Friday, December 6, 2013

Gorham Silver, Part 6: The New Plant and the Apogee of Accomplishment

The rise of Edward Holbrook discussed in Part 4, and the creation of the bronze business discussed in Part 5, coincided with a need for expansion, since Gorham had filled the Steeple Street block to capacity. Holbrook had not yet taken on the presidency of Gorham, but he certainly heavily influenced the 1888 board decision to build a brand new plant on a multi-acre site off Adelaide Avenue in the Elmwood section of Providence.

Architect's drawing for Gorham Manufacturing plant, about 1890.
Architect's drawing of the new Gorham plant, about 1890.
When the plant opened in 1890, it was the most modern in the world for making silver and bronze. It consisted of 33 acres and 25 buildings, and had its own water supply (Mashapaug Pond, the largest body of fresh water in the city). It also had its own fire department, electric light plant, and photo studio, and a building for making the wood cases for the silver. It also included a library and a museum, and a dining room and recreation center for the workers (which was very forward-thinking at the time!)

After the move, Gorham hired a new chief designer, William C. Codman, a 52-year-old Englishman. Codman was the chief designer for the pieces Gorham made for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where Gorham won 55 medals! He also designed the Chantilly flatware pattern in 1895, which has always been Gorham's best seller. Codman would go on to design over 50 flatware patterns during his 23 years at Gorham, but this was clearly the winner and is still made today. It was the most popular sterling flatware pattern made in the 20th century, by any company.

Lady's writing table and chair, Gorham Silver, 1903; at RISD Museum.
Lady's writing table and chair, Gorham, 1903.
In 1894, Holbrook officially took over the reins of the company; the years from the completion of he new plant to 1914, when Codman retired, are considered to be some of the greatest of Gorham's achievement. Holbrook and Codman had a great partnership and vision; Burr Sebring, who was the director of design at Gorham in the 1970s, called it a "perfect matrix of leadership and artistry."

Among the many beautiful pieces designed by Codman was a lady's writing table and chair made in 1903 to exhibit at the 1904 Worlds Fair in St. Louis. (That was the "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louie" fair.) There was also a 16-piece silver desk set that went with it.

It's a real tour de force and was intended to showcase the incredible talent of the Gorham artisans. Click here to examine the desk in more detail.

William Codman signature on lady's writing table, Gorham Silver, 1903.
William Codman signed the piece.
It was designed by Codman, but the work was executed by many, many craftsmen. There were silversmiths, chasers, modelers, inlayers, leather carvers, and cabinetmakers. However, Codman, as the chief designer, got to sign the piece in the right top drawer.

The desk is particularly remarkable in its use of silver, ivory, and mother of pearl inlay in the challenging surface of ebony and rosewood.  The form of the desk is 18th century French rococo, the women on the drawers and legs very Art Nouveau, and the arabesques on the top are traditional Hispano-Moorish.
Costing slip for Gorham Silver lady' writing desk, 1903.
Costing slip for the desk.

The back border on the top includes morning glories for morning and poppies for evening, as well as an owl to represent wisdom, and perhaps inspire the writer?

There are about 50 pounds of silver in the desk and chair, and over 12,000 hours went into the creation of this work. The cost was almost $13,000; the costing slip for the desk alone is shown here. The price was set by Gorham at $18,000 for the desk and chair, plus another $2,000 for the desk set.

The pieces were awarded the Grand Prix for silversmithing in St. Louis, and they were also exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, where they won the gold medal.

Antoinette Heckscher, Lady Esher, who owned the Gorham lady's writing desk.
Lady Esher and daughter, 1932.
Sometime after that, the set was purchased on behalf of a young American socialite, Antoinette Heckscher, who had married the British Viscount Esher, and had become Lady Esher in 1912. Antoinette had gotten a lot of society attention for announcing her engagement in the New York Times on 11/11/11, breaking it in January (also in the paper), and then remaking it, to marry later in 1912. The Times said of her that she was "highly cultivated, had traveled much, and is interested in the woman suffrage movement. She marched last May in the big suffrage parade."

Antoinette died in 1965, but had unloaded the desk and chair prior to that, since the pieces turned up at a Christie's auction in London in 1954. It was purchased for $3,500 by Mr. & Mrs. Frederick Thurber of Providence, descendants of Gorham Thurber, a former business partner of John Gorham, and they donated it to the RISD Museum--bringing it full circle back to its place of origin.

(to be continued)

Illustration Credits and References

Photo of the writing table from the RISD Museum website.

Photo of the signature and the costing slip from the Brown Digital Repository.

Photo of Lady Esher from

New York Times, "Miss Hecksher to wed O.S.B. Brett," August 29, 1912.

Architect's drawing of the new Gorham plant, plus an exhaustive history of Gorham can be found in the book Gorham Silver by Charles H. Carpenter, Jr. (Revised edition published 1997 by Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, San Francisco.)

No comments:

Post a Comment