintage Silver Aesthetic era - sugar shell

Look at the terminal end of this vintage silver sugar shell. It is literally a shell, executed in great detail. In real life it was less than 1/2 an inch long.

Vintage silver of the aesthetic period is such a distinct shift in style, I wonder if it’s rise is related to that of photography.

Timing is everything

The Aesthetic Movement is generally cited as lasting from 1870-1900.

“As the movement swept through America, people started to believe that beautiful objects should exist for the enjoyment of everyone, not only the elite. It was thought that a beautiful environment could actually enhance one’s quality of life…

Through his interior designs and mass production of beautiful glass objects, Louis Comfort Tiffany exemplified the spirit of the movement.” – Buffalo Architecture and History

Throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s photography became more widespread and accessible to ordinary people.  The 1880’s were a time of rapid innovation in the field of photography.  In 1888 the first Kodak camera was marketed.

Caveat and fine print!

Before I go too much further, let me say, I’m not an art historian. I am a life-long amateur photographer though. And, as you are likely aware I’m always interested in the connections between things – the cross pollination that occurs and shows itself in unexpected spots. Also, I’m only thinking about this in terms of silver…not furniture, painting, sculpture, etc. So having said that this is not a scholarly article but more of an attempt to clarify a train of thought, let’s get going (again).

It’s all in the details

Mies van der Rhoe was right, it is all about the details. Let’s consider the humble leaf. I pick the leaf purely for expediency…I have photos of a number of pieces from different eras that will illustrate my tale nicely. Many other elements could work equally well.

When I look at pieces of silver representing various eras, the depiction of a leaf has undergone an amazing amount of change.

It’s just a leaf

Yes,  it’s just a leaf but wow, the way in which it is depicted really affects the overall character of an antique or vintage silver piece.

Here is a variation of the acanthus leaf form.  As used on this antique English silver inkwell, it adds to decorative touch to a utilitarian object but in a way that emphasizes the power, wealth, and influence of it’s owner.  It is very formal.

Antique English Silver Inkwell

A variation of the acanthus leaf in the form of a leg. It was cast separately and then applied to the piece.

Next up see this Art Nouveau representation, again, it’s clearly a leaf but a dreamy and romanticized one.  More of a stylistic representation than a literal one.

Vintage silver Art Nouveau mirror

Detail from an Art Nouveau silver mirror. So dreamy.

Now let’s look at the Aesthetic ones.

Boom. There is absolutely no interpretation of form going on here.  From the above mentioned Louis COmfort Tiffany…here are two masterpieces.

Hello, I am a leaf. In fact I am a blackberry cane leaf and my sister over here is a grape leaf.

Vintage silver of the Aesthetic period

Hello, I'm a blackberry leaf. Click photo for full details.

Antique Silver Tiffany Spoon

Hello, I'm a grape leaf. Click photo for full details.

What does this have to do with photography?

For the first time, artists were mechanically capturing literal representations of people and objects. I am well aware that lighting, composition and a host of other technical factors do influence the resulting photo.

But to that point, a photo was the best way to show someone something they could not see with their own eyes.

Trends and fashion

As I’ve noted before, silver is just as trend driven as any other form of decorative art.  Fashions come and go.

Was this literal representation of natural objects a trend in response to the growing field of photography?

I think so.


What about you?

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2 thoughts on “Vintage Silver of the Aesthetic Period

  1. Jackie BernardiNo Gravatar


    This was a very interesting post. Your two passions are evident, and it fascinating how & when they intersect.

    PS–I think the sugar shell is stunning.

  2. Jane F @ AtticmagNo Gravatar

    Aesthetic silver is one of my favorite periods. I have a lovely aesthetic butter knife with a monogram — it’s plate but still quite lovely. I always have had a secret yen to a whole aesthetic flatware service. Also love the furniture.

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