Silver: Cutting the mustard

Silver: Cutting the mustard

Publication: Antiques Trade Gazette

21/11/2023     Silver & Objects of Virtu

“Prior to 1720 there was no such luxury as mustard, in its present form, at our tables.

“In the year I have mentioned, it occurred to an old woman of the name of Clements, resident at Durham, to grind the seed in a mill.

“Mrs Clements as regularly as twice a year travelled to London, and to the principal towns throughout England, for orders, and the old lady contrived to pick up not only a decent pittance, but what was then thought a tolerable competence.”

This extract from the Mechanics’ Magazine and Journal of 1825 documents the origins of ‘Durham mustard’. Based at 73 Saddler Street, in the centre of the city close to the castle, Mrs Clements is considered the first person to sell English mustard as a finely ground powder.

The story goes that the firm she founded in the 1720s used the head of the Durham Ox as a trademark - a logo later acquired by Colman’s of Norwich when it swept up its competitors in the 19th and 20th century.

Mustard has been used as a medicine and a spice for millennia. A yellow mustard paste was used to whet the appetite in the courts of Zhou dynasty China and to flavour cold and hot meats by the Romans.

 

Tewkesbury mustard

Most great houses of Europe would have employed a ‘mustarder’. The early use of mustard as a condiment and a pick-me-up in England is attested by various medieval ‘herbals’ and in The Forme of Cury, the collection of recipes penned by ‘the chief master cooks of Richard II’ around 1390.

It describes the preparation of mustard balls - golf-ball sized spheres of coarsely-ground mustard seed bound with flour and cinnamon that could be stored and then mixed with wine, milk or vinegar when required for the table. Production in France was centred in Dijon and in England at Tewkesbury. Shakespeare’s Falstaff said of Pions that “his wit is as thick as Tewkesbury mustard”.

Mustard pot

This large George III drum-shaped mustard pot by Thomas Nash, London 1773, has an aperture for the spoon cut out of the top rim rather than the edge of the lid. Estimate £250-300 at by Anderson & Garland.

 

Exactly what sort of silver vessel was used to serve wet mustard at this time is uncertain. There are enigmatic references to ‘mustard potts’ in Tudor inventories and evidence of great consumption. In the household book of the Earls of Northumberland (began in 1512) are orders for between 160 and 190 gallons of wet mustard a year.

The earliest surviving form of mustard pot is the blind caster used to dispense a dry mustard powder - perhaps the product marketed by Mrs Clements in Durham. Most followed the popular designs of the period -the classic ‘lighthouse’ or octagonal type - and some formed part of Warwick cruets. At the table, the covers were removed, allowing the contents to be spooned out.

 

The dry caster

David McKinley’s article Early English Mustard Pots written for the Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver in 2014 discusses them in some detail. He mentions a blind caster by Francis Garthorne (fl.1677-1726) that is thought to date from the William and Mary period and the earliest fully hallmarked example by Charles Adam that has the date letter for 1717.

Only rarely do these dry casters appear for sale. However, one in Britannia standard silver by Anthony Nelme dated 1722 (estimate £500- 700) is included in the fine collection of around 100 silver mustard pots that come under the hammer at Anderson & Garland in Newcastle upon Tyne on November 28.

The assemblage has been put together, mainly by purchasing through dealers at fairs, over the last 35 years by a vendor from the northeast. The regional connection to mustard had been a factor in what we might call a clear-cut case of ‘yellow fever’.

The change from the dry to wet mustard that took place in the second half of the 18th century ushered in the classic ‘drum’ form vessel that first emerged in the late 1750s. The London Assay Office called them mustard ‘tankards or ‘cans’ and charged 1.5d for hallmarking.

There are many examples of these. Some of the earliest of the type from the 1760s and early 1770s have an aperture for the spoon cut out of the top rim rather than the edge of the lid as became common.

Many betray the influence of the neoclassical ‘Adam style’. Some exploited the arrival of the glass liner (that made the cleaning much easier) to contrast fretwork against cobalt blue or clear glass.

By the Victorian era multiple styles existed side-by-side and the novelty was king. These are still particularly popular today and classic forms such as the Mr Punch by Robert Hennel (estimate £700-900) and a long-eared owl by Edward Charles Brown (estimate £600-800) carry the collection’s highest expectations.

Smaller collections of silver mustard pots are not unusual (a nice array was offered by Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury in October) but specialist Alex Butcher believes the last dispersal of this size at auction was probably the sale of the Colman collection some 30 years ago.

That fine collection, catalogued for exhibition in 1979, five years after it was acquired by Colman Foods from a family member, was sold by Christie’s in 1993.

 

Mustard idioms

As early as the 1600s, mustard was a figure of speech for something extremely powerful, passionate, or enthusiastic.

The phrase 'as keen as mustard' is first known from 1672, appearing in Paroemiologie Anglo-Latina by English schoolmaster William Walker. The firm Keen & Sons, one of the earliest commercial manufacturers, began trading from Garlick Hill, London in 1742.

The idiom Cut the mustard is thought to have originated in Texas. Its use is recorded in a Galveston, Texas newspaper in 1891.

 

Mustard pot selection

 A selection of silver mustard pots from the single-owner collection offered by Anderson & Garland on November 28.

1.Victorian novelty in the form of Mr. Punch smoking a pipe by Robert Hennell, London 1869, estimate £700-900.

2.William IV naturalistic form resembling a squash by Charles Fox, London 1836, estimate £250-300.

3.Victorian cylindrical pot with a pierced and embossed pastoral scene centred by a windmill by Richard Sibley, London 1844, estimate £400-500.

4.Victorian Golden Jubilee pot set with the coins of the realm for 1887 by Hilliard and Thomason, Birmingham 1888, estimate £250-300.

5.George III drum form pot with fret-pierced sides and a domed lion mask to the cover by Burridge Davenport, London 1772, estimate £200-250.

6.George III vase form pot with pierced and engraved decoration and a rising cover with an urn-shaped finial by John Lambe, London 1785, estimate £200-250.

7.George III pot with domed cover, fret-pierced sides and trefoil thumbpiece by Charles Aldridge and Henry Green, London 1768, estimate £150-200.

8.George IV baluster form pot with chased vertical strips of floral scrolls and cast shell thumbpiece by Charles Price, London 1825, estimate £250-300.

9.Victorian novelty long-eared owl pot by Edward Charles Brown, London 1872, together with an unmarked, mouse terminal spoon, estimate £600-800.

10.George III pot resembling a miniature tea caddy with incurved corners and bright-engraved decoration by Edward Cooper, London, 1797, estimate £200-250.

11.Victorian novelty in the form of a drum by Charles Thomas and George Fox, London 1855, estimate £400-600.

 

 

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