Erik Magnussen for Gorham Large Covered Centerpiece Compote with Ebony Finial, Providence, RI, 1926
An exceptional example of art deco design by one of the most famous American designers of the style, this is a rare item with its original removable cover. The use of plain surfaces and sections with scored lines give the piece a stylish design with subtle movement. The base and stem are made in four sections. The lowermost piece is a flaring base mounted to a small dome. This connects to the bulbous, tubular stem which is connected with a flaring ring attached to the bowl. Sixteen lines travel downward and shape themselves proportionately to the various planes of the surfaces. It is brilliantly designed and executed as is the rest of the piece.
As with the base, 16 scored lines on the bowl radiate upwards from the column. Engraved in one panel is a lovely 'W' monogram.
The cover is a stunning dome also made from multiple parts. The sixteen scored lines radiate outwards from the dome, Four 'c' scroll elements terminating in ball decoration attach to the surface of the dome and the lower section defining the finial. This small domed area, also scored with 16 lines, is hollow and houses a nut which the finial screws into. The carved ebony finial is shaped like the column with an undecorated area above the sixteen carved lines in the wood. It is drilled through the center and fitted with a long screw and secured to the silver top.
Radiating scored lines, geometric shapes and naturalistic decoration became the hallmark of Magnussen designs at Gorham. After the Paris 'Art Deco' exhibition of 1925, Gorham sought to develop a line of silver in the 'moderne' style popular in Europe and they found an accomplished Danish silversmith Erik Magnussen to do so. He was given his own workforce and great leeway in designing objects.
Magnussen found inspiration for this type of design in European objects made during the art deco period. A strikingly similar sauce tureen by the French firm Tétard Frères dating to 1925 is illustrated in Modern Art of Metalwork by Dedo von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk, (Berlin: Brohan Museum, 1990, p. 441). Interestingly, in Modernism in American Silver by Jewel Stern, the author notes that 'Several photographs of holloware by the French maker Tétard Frères that were found in a scrapbook in the Gorham archives at Brown University attest to the attention paid to French design by an important manufacturer.' (p. 56).
The model 'EHJ' sterling compote with ebony top was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 10th annual American Industrial Art Exhibition of 1926-27, with a retail value of $325.00. (1) Many thanks to private scholar W. Scott Braznell for this information.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art held annual exhibitions of American Industrial Art to promote items in their collection. Manufacturers would use items in the Met's collection as inspiration for the objects they displayed. For the first time in 1926, the Met allowed items not based on objects in their collection. This was due to the Paris 'Art Deco' exhibition and the Met's new desire to promote 'modern' design in America. Further, the 1926-27 exhibition was the only one that traveled. (2) Clearly, the Met felt it was an important exhibition.
The EHJ model bowl was included, along with 10 other Magnussen designed pieces, in Gorham's display at the Met that year. (3) Gorham chose this to be one of the very first modern designs it showed the world. Typically Gorham made two examples of the objects in this exhibition, displaying one of them at the Metropolitan Museum's American Industrial Art exhibition and another at their flagship store on Fifth Avenue. Although we cannot find production records for this piece, it is most likely that this covered compote, or its twin, was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the other concurrently at the Gorham store.
It is very rare to find objects as well documented as this one. This piece was literally on the vanguard of modern design in the United States, promoted by its maker, prominent institutions and taste makers alike. The American public did not warm to modern design until years later and very few early modern items like this were ever made. They are uncommon today. It is serendipitous and extremely rare to have one reconnect with its roots, especially one as well documented and important as this one.
This rare sterling silver and ebony compote is marked underneath with Erik Magnussen's 'EM.' mark, Gorham's trademark and 'GORHAM/ STERLING/EHJ'. It retains its original retail label from 'BROCK AND COMPANY JEWELERS/ LOS ANGELES'. It measures 9.25 inches in circumference by 11.75 inches to the top of the finial. It weighs 44.34 troy ounces, is artistically monogrammed with a 'W' on the base and is in excellent condition.
An archival photograph of this centerpiece is pictured in Gorham Silver by Charles Carpenter, Jr, p. 211.
Private conversation and correspondence with W. Scott Braznell, May 2006.
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