Before the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s put men in factories and made them primary wage earner of the family, women had more latitude in their mode of earning a living — and gaining fame.
But even then, the most successful women were often widows who carried on the family business rather than women who began a thriving business for themselves. However, regardless of the name on the door, during the 18th century most small businesses were actually "mom and pop" ventures, so when a woman was widowed, she was highly trained and was, in many cases, the brains or the talent of the enterprise.
The same was true for female silversmiths. Notable and talented women such as Hester Bateman, Rebecca Eames, Louisa Courtauld and Jane Williams continued the businesses their husbands began, in many cases far exceeding their partner's fame and success. Unfortunately, even today, the accomplishments of these extraordinary women have taken a back seat to those of the men in their lives.
Hester Bateman was a model product of these times. The combination of her dominant personality and talent for business as well as a gift for emphasizing the simplistic, elegant forms of her craft, made her one of the most famed of the Georgian silversmiths.
Beginning of a Legacy
Hester Bateman was born the youngest of five children in London in 1708. There is no record of her childhood. All relevant documents of her trade are signed with the "cross of the illiterate," indicating that she received little or no formal education.
It is believed that it was her older brother John who introduced her to her husband John Bateman (1704-1760). Despite poor finances, he and Hester married at The Fleet, where many legal yet hasty marriages were contrived for the price of a dram (1/16 of an ounce) of gin or a roll of tobacco by priests imprisoned for debt. They were later married in a church ceremony at the Church of St. Botolph, Aldersgate in 1732.
John Bateman is described in many London records as a Gold Chain Maker, Watch Chain Maker, Wire Drawer, Goldsmith and Silversmith. There are no records of his ever taking an apprenticeship in any of these trades, nor are there any records of his attaining his freedom from any of the Companies of London. Between the 1730s and 40s, London law required all men working under their own account to obtain their Freedom (right of passage from apprentice to artisan) from one of the Companies of the specific craft studied. It is likely he did contract work out of his home for master-men in all of these areas, but was never fully trained in any of them. It was by assisting her husband on these smaller pieces that Hester would learn to use the tools of the silversmith's trade.
As her skill as a silversmith emerged, and grew, so did her family. John and Hester moved their growing family to 107 Bunhill Row in the county of Middlesex where they devoted an entire work area to the family business. After enjoying much prosperity, John died of tuberculosis in 1760. In his will, he bequeathed to Hester the tools of his trade and the entire business— opening the doors for a new era for the House of Bateman.
Hester registered her first of nine punch-marks with the Goldsmith's Hall in 1761. From 1761 to 1774, there exist few examples of Bateman silver because almost all of the output of the Bateman workshop was commissioned by other silversmiths who recognized her talent and skill, which in many cases equaled and often surpassed their own. She often placed her punch-mark on many of these pieces. Concerned for their own reputations, other smiths would over-stamp her punch-mark with their own— a practice that continued even after Hester had established herself as a mastersmith.
A Style All Her Own
The style of Hester Bateman's wares truly shows her innovative and daring qualities as a silversmith. She chose austere, elegant forms that emphasized the importance of line and classical taste rather than the highly ornamental designs of the then-popular rococo style. Her signature decoration of thin-line beading was perfect for accentuating the elements that she held to be fundamental to her craft. Also, the simplistic forms she chose allowed her to create domestic silver pieces for England's rising middle class. She made a virtue of lowering her cost without sacrificing quality, allowing her to successfully compete with the popularity of Sheffield plate and spread the enjoyment of silver far beyond the world of Church and nobility.
It is clear to see the progression of skill in Hester's work over the 30-year period that she owned and operated the Bateman workshops. Her early work shows her talent in the design of flatware, which consisted mainly of spoons. Later, she turned to creating small domestic pieces such as salts and cream jugs. The emergence of tea as a national beverage and social institution meant a demand for serving sets and attendant pieces. Hester excelled in the creation of these wares which included sugar bowls, tea urns, trays, salvers and dishes.
By the 1780s, Bateman silver was in high demand. Orders for domestic, civic and ecclesiastical pieces came from as far away as the city of Kingston. Production expanded to a small number of domestic pieces such as medallions, snuff boxes and seals. Various companies such as the Needle makers, Coopers and Grocers commissioned such items as covered cups, coffee urns and large sets of flatware. Pieces of Bateman silver can still be found in the parish churches of England, the most important of these being the vergers' wands still in use in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
It would have been an arduous task for one person alone, even of Hester's strong character, to produce the amount of work that came from the Bateman workshop between 1760 to 1791, the year she retired. Her sons John, Peter, William and Jonathan were talented silversmiths in their own right. They along with her apprentice John Linney and Jonathan's wife Ann (who came from a long line of Huguenot silversmiths), worked under Hester's careful supervision and tutelage, creating an estimated 11,000 pieces over the 30-year period.
Hester retired in 1791 at the age of 82. She completely severed any ties to the family business and moved to St. Andrew's in Holborn with her recently widowed daughter of Letticia Clarke. Hester died three years later on September 26, 1794.
The Bateman legacy still lives on in the collections of antique collectors, enthusiasts and museums that display her remarkable work. Hester's exquisite pieces continue to awe even the most avid collector. Her attention to detail, simplicity of form, and timeless taste make Hester Bateman truly the Queen of the Georgian Silversmiths.