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Silver lining to Sun King's stormy reign; How Louis XIV's rule forced an exodus of skilled Huguenot craftsmen... and sparked a massive leap forward in quality of British silversmithing.

ICAN'T tell you how much we're enjoying Versailles on the telly, if only for to marvel at the excesses of it all of it. In the last episode we saw, the period drama had reached a watershed moment.

King Louis XIV (1638-1715), aka the Sun King, has secretly wed his mistress, the Marquise de Maintenon; rid himself of the Man in the Iron Mask, his real father (or so this BBC version of history has it) and kicked out all the French Protestants after revoking the Edict of Nantes. It's not looking good for the French aristocracy.

The previously impoverished Francoise d'Aubigne (1635-1719) was born in a debtors' prison, but thanks to good fortune and donations from the king, she rose to purchase the Maintenon estate and become arguably the most influential woman in his life.

Whether or not the famed Man in the Mask ever existed is a matter of conjecture. History has him variously as a mysterious but evidently important prisoner of war; the king's older twin brother and therefore first in line to the throne; Louis' illegitimate son; simply a political activist or, as the BBC has it, a former lover of Louis' mother, Anne of Austria, who bore him a son.

It may be true, in which case Louis was illegitimate and not the heir.

Much more interesting, from a collector's point of view at least, is the king's so-called Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, a shocking turn of events in 1685 that forced "heretic" Calvinist Protestant (also called Huguenot) families to flee France or else convert to Catholicism.

The edict had effectively protected the Protestants from persecution since Louis' grandfather, Henry IV, introduced it in 1598, but Louis, egged on by Madame de Maintenon, both staunch Catholics, saw France return to religious strife.

Protestants fled the country, most of them settling in Britain and the Netherlands. Taking with them the creative craft skills that, ironically, Louis had employed to build and furnish his magnificent Palace of Versailles, creating the Louis style.

At a stroke, France lost many of its most skilled and hard-working individuals: silversmiths, who brought sophisticated and advanced designs adorned with elaborate relief and engraved decoration; cabinetmakers, whose skills far outshone our own; clockmakers, wig makers, hairdressers, boot and shoemakers, perfumers, jewellers, furriers and gunsmiths.

Following the austerity and blandness of the Commonwealth period, the last quarter of the 17th century in England saw a great surge in the production of rich and luxurious domestic furnishings.

Huguenot silversmith Nicholas Sprimont, who had settled in London, entered into a partnership with jeweller and fellow Huguenot Charles Gouyn in 1743 to produce fashionable porcelain for royal and aristocratic society.

Their factory was built in what was then the village of Chelsea, and their early wares were gaily-coloured domestic soft paste porcelain to appeal to an elite market. Consequently, blue and white Chelsea porcelain is rare.

Sadly, the partnership was beset by differences and in 1749 Sprimont and Gouyn quarrelled and split, Gouyn moving back to St. James's to continue his jewellery business.

However, he continued to manufacture a series of porcelain figures and animals and scent bottles and seals, which he then mounted beautifully in precious metals.

Sprimont, who suffered bouts of ill health, sold the factory to James Cox in 1769 who in turn sold out less than a year later to William Duesbury, the founder of the Derby porcelain factory.

The Chelsea factory was sold in 1784 and what small production that remained there was moved to Derby - masters of copying oriental wares, notably the ubiquitous Imari.

Another Huguenot, Paul de Lamerie (1688-1751) is today one of the most celebrated and arguably greatest of all English gold and silversmiths. A leading exponent of rococo style, his most exuberant pieces are today seen Left: A George I silver sugar caster by Pierre Platel London 1718, it sold for a staggering PS7,500 Photo Peter Wilson auctioneers, Nantwich only in museums.

De Lamerie's father, also Paul, was himself a minor aristocrat who fled to the Netherlands where he became an army officer in the service of William of Orange. His son was probably born there, but in 1689 the family left for London and by 1691 were living in Soho, the district having been taken over by other Huguenot refugees.

Though he went on to greatness, very little is known about the young Paul's progress through what was an essentially closed profession. However, records at the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London show an entry for August 6, 1703, in which he apprentices himself to a Peter Plattell (sic) "Citizen and Goldsmith of London, for the term of seven years from this day".

Platel, himself a Huguenot from an aristocratic family in Lorraine, had probably also been apprenticed in London and registered his mark at Goldsmiths' Hall in 1699.

A gifted individual, he made a silver service for the Prince of Wales, who became George II. De Lamerie probably lived with Platel and in addition to teaching the boy silversmithing skills, the master also gave him the hand of one of his daughters in marriage. The couple had two sons and four daughters.

Platel died in 1719, and de Lamerie no doubt took over his workshop and his clients. He became a Freeman in 1712 and registered his mark the same year. Less than four years later, the young man had established himself sufficiently to open a shop and workshop at the sign of the Golden Ball in Windmill Street.

In 1731, de Lamerie was honoured by being invited to join the governing body of the Goldsmiths' Company, by which time he was enjoying huge success. Commissions came from all the wealthiest European families.

He died in 1751 without an heir to pass on his business, both his sons, Paul and Daniel, dying in infancy.

By way of illustrating the kind of money pieces by de Lamerie fetch today, a George II silver-gilt cream boat with London hallmarks for 1736 and weighing 230 grams, a smidgen over seven ounces, and measuring just 41/2inches, sold at Sotheby's in New York for $57,000, or PS43,440 at today's rates.

This is somewhat out of my reach. However, by chance, I found a pretty little George I silver sugar caster, which is illustrated here, hallmarked for London 1718, estimated at PS700-900. It sold for PS7,500. Why? Because it was made by de Lamerie's master, mentor and father-in-law, Pierre Platel.
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Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 11, 2018
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