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Silver candlesticks

From neoclassical columns to 1970s filigree, silver candlesticks are finding a place to shine at contemporary tables. By Katrina Burroughs.

July 31 2011
Katrina Burroughs

For years, antique candlesticks were treated as investments or showpieces, precious objects to be squirrelled away for special occasions. Now, they are coming out of storage to bring warmth and sparkle to everyday life.

Silver dealer Neil Franklin says that collectors of significant pieces have seen excellent returns on their investments. “Over the past 10 years, any early Georgian piece in very good condition has increased in price.” Work by the most sought-after silversmiths can command dazzling prices. Paul de Lamerie (1688-1751) was one of the foremost Huguenot craftsmen and a virtuoso of the Rococo style – his masterpieces are a riot of chased shells, floral panels and foliage. A set of four candlesticks bearing his mark fetched £211,250 at Christie’s in June 2010.

Asked for a tip on still-undervalued Georgian silver, Franklin points to a pair marked “London 1748” by Edward Feline, highly decorative and with detail so crisp it looks like it’s in HD. “An identical design in silver, by the porcelain designer Nicholas Sprimont, fetched £190,000 at auction. These are undervalued at £35,000.” But the joy of silverware, he says, isn’t tracking its value. “It’s a cliché, but having good silver candlesticks on the table elevates eating to dining. Call me a romantic fool, but I have candlesticks every night at the kitchen table.”

He’s not the only one. London stockbroker Giles Moran delights in his every day. “They’re a pair of Queen Anne candlesticks, quite architectural and plain. They sit well with our contemporary stuff – we’ve got oil paintings, as well as modern etchings and photos,” he explains. “They don’t stay in the cupboard. They’re on the mantelpiece all the time and get brought out for dinner. Occasionally, they venture into the garden on a summer’s evening.” These simple, elegant pieces are rather rare and, consequently, collectors will be lucky to find examples under five figures. However, the more plentiful, and far more familiar, later-18th-century models can be quite affordable.

“If you asked someone to describe a silver candlestick, they’d probably think of the classic Georgian candlestick, with a knopped [knobbed] stem,” says Michael Moorcroft, head of silver at Bonhams. On a budget of £1,000, you can buy a pair of these in decent condition, from the reign of George II (1727-1760) or early George III (until the 1770s), when silver candlesticks were still mostly cast in parts and soldered together, rather than plated or loaded (thin skins of silver on a wooden, plaster or pitch base). For your money, you’ll get timelessly stylish metalwork with subtle decoration, or what Moorcroft describes as “restrained fanciness”.

He advises buyers who love the Georgian look, but haven’t budgeted for four figures, to discover antique facsimiles. “Edwardian reproductions by firms such as Crichton Brothers are good things in their own right, and while a Georgian set might cost over £1,000, a decent early-20th-century copy will only be £500 or £600.”

Architectural designer Ben Pentreath found his Georgian-style, Edwardian-era candlesticks in an antiques shop in Camden Passage, for £550. “They are extremely plain, in the shape of classical Doric columns on square bases,” he says. “There is something absolutely enduring about both the pale shine of the metal and the simplicity of their profile.”

Another fan of these sleek Edwardian lookalikes is interior designer Broosk Saib, whose own home bristles with all sorts of candlesticks. “My favourite is a pair of Corinthian columns, made in the early 20th century, which I found in Portobello Market. I love candlesticks. I’ll cluster six or so in the middle of the table. You needn’t stick to matching pairs at each end of the mantelpiece. Scatter them on every surface, and group different shapes and sizes together.”

Really “on fire” at the moment are the postwar pieces by named designers. Retired banker John Andrew is a curator of The Pearson Silver Collection and a specialist in British postwar silver. “I’ve been passionate about silver since my teenage years and I love silver on polished wood, lit by candlelight. It’s the perfect setting for convivial company.” He says: “There was a renaissance of the silversmith’s art from the mid-20th century on. It really blossomed in the 1960s, for example, when Gerald Benney combined bark-effect textures with polished silver – that was something we’d never seen before.”

Andrew watches the market like a hawk (or perhaps a magpie), keeping close track of prices, and says Stuart Devlin’s stock is among those rising. “In September 1999, the Collection paid £2,000 for a pair of 1960s Devlin candelabra and this May, at Matthew Barton’s sale, there was a single candelabrum, dated 1968, with an estimate of £1,500-£2,500, which sold for £3,960. I think a pair, now, would be worth more than double, probably £10,000 or more.”

Andrew regards the late-1960s as Devlin’s golden era for lighting, with its labour-intensive, handmade gilt filigree globes, but he also singles out Devlin’s 1970s work with acetylene-formed gilded filigree. The supreme example of this technique, a 34-light, 9ft-long candelabrum made for the Duke of Westminster in 1976, sold for £45,600 at Christie’s in June 2007.

“For pure design and a return to handcrafted quality, rather than machine-spun, you have to go for the postwar makers,” confirms Derek Styles, the specialist dealer who is collaborating with Andrew on a comprehensive guide to British postwar silver. Styles says that several 20th-century names have yet to achieve their full value, including Robert Welch, David Mellor and Gerald Benney, while others, such as Brian Asquith, are long overdue for rediscovery.

Asquith (1930-2008), revered among those in the know, was commissioned to make the silverware for Downing Street in 1993, and today a pair of his candlesticks still costs just £650. It’s a small price to pay to bring an original work of art – and a dash of romance – to your table.