This extraordinary pair of silver cassolettes or vases which also convert to candlesticks are made largely of silver filigree in India, in the late 18th century. They are based on designs by the English maker Matthew Boulton, who more typically executed his versions in blue-john stone and ormolu. (See here for such a pair of George III cassolettes by Matthew Boulton, circa 1770, sold as lot 144 at Christie’s New York in October 2010.) Another pair of gilded silver and blue john stone are in The Royal Collection of Queen Elizabeth II and are illustrated in Mason (2009, p. 160).
Most likely, the examples here are the work of Karimnagar silver filigree workers working in the Deccan. These workers produced some of the finest articles in silver filigree ever made. Typically, such items were for Indian consumption such as rosewater sprinklers and paan or betel boxes (see here for example.) The cassolettes here are remarkable because they are entirely based on English design, form and function.
Each vase or cassolette has a reversible finial candle-holder above an amphora-shaped body draped with swags headed by a pair of gilded ram’s heads. The bodies of each rise from a square stepped plinth, which sits on four fine silver filigree ball feet.
The filigree on the bodies of each comprises a series of concentric circles in fine, tight filigree, within arabesque-shaped cartouches arrayed in trellis formation. Elsewhere, the filigree is arrayed as borders, petals and acanthus leaf motifs. The main ribs have been parcel-gilded. Elsewhere, the main features have been gilded, providing a pleasing contrast with the silver that has been left without gilding. (The construction and parcel gilding of the main ribs is similar to a parcel-gilded silver filigree casket and case illustrated in Jordan (1996, p. 219) which is attributed to late seventeenth century India.)
Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) was a highly influential Birmingham-based, English designer and manufacturer of metal products, both industrial and ornamental. His ornamental designs included silverware and items mounted with ormolu, previously a French speciality, whereby elaborate metal fittings were gold plated with mercury-fired milled gold.
Two others pairs have come onto the market in the last ten years but both these examples were missing the ball feet. One was silver and the other was gilded, compared with the pair here which are parcel-gilded (ie partly, selectively gilded and not gilded). The pair here are in fine condition. The gilding is bright and fresh. There are some barely perceptible (and expected) losses to the filigree here and there. The gilded silver cone sections that rise above the plinths might be early but later replacements. Other examples have more filigree work in this area. However, the original designs by Boulton also have solid silver-gilt feet and bodies of different material such as blue john stone.
Overall, this pair of cassolettes tell a remarkable tale of late 18th century cross-cultural exchange, whereby very English designs were picked up by Indian Muslim silver workers more adept at producing betel boxes and the like for the local market. They are remarkable in every aspect.
Published: Arts of Asia, May-June 2015.
Jordan, A. et al, The Heritage of Rauluchantim, Museu de Sao Roque, 1996.
Mason, S. (ed.), Matthew Boulton: Selling What all the World Desires, Birmingham City Council/Yale University Press, 2009.
Piotrovsky, M. et al, Silver: Wonders from the East – Filigree of the Tsars, Lund Humphries/Hermitage Amsterdam, 2006.
Terlinden, C., Mughal Silver Magnificence, Antalga, 1987.
Zebrowski, M., Gold, Silver & Bronze from Mughal India, Alexandria Press, 1997.