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Featuring nine enameled plaques and resting on four foliate shell feet, this exceptional shaped oval tray was made by Gorham as a centerpiece of its much admired exhibit of enameled silver at the 1893 Columbian World's Fair. A 'sample', or internally generated special order, it is a unique creation, designed and made specifically for their exhibit at the Columbian Exposition.
At the fair, Gorham won several awards for enamel, two awards for their painted enameled silver like this, as well as another award for artistic silver. This was one of the six most important enameled pieces they brought to the fair.
Two toned parcel-gilt silver frames each enameled panel with scrolling floral and fruit-laden arabesques between the enamels. Semiprecious stones are set outside each panel and on the four sides of the central panel.
Each enamel is masterfully painted. The main center panel depicts a scene of dancers in an antique setting with two musicians and a couple enjoying food and drink in a setting of merrymaking.
Around the center are another eight panels. Four of these are oval and include scenes of couples in sport, leisure or courting.
Four round plaques, centered between the ovals, feature putti: two playing music and two with bows and arrows - Cupid at work.
The chased silver details and repoussé work are exceptional. Each plaque is framed by a classical cartouche with varying decoration of beading, strap work, foliage, ribbons and bows. Between the enamels, flowing arabesques enhance the space.
Each area of background is given a different texture with extraordinary, jewelry like results. The arabesque's background is stippled for texture. The outer strap work is stippled to emphasize crossing the straps. In the center, the outer undecorated area is textured with lightly hammering while the inner area has stippled decoration. The three different styles of frames to the enamel have different surface treatments.
Similarly, two toned parcel gilding is used to enhance the design. The silver arabesques contrast with the lightly gilded stippled background. The frames, outer strap work and interior are gilded with in a deep gold color contrasting, complementing and unifying the design.
Everything about this masterpiece is exhibition quality.
Archival records indicate just how important this tray is. Gorham documented this piece on page 68 of cost book 'H', where only the very best objects were recorded. Making, or forming, the tray took 75 hours. It took 210 hours to chase the decoration on the silver and the enameling took another 240 hours. The net wholesale cost of the tray was $680.00, possibly indicating a $850.00 retail price. At this time, Gorham's typical employee was earning between $12-$21 a week.
Gorham's display at the Columbian Exposition was highly important and extremely successful; it represented Gorham's emergence as America's great silversmithing firm. At the fair they won 47 awards (the largest number of any single exhibit), 42 of those for silver, while Tiffany & Co. only won 18 for silver.(1) For details about the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and Gorham's extraordinary display, see this description of a previous piece we had.
Specifically, their exhibit of enameled silver met with great praise and awards.
Gorham's display at the Fair was dominated by the larger than life-size sterling silver statue of Columbus. In the window display to the right can be seen enameled pieces and The Nautilus Cup, now in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. Gorham Company Archives, John Hay Library, Brown University.
Count Gyula de Festetics, an award winning enamelist,(2) was hired by Gorham to run the enameling workshop in their New York shop, where most of the employees were women.
In an 1894 pamphlet reviewing Gorham's exhibit, art historian and lecturer at the 'Wheaton Seminary', Julia Osgood, wished to 'call attention to the broad field now open to American craftsmen of both sexes'(3) and noted de Festetics,'designs are executed by young women, mostly American, chosen for their artistic tendencies...'.(4)
Osgood was particularly taken by The Dancers tray: 'The choicest enamel I have examined was a large salver; the centre painting was such as one could imagine at the Trianon...'(5)
The Jewelers' Circular, while discussing Gorham's 'remarkable specimens of enamel work' at the Fair, observed that de Festetics, 'prides himself on his female assistants, who in some respects are fully equal to their male co-workers.'(6)
On September 20, 1893, The New York Times noted Gorham's successful enamel exhibit, 'is the equal, if not the superior, of any product in enamel on a silver surface made by the best enamel workers in Europe...Prof. Lessing of the Royal Museum in Berlin has purchased several pieces for the museum as representative of the highest proficiency in this art.'(7)
Extraordinarily, this tray was exhibited again in 1897 by Gorham at the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts' The First Exhibition of Arts & Crafts, held at Copley Hall in Boston. When the Society first formed, they had no silversmith members with a body of work to exhibit. They looked to the leading firms of Gorham and Goodnow & Jenks to exhibit handcrafted silver. The Dancers was one of the pieces Gorham exhibited there.(8) Enameled silver, copper and jewelry became important avenues for arts and crafts expression and this piece would have been closely studied at this exhibit.
William Christmas Codman was hired by Gorham in 1891 and became the most important designer of American silver of his era, responsible for Gorham's Martelé line of hand wrought silver. This early example of his work at Gorham shows the strong academic influence of his documented pieces from this period. Most importantly, Codman's son states Codman, Sr. designed the sister tray to The Dancers, named Diana.(9)
World's Columbian Exposition, Gorham's Pavilion, 1893,
The First Exhibition of Arts & Crafts, Boston Society of Arts & Crafts, Copley Hall, 1897, catalog number 141/9.
Julia Osgood, The Silversmiths' Work in the Liberal Arts Building Columbian Exposition A.D. 1893, (Providence: Gorham Mfg. Co., 1894),
The Jewelers' Circular, 'Features of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition', 21 April 1897, Vol. XXXIV, No 12.
The First Exhibition of Arts & Crafts, Boston Society of Arts & Crafts, Copley Hall, April 5-16, MDCCCXCVII, (Boston: Thomas P. Smith Printing, 1897)
The tray is marked twice, once on the rim and again in the center with Gorham's trademark, 'STERLING', the sample code 4870 and the date mark for 1893. It measures 18.5 inches long, 12.5 inches wide and just over 2 inches high at the highest point. It is in very good/ excellent antique condition with extremely light wear to the gilding and minor scratching. The enamel is in excellent condition. Two of the feet have small holes through which picture wire has been strung to hang the tray from a wall. We have left the picture wire as we found it - it looks very good when it is hanging! (Possibly this is why it is in such outstanding condition.)
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