The manipulation of precious metals has been a craft passed down through centuries. Even as early as the seventh century B.C.E., silver and gold were used to create intricate objects of decoration, prestige or religious ritual. As economies developed in the Middle Ages, metallurgy — and silversmithing in particular — took off as a craft. Silver and other metal pieces were indicators of wealth and status, and the artisans behind these pieces were an integral part of early modern society. During the seventeenth century, silver demand reached a high, forcing silversmiths to increase their output. Guilds of silversmiths were developed in order to protect the trade and ensure the quality of products.
Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts
These guilds, however, were incredibly protective of the trade, and they attempted to limit women from entering the craft. For this reason, very few women were accepted into the world of metallurgy. Only in certain circumstances could women be accepted into the craft. Even the few women supplying silver goods were often not recognized, and their makers’ marks were stamped over with those of men. Because of these barriers, most women that were able to enter into silversmithing were already related somehow to the trade either by marriage or birth. Still, the women who were accepted into the industry were incredibly talented and truly left a mark on history. Read on to learn some of their stories.
Having married into a family of metallurgists, Hester Bateman took up the craft following the death of her husband, silversmith John Bateman. Hester, as a woman living in the 18th century, would not have been welcomed to practice metallurgy of any kind under typical circumstances. However, because she was able to apprentice informally under her husband, she had amassed a great amount of skill in the trade by the time of his death. In 1761, Bateman registered with the Goldsmith Hall, officially inducting her into the guild of silver workers.
Each of her works is stamped with a delicate “HB,” and her output is characterized by intricate beading and bright-cut engraving. The Bateman family continued working in silver for the next century, and their pieces are recognized for their exceptional quality. Today, Hester Bateman is recognized as one of the visionaries of Georgian silver.
Ann Olympe-Bateman was another female silversmith to marry into the Bateman silver dynasty. She registered her first mark in 1791 after her husband died. In collaboration with her brother-in-law, Peter Bateman, she crafted fine pieces of silver in the Neoclassical style. Once her son came of age, he too joined the family craft, and thus, the Batemans left a lasting legacy on the silver world. The Batemans were registered in the London Goldsmith’s Hall, thus sealing their place in history.
Although very little is known about her, Rebecca Emes broke into the world of silversmithing during the 19th century. Married to engraver and painter John Emes, Rebecca began working with her husband in the London firm of Thomas Chawner and his son Henry. Although the company specialized in silver tea and coffee services, Emes herself is known for her household silverware. In 1808, following her husband’s death, Rebecca Emes partnered with the younger Chawner and foreman, Edward Barnard. The firm was now known as Rebecca Emes & Edward Barnard, which saw a boom in production under her guidance.
Daughter of the esteemed English gold and silversmith, Simon Pantin, Elizabeth Godfrey was likely trained in her father’s workshop. This familial background introduced Godfrey to the craft from an early age, and her exposure to silversmithing continued through marriage. In 1720 she married her first husband, silversmith Abraham Buteaux. Buteaux died several years after the marriage, leaving Elizabeth to run the business independently. Armed with her own knowledge and her husband’s name, Godfrey kept the firm running after his death. Elizabeth married again to another silversmith, Benjamin Godfrey, who also died tragically, once again leaving her on her own. In this solo period, Elizabeth’s firm grew in popularity, specializing in Rococo-style pieces. She was so successful, in fact, that many noble families purchased from her. Thus, Godfrey’s familial and marital ties provided her a springboard into the world of silversmithing, and she was able to showcase her immense talent.
National Museum for Women in the Arts
In the mid-18th century, an important silversmith partnership emerged — that of Ann Craig and John Neville. This partnership is historically significant in that, of the thousands of English silversmiths that have existed, only an estimated 63 of those were women. Of that scant number, there are even fewer that maintained a business relationship with a male partner that was not blood-related. Craig became a widow in 1735, and shortly after, she registered her own mark, which allowed her partnership with Neville. The significance of this partnership cannot be overstated; virtually no women of the day conducted business with an unrelated man. The partnership spawned numerous fine works of silver, and their pieces were often purchased by prominent members of the Catholic Church. Today, Craig’s works in silver are still considered some of the highest quality.
Overall, women were typically barred from the trade without ties of blood or marriage. Within these family bonds, however, some women were given an opportunity to apprentice in the trade, eventually leading to them operating their own firms. Those who were able to practice silversmithing produced pieces of exceptional quality and magnificent skill — often surpassing their husbands’ talents. The names of Hester Bateman and Elizabeth Godfrey still ring familiar to silver-admirers, and their works are recognized today for their outstanding quality and artistry.