A History of the Epergne
There in the center of the dining room table, framed by two Corinthian column candlesticks with leaf-clad bypass branches, was a Georgian epergne. Its shell feet and foliate scroll legs rose to support a wide open skirt of garland swags. Eight scrolling arms held, alternately, hanging baskets and circular plates, and a saw-pierced column supported a boat-shaped center basket. The large center basket and the smaller hanging ones overflowed with beautifully-arranged flowers, while the plates displayed arrangements of small fruits and berries (the tiny toothpicks holding the fruit and berries in place made it quite obvious that they were not intended to be served that evening.) The epergne provides a great theater for the silversmith’s craft, but were my host and hostess aware of its original use? Of course they were. They were both serious collectors of Georgian and Early American silver.
By the eighteenth century entertaining had developed into a grand art, and the English epergne can claim a strong link to seventeenth century France and the great changes in manners which began with the French Court. This revolution greatly affected the silversmith’s output, and led to many of the articles common to the twenty-first century table. For example, foods that had previously been eaten from a common bowl with either fingers or bread came to be eaten with spoons and forks from individual plates, and by the late 1600’s there existed different plates for different foods. Further, individual chairs replaced benches at the table. Before the close of the century silversmiths found themselves making large matching services for their aristocratic patrons. A new emphasis on decorating the table led to the development of the centerpiece.
The earliest ancestor of the epergne was the surtout, a center tray holding casters, salts, oil bottles, etc., made in silver, silver-gilt, gilt bronze, ceramic, and combinations thereof. A closer relative, introduced a bit later but which coexisted with the surtout, was the fruitier, and it usually replaced the surtout toward the end of the meal. The fruitier was a tiered centerpiece with bowls for sweetmeats, which sometimes held sugar casters.
The word epergne is taken from the French epargne, meaning economy, and originally bore the more anglicized spelling aparn. The English epergne economizes in two ways. First, in the saving of precious space: The prevailing custom of service at the time required that much of the food be put on the table at once. Guests entering the dining room found the food in place, usually in covered entrée dishes (the dishes sometimes made with a hot water chamber), one or two kinds of fish, and one or two soup tureens. Further, around 1760 it became fashionable for the host to carve the bird or joint of meat at the table. The second way in which the epergne economized is that it made for the thrifty use of rare nuts, fruits, condiments, and other luxuries from the tropics or the East. Guests would serve themselves from the epergne, and delicacies that were not eaten were left on the centerpiece, rather than being wasted when the plates were cleared.
Records show that the epergne first appeared on the English table around the 1720’s, but there are no extant examples from that period. An inventory of Whitehall, circa 1725, mentions an “aparn containing one table basket and cover, one foote [sic.], four salt boxes, four small salts, four branches, six casters, four sauce boats.” The earliest epergnes were large and elaborate, with a wide center column, often with heavy cast feet decorated with masks, supporting detachable arms with flat plates, hanging baskets and candle sockets. Examples in the rococo style were still great in overall size, but light in look, with more pierced decoration. The last quarter of the eighteenth century saw epergnes in the neoclassical taste, and examples with silver frames and glass bowls appeared around 1770.
There are references to silver epergnes in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Virginia. For example, the inventory of the estate of General Thomas Nelson of Yorktown lists a “Silver Epergne weighing 92:19,” and Richard Corbin of Laneville purchased from the London jeweler and goldsmith Richard Davis “an Elegant Epergne wh Branches and Large Bason [sic.] at Top. Thomas Jefferson gave a glass epergne to Martha Burke Jones when, in 1809, she married John Wayles Eppes.
During the Georgian period many foreign artists and silversmiths emigrated to England, and these foreign-born “English” silversmiths left their mark on the history of the epergne. One such example is Emick Romer, who was born in Halden, Norway. He was apprenticed in his native country in 1749, and emigrated to London in the 1750’s. He appears to have entered his first mark in Goldsmiths Hall circa 1758.
A talented English-born silversmith known for his fine epergnes is Thomas Pitts. Pitts was apprenticed to Charles Hatfield on December 6, 1737 and turned over to David Willaume II, son of a prominent French immigrant silversmith, in February of 1742. His freedom is recorded in 1744, although he does not appear to have registered his first mark as an independent worker until 1758.
Matthew Boulton’s Birmingham, England, factory, the Soho Works, produced epergnes in both sterling silver and old Sheffield plate. These pieces usually combine silver or silverplate with glass, and are in the later, more architectural version of the neoclassical style.
The Victorian period saw the epergne relieved of its grand position of server. The “new” style of serving, service a la russe, saw each course brought in separately, leaving more room for the display of flowers. The late nineteenth and early 20th centuries saw a brief and limited revival of epergnes in the rococo and neoclassical styles, with some very good American examples made by the Gorham Company. Still, these were intended for use as decorative objects, not for serving.
Though a lot of epergnes must be viewed today behind the glass of museum showcases, there are, fortunately, many in private hands that are still brought out for special occasions. I would love to take nutmeg offered by the outstretched arm of an epergne, or be served my dessert from its center basket the way our ancestors might have been, but I’ll settle for enjoying the beauty of the object and the lovely flowers arranged in it.
Joseph P. Brady
Silver Historian, 2009
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Blair, Claude, editor, The History of Silver, Macdonald & Co., London & Sydney, 1987
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