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Candlestick, one of a pair

1774-1775
Origin: England, Sheffield
OH: 11 11/16"; OW (base): 5"
Silver (Sterling); resin; green broadcloth
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1969-246,1A&B
Label:These neoclassical candlesticks are from an original set of six and are part of an impressive group of silver acquired by John Parke Custis and his wife, Eleanor Calvert, shortly after their marriage in 1774. He was born at White House, New Kent County, not far from Williamsburg. When he came of age, he inherited this and other properties in and about Williamsburg. His widowed mother, Martha Custis, married George Washington in 1759, and he was raised as a boy at Mt. Vernon. Serving as an aide to Washington, he contracted camp fever at Yorktown and died in 1781. His silver, listed before his death, amounted to 762 oz. 18 dwt. The other four candlesticks of the set are at Mount Vernon, on loan by descendants.

These were not made in the traditional manner with relief decoration chased with hammer-driven punches. Rather, they are assembled of parts stamped out by steel dies. The development of the die stamping industry in Sheffield made it the principal center in England for the production of candlesticks in the neoclassical taste. Die-stamping greatly lowered the cost of candlesticks and other items with overall raised decoration. The parts could be stamped out of a relatively thin gauge of silver, and the whole, as in this instance, strengthened and weighted by loading the interior with resinous material.

John Winter & Co., the principal firm in the Sheffield candlestick trade, wholesaled much of its production to London retailers. Before the establishment of an assay office in Sheffield, silver had to be sent to London or another assay office for marking. That was a convenient arrangement for London silversmiths, such as John Carter--a specialist maker of candlesticks himself, who depended on supplementing his own wares with those from Sheffield. He and other London silversmiths testified before committee hearings in the House of Commons against granting an assay office to Sheffield. It was established in 1773, however, and given its own distinctive marks. Thereafter many Sheffield candlesticks, such as these, were overstruck by John Carter, the principal figure in this practice, and a cooperative London hall.

Predicated on the free use of a variety of classical forms and detail, with little attention to classical precedent for their overall scheme, these candlesticks exemplify contemporary neoclassical treatment. The main section of the stem is actually not a classical tripod, since an additional leg has been added for the convenience of the design. This free use of classical elements was reinforced by the commercial nature of the production of such candlesticks. When one examines other candlesticks and trade catalogs of the period, one can readily see that these and other factory-made candlesticks, both sterling and plated, are often random combinations of interchangeable sockets, stems, and bases.

These candlesticks, as well as some of the other Custis plate, further document the use of neoclassical silver in Virginia before the Revolution (see CWF accession 1945-5).

A pair of identical candlesticks of 1774/75 with the maker’s mark of George Ashforth & Co. of Sheffield is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. A pair of candlesticks of this pattern in fused silverplate is at Temple Newsam House, Leeds.
Provenance:John Parke Custis (1755-1781) and his wife, Eleanor Calvert (1758-1811); their son, George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857) and his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh (1768-1853); their daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis (1808-1873) and her husband, General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870); their son, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee (1837-1891), and his wife, Mary Tabb Bolling (b. 1850); their son, Robert E. Lee III, and his wife, Mary Memminger; their nephew and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Beverly Middleton; and James C. Barrett (sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 1969).
Mark(s):Maker's mark on bezel of each removable nozzle (partially obliterated by filing); retailer's mark and London hallmarks overstruck on Sheffield hallmarks on edge of each base; retailer's mark and London lion passant overstruck on that of Sheffield on bezel of each nozzle.
Inscription(s):Crest of the Custis family of Virginia engraved on each base and nozzle.