Rare silver-gilt ewer and basin acquired for Scotland

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A 16th century silver-gilt ewer and basin, known as the Panmure set, has been acquired for the nation under a scheme that allows inheritance tax to be paid with artworks.

The Panmure ewer and basin: a glimpse into the past

The Panmure ewer and basin are among the rarest and most exquisite examples of Renaissance silverware in Britain. They were made in London in 1586 or 1587 by a Dutch immigrant goldsmith named Harman Copleman. They have intricate designs of dolphins, flying fish, snails and other animals, reflecting the fascination with natural history at the time.

The ewer and basin were used for washing hands at banquets, a ritual that demonstrated the wealth, power and sophistication of the elite. They were acquired by William Ramsay Maule, first Baron Panmure, a Scottish politician and collector, in the early 19th century. They have been in the possession of his descendants, the Earls of Balhousie, ever since.

How the Panmure set was saved for Scotland

The Panmure set was accepted by the UK Government in lieu of inheritance tax from the collection of the Earls of Balhousie. The Acceptance in Lieu scheme allows taxpayers to transfer important works of art and heritage objects into public ownership while paying off part or all of their tax liability.

panmure ewer and basin

The set was allocated to National Museums Scotland by Arts Council England and the minister for culture, Europe and international development, Christina McKelvie. It will go on permanent display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh from Wednesday.

Dr Godfrey Evans, principal curator of European decorative arts at National Museums Scotland, said: “I am delighted that this remarkable set has been acquired for Scotland under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme. Their craftsmanship is particularly fine and the representations of lots of scaly dolphins, flying fish, snails and other weird and wonderful animals offer us a glimpse into a period when such objects demonstrated the wealth, power and sophistication of the elite.”

Why the Panmure set is so rare and valuable

The Panmure set is one of only a dozen sets of silver or silver-gilt ewers and basins made in London before 1600 that survive today. Most of them were melted down for their precious metal over the centuries. The Panmure set is especially rare because it is made of silver-gilt, which is silver coated with gold. Silver-gilt was more expensive and prestigious than plain silver, and was often reserved for royal or ecclesiastical use.

The Panmure set is also valuable because it has a clear provenance and date. The maker’s mark “HC” can be identified as Harman Copleman, who was active in London from 1578 to 1591. He was one of many Dutch goldsmiths who came to England during the reign of Elizabeth I, bringing new skills and styles to the trade. The date letter “N” on the set indicates that it was made in 1586 or 1587.

The Panmure set is estimated to be worth around £1.5 million ($2 million), according to National Museums Scotland.

What research will be done on the Panmure set

National Museums Scotland plans to conduct further research on the Panmure set to learn more about its history and significance. Some of the questions that will be explored are:

  • Who commissioned or owned the set before William Ramsay Maule?
  • How did William Ramsay Maule acquire the set? Did he buy it or inherit it?
  • How did the set reflect the social and cultural context of its time?
  • How did the set influence or inspire other silverware makers or collectors?
  • How did the set survive through wars, revolutions and changes of ownership?

Dr Evans said: “We hope to discover more about their maker and how they were acquired by William Ramsay Maule. We also hope to reveal more about their use and display over four centuries.”

What other treasures are in National Museums Scotland’s collection

The Panmure set joins other outstanding examples of silverware in National Museums Scotland’s collection, such as:

  • The Tain Silver Collection: a group of over 30 pieces of Scottish provincial silver from Tain in Ross-shire, dating from 1700 to 1860.
  • The Bute Cup: a silver-gilt cup made in Edinburgh in 1610 for James VI and I as a gift to his son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales.
  • The Hamilton-Rothschild Tazza: a silver-gilt dish made in Augsburg in Germany in 1590 for James VI and I as a gift to his wife Anne of Denmark.
  • The Fettercairn Jewel: a gold pendant with enamel, pearls and diamonds made in France or England around 1570 for Mary, Queen of Scots.

National Museums Scotland also has a rich collection of other artworks and heritage objects that have been acquired through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, such as:

  • The Monymusk Reliquary: a metalwork box containing a relic of St Columba, dating from the 8th or 9th century.
  • The Torrie Collection: a group of over 100 paintings, sculptures and decorative arts from the 15th to the 19th century, including works by Titian, Rubens and Canova.
  • The Galloway Hoard: a collection of over 100 Viking-age objects, including gold, silver, jewellery and textiles, buried in the 10th century.
  • The Colt Clavier Collection: a collection of over 100 keyboard instruments, including harpsichords, pianos and organs, from the 16th to the 20th century.

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