For well over 250 years Paul de Lamerie has been universally considered not only one of the most important English goldsmiths, but among the most important English craftsmen of all time. His extraordinary works range from the elegant simplicity of the Queen Anne style to the elaborate rococo style for which he is most remembered. It was de Lamerie who was one of the first to incorporate French rococo design with English silver, raising his art to a standard that had never before been seen, nor since duplicated.
De Lamerie was born in the Netherlands, where his Huguenot parents had fled from France to avoid religious persecution. The Edict of Nantes, a proclamation by Henri IV in 1598 protecting the religious liberties of the Huguenots (French Clavinist Protestants), was revoked in 1685 by Louis XIV and resulted in more than 400,000 Protestants fleeing to England, Prussia, Holland and America.
Many of these Huguenots were expert craftsmen and this exodus spread their enormous talent throughout Europe and America. While in the Netherlands, de Lamerie's father served in the militia of William of Orange, who was later to become King of England. Shortly after their son's birth, the de Lamerie family moved to London settling in the Huguenot refugee community of Soho.
At the age of 15, de Lamerie was apprenticed to a well-known Huguenot craftsman, Pierre Platel (Paul Plattell). De Lamerie's teacher created some of the most exceptional pieces of the time, including a magnificent silver service for George, Prince of Wales )later to become King George II). Platel proved to be a formidable mentor, providing his young apprentice with a thorough understanding and appreciation of the art of silversmithing. De Lamerie possessed a natural talent for the trade, and his skill quickly surpassed even that of his teacher.
An Independent Streak
Despite his enormous talent, de Lamerie possessed a strong independent streak, often sidestepping or altogether ignoring the laws that governed his trade. It was a trait that earned both dismay and respect from his peers as well as his patrons. He became a freeman of the Goldsmith's Company in 1712 registering his first of five marks, two of which were never officially recorded. Why he failed to register these marks is debatable, but it was the first sign of the lack of regard for the Company.
This wasn't the only Guild regulation the young de Lamerie so nonchalantly ignored. According to the minutes recorded by the Company, his early career is peppered with numerous complaints from fellow members, the first in July 1714 when he was fined £20 for not having his work hallmarked.
Other recorded indiscretions included passing off the work of other smiths as pieces of his own, most likely Huguenots who were not yet free of the Goldsmith's Company or who did not have registered marks. It is almost certain that de Lamerie profited handsomely for this service. He was not only a talented silversmith, but also a shrewd businessman.
In 1717 de Lamerie was reprimanded for selling pieces that had not been assayed or marked. Before issuing a punishment for the rogue smith, Guild officials became aware that he was working on a large quantity of spoons. Certain his intentions were to skirt the law, they deferred action against de Lamerie and waited to see if he would, indeed, bring his work in to be marked. Fortunately for de Lamerie, he received word of the sting operations and sent all of his pieces in for marking. Therefore, no further action was taken. Despite his brushes with the Guild authorities, there could be no denying this smith's popularity and success.
It was during the same year that de Lamerie married a woman named Louisa Juillot, also of Huguenot ancestry. This marked the commencement of a successful career for the young craftsman. During their life together, his wife gave birth to six children, three of whom died in infancy.
From 1715 to 1749, de Lamerie employed 13 apprentices in his prosperous workshop, many assisting in the creation of some of the most exquisite silver works England had ever seen. Like all successful smiths of the Georgian period, a majority of the pieces that bear the hallmark of Paul de Lamerie are not those of a single man, but rather those of a team of craftsmen whose standards reached unrivaled excellence. De Lamerie imposed his technical brilliance and innovation upon his craftsmen who flawlessly carried out his vision.
In addition to his workshop, de Lamerie also operated a retail business that included the sale of jewelry and silver under the popular trade name of The Golden Ball. His thriving business soon earned him enormous respect among his colleagues and, despite repeated violations of the Goldsmith's Company regulations, de Lamerie was admitted into the Livery of the Company in 1717, the very same year he was admonished for not marking his wares.
As word of de Lamerie's skills spread, he began supplying orders to the Russian Imperial Court, English nobility and upper class. By 1723, his esteemed clientele included Sir William Trumbull, Lord Foley, the Countess of Berkeley, Viscount Tyrconnel, Lord Gower, the Earl of Bristol and the Duke of Bedford. His most influential client was Parliamentarian Sir Robert Walpole, who served as the first Prime Minister, leader of the House of Commons, First Lord of the Treasury, and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Although the title was never official, de Lamerie was often referred to as "the King's Silversmith.
The 1730s proved to be opportune for de Lamerie. Previously, silversmiths had mainly relied on production results rather than expressing individuality in their craft. The highly decorative pieces produced by de Lamerie soon changed the course of the art of silver decoration. A quote from his obituary in the London Evening Post states that de Lamerie was "particularly famous in making fine ornamental Plate, and has been very instrumental in bringing that Branch of Trade to the perfection it is now in."
Highly decorative silver wares were engraved, chased, repousséd and applied with natural motifs of sea monsters, asymmetrical cartouches, shells, marine plants, and figures. In 1732, after entering his fourth known mark (and second official mark), de Lamerie began using the lower British sterling standard that had been approved by the Company in 1720. Until then, he had worked entirely in the more pure Britannia standard, yet the sterling standard proved to be more conducive to his expertly modeled rococo ornamentation.
Moving Up in the Ranks
De Lamerie continued to move up in the ranks of the Goldsmith's Company during this time and in 1731 he was chosen to be an assistant. Notwithstanding his irreverent history with the guild, once he obtained membership on the court of the Hall, he garnered a great deal of respect. The Company minutes even record an instance when members literally begged the craftsman to view and assist in making a final decision for a new stove grate and fireplace tools to be placed in the Hall's parlor.
By now, de Lamerie had become a man of considerable means, buying parcels of land and lending money on mortgages. IN 1737, he was appointed to serve as a trade member on a "Special Committee for the Parliament Business" which was assigned to prepare a petition and bill designed to prevent fraud in the manufacturing of gold and silver wares, quite ironic when one considers de Lamerie's history of disregard for the authority of the company.
Despite this prestigious appointment, within that very same year, de Lamerie supplied a "duty dodger" ewer to Lord Hardwicke, the Chief Justice. Cognizant of his own situation, de Lamerie vigorously opposed a clause in the petition that would have granted the Goldsmith's Company officials the right to search the workshops of its members. His strong opposition led to the clause being removed from the petition. After this small victory, de Lamerie failed to show for any other committee meetings until the signing of the final report, which became the Plate Offences Act of 1738/9.
The Goldsmith's Company elected de Lamerie to the position of Fourth Warden of the Company in 1743, Third Warden in 1746 and Second Warden the following year. This rapid succession within the ranks of the Company was very uncommon and quite an honor. The only thing that prevented de Lamerie from becoming Prime Warden of the Company was his ill health.
It is often stated that Paul de Lamerie is the only 18th century silversmith remembered by name rather than just by his craft. Distinguished among his peers and heralded by noblemen, royalty and middle class patrons, his mark on the production and craft of English silver is eternal. Without question, de Lamerie produced the finest English rococo silver ever created. After what his will described as a "long and tedious" illness, de Lamerie died on August 1, 1751.
Today de Lamerie's pieces rank among the most extraordinary and recognized pieces of any silver collection. Generally, his works are some of the most expensive pieces on the market today, as they are unsurpassed in quality and craftsmanship. De Lamerie's exquisite silver wares are prized possessions of several museums and decorative art collections including London's Victoria & Albert Museum, the Royal Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh), London Goldsmith's Company, the Art Institute of Chicago and The Frick Collection in New York.