December 18 2010
The old Boswell and Johnson truism about tiring of life and London sprang to mind the other day when I visited the Silver Vaults off Chancery Lane.
I started my working life in and around this area, selling wine door-to-door, or rather chamber-to-chamber, among the barristers of the Inns of Court. I wasn’t much good at it.
I am a hopeless salesman: in my time I have failed to unload everything from loft insulation to UPVC windows, although there was a period when I was quite good at selling kits to make Koala bears. I think that the clinching argument was that if the purchaser took a dozen (there is something deliciously pre-metric about 12 rather than 10 of anything) I would chuck in a free eucalyptus branch on which to display said stuffed antipodean animal.
Anyway, during the week, as I traipsed around the Inns of Court not selling wine, I became quite familiar with the sights and attractions of the area. Fast-forward a quarter of a century and, in pressing need of a large Armada dish, I retrieved the existence of the Silver Vaults from the dustier recesses of my mind and went down there one Saturday.
It is, as the name suggests, a vast strongroom of the sort you will remember from the closing sequence of Goldfinger, except that instead of gold it is filled with argentiferous metal. The giant armoured door gives onto further strong rooms, each with its own heavy steel door. I cannot tell you how pleased I was to rediscover the silver vaults; it mixes the ambience of a souk with a heist movie and a museum – with the important bonus that all the exhibits are for sale.
I remember a German nobleman once telling me that during the 1970s, when Britain was the sick man of Europe and West Germany was an economic powerhouse (a state of affairs to which it looks we are returning), it was considered the smart thing to come over to Britain and buy up the family silver that impoverished British gentlefolk paying super tax of 98p in the pound were having to flog make ends meet. The way he put it, it seemed as if the Teutons had treated England at the time of the Bay City Rollers like a giant car boot sale, leaving us with only a few scraps of electro-plated nickel silver.
His words came back to me as I strolled up and down the vaults. If these were the leftovers from the German smash and grab in the 1970s then the Britain of the 19th and early 20th centuries must have been paved end to end in silver. It seems that our forefathers had decided that silver was the perfect metal from which to craft almost everything. From model galleons that must have been vulgar even then, to wine coolers capable of chilling the entire output of a medium-sized vineyard along the Rhine (Victorians were inordinately fond of hock and seltzer) and which was probably used as a paddling pool during the summer months: the place is a marvel.
But it is the table centrepieces that really caught my attention. They have a monumental quality about them that betokens a confidence in life that verges on the hubristic.
I believe there is a canteen of silver somewhere in my family: I seem to remember pulling it out from underneath my grandfather’s bed after his death. I believe it then disappeared under my mother’s bed and one day it will probably wind up under my bed or that of my sister – the thing is I would feel a bit daft pulling out the “family silver” just to stick into it fish pie and apple crumble with the family of a Sunday lunch. And if I feel somewhat self-conscious about chasing bits of smoked haddock and cod around my plate with silver cutlery, I cannot conceive of loading my kitchen table with the sort of elaborate silver centrepieces, without which any 19th-century dinner table was naked. Shepherd’s Bush may well be the pearl of the soon-to-be Royal Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, but the requirement for William IV wine coolers and elaborate table decorations consuming pounds of silver is limited.
However, my eye was taken by a centrepiece that had been commissioned to celebrate a British expedition to the polar regions – it was superb, made in the high Victorian era, it fairly glowed with the optimism of empire. This was not the product of a culture with an identity crisis, it was instead a piece that celebrated an expedition that had expanded the boundaries of knowledge, claiming this intellectual and scientific territory for queen and country; or rather it was a fanciful silversmith’s interpretation, featuring polar bears and stalactites, stalagmites and indeed all manner of hivernal motifs.
Those were the days; I could not help thinking how far things have slid since then. Granted, the ethics of empire may not be suited to modern morality, but at least Britain comported itself with a bit of dignity. I think it highly unlikely that a prime minister of the stature of Gladstone or Disraeli, or for that matter Palmerston or Derby would have taken the second in line to the British throne and gone and humiliated themselves and their country by kowtowing in front of the organisers of a football tournament. Back in the old days there would have been no question, the so-called World Cup would have been held in England, and Britain’s silversmiths would have created an amphora-sized trophy in sterling silver, chased and engraved with classically-inspired and morally elevating allegorical motifs.