41: A spoonful of history


On April 8th we received an auction catalogue from Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury.  Included in the sale were a collection of silver spoons, made in Barnstaple in the 16th and 17th centuries.  We were very excited, but we had to move fast as the sale was only 9 days away.

We already have in the museum a collection of later spoons, made in Barnstaple, that were donated to the Museum by Keith Abraham.  These spoons are of a type known as “Puritan” spoons, because they date to the later 17th century, after the Civil War, when quite plain items were in fashion.  Spoons were a popular way that wealthy merchants could invest their money, often being given as christening presents.

The spoons on offer at Woolley and Wallis were particularly lovely.  We were lucky that our Museum Development Trust had some money available from an insurance claim, and I quickly put together an application to the V&A Purchase Grant Fund (government money) to increase the funds available.  Tim Kent, the authority on silver spoons and Barnstaple silver in particular is a good friend of the museum and he arranged to go and see the spoons and for his company Bourdon Smith to bid on our behalf.

These are the spoons:

Lot 506 – a pair of lion sejant spoons by Thomas Mathew of Barnstaple, c. 1580

Thomas Mathew was one of the most accomplished and prolific of provincial goldsmiths, sworn in as a foreigner to the London Company of Goldsmiths in 1561.  He was one of the first known silversmiths in the town and achieved good status in Barnstaple, recorded as a capital burgess between 1584 and 1601.   He played an important part in remaking local chalices, including those of Woolfardisworthy, Landkey and Bishops Tawton which are currently held on loan at the museum.  His rise and prosperity illustrates the prosperity of the town, and are among the earliest works of art by a named artist (excluding Saxon coins) in existence from Barnstaple.

Lot 509 – a pair of apostle spoons by Thomas Mathew of Barnstaple, c.1580

According to Tim Kent, Thomas Mathew’s reputation rests on his spoons, which were the wedding or baptismal present par excellance for the merchant, tradesman or yeoman class at this period of the town’s peak prosperity.  His lions sejant are “charmingly vigorous creatures, benign rather than menacing”.  His apostle spoons are more numerous, but these two are particularly fine, and are representative of a significant part of his production.

Lot 507: An aphrodite spoon by John Quick of Barnstaple, c.1620

John Quick is less securely known but was part of a significant family of silver makers in Barnstaple, probably living from 1572/3 to 1632.  His known work includes unique engraved spoons and a number of Aphrodite spoons, many from the same mould.  He is described by Tim Kent as “a very talented and original goldsmith”

The John Quick Aphrodite spoon is an example of a type which appears to be unique to Barnstaple.  These naked female figures resemble ships figureheads, perhaps in acknowledgement of the international mercantile and privateering activity which brought the town its prosperity at this time.

We were delighted when our bidding was successful at the sale on April 16th.  With the help of some additional donations and the V&A grant the purchase was fully funded.

The spoons will be displayed in our purpose built silver display cabinet on the first floor of the museum, alongside our existing, mostly 17th century spoons and local church silver, including the Landkey chalice bought with grant aid and other (loaned) pieces by Thomas Mathew. They will demonstrate to visitors the wealth of the town in the 16th century and contrast with the later puritan spoons which represent the growing puritanical sensibilities of Barnstaple’s leading merchants.  They will greatly strengthen our collection relating to Tudor and Stuart North Devon and, with the stories of the makers and the ownership initials on the spoons themselves offer the opportunity to introduce real people form this distant part of our history to visitors and learners of all ages.

We are grateful to the V&A purchase grant fund, Edward Bourdon-Smith, Tim Kent and the Museum Development Trust, and to Keith Abraham for starting what is now a really significant collection of Barnstaple silver.



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