Philippa Glanville introduces her research into the collection of silver plate in the Portland Collection, particularly that collected by the 3rd Duke of Portland, whose appetite for food and drink was matched only by his discriminating love of silver – designed for entertaining on the grandest scale.
Much of the silver that she describes is displayed in the exhibition ‘Unseen Treasures from the Portland Collection’.
When, in 1762, William Cavendish-Bentinck inherited the dukedom of Portland from his father, the 2nd Duke, he was only 24, but he was already known as a gourmet and was struggling with an inheritance of gout. Described by Horace Walpole as a ‘proud though bashful man’, he was acutely conscious of family history and his public duties. In 1800, for example, The Times reported on the lavish entertainment he provided for the exiled heir to the French throne, ‘in a stile of magnificence, which his Royal Highness declares was never exceeded in the most splendid days of the French monarchy’. All these elements of his life – his pride in his family, sense of the responsibilities of his station and love of food and drink – are reflected in his collection of plate.
The young Duke, having already exceeded his allowance on his Grand Tour, inherited family debts as well as a sense of rank. He was at odds with his mother, the strong-minded Margaret Cavendish-Harley, who refused to vacate either the family’s London house in Whitehall or its country house at Bulstrode in Buckinghamshire. She even claimed half the Duke’s income and the game from Welbeck Abbey.
Luckily, the Duke’s marriage on November 8, 1766, to the 16-year-old Lady Dorothy Cavendish, only daughter of the 4th Duke of Devonshire, brought an offer from his brother-in-law to live at Burlington House, in Piccadilly. Here he lived and entertained in great, if borrowed, splendour.
An inventory taken of Burlington House in May 1807 reveals that three-fifths of the Duke’s total 27,000oz of silver comprised dishes for first and second courses, casseroles, tureens and 10 dozen plates as well as soup plates and cutlery. At the time the minimum requirement for serving a table of 24 was 144 silver plates. His gilded dessert service included 24 fruit dishes weighing an astonishing 587oz.
At his several households, the Duke had to maintain a hierarchy among his servants; eating and drinking with silver was part of their expectations. At Burlington House, the upper servants ate in the Steward’s Room, with a choice of up to 10 dishes a day. They drank port from nine ‘silver drinking cups’, and had the use of silver condiment vases and salts, salvers, 12 tablespoons and a soup ladle. Silver teaspoons, strainer and tongs, but only a single tablespoon, marked with a crowned P, were issued to the Housekeeper’s Room, where the housemaids ate dessert and drank tea after dinner, with a more modest provision at Bulstrode. In the Servants’ Hall at Burlington House, where a smaller choice and less refined food was provided, the flatware was plated and the servants’ drinking vessels were made of horn or pewter.
Many candlesticks, candelabra and coffee wares were in the care of the Duke’s Groom of the Chambers. Silver firedogs, the spectacular buffet pieces and two mysterious ‘Silver Mounted Cases for Wine Bottles’, made up the rest of the Duke’s silver. Missing from the Burlington House 1807 inventory, and probably at Welbeck, which the Duke had handed over to his son in 1795, was the late-Stuart chased toilet service and rare ornamental vases for a cabinet that had been passed down from Hans Willem Bentinck’s first marriage, to Anne Villiers, Lady-in-waiting to the future Queen Mary, in February 1679.
Public days, at which hospitality was offered twice a week to the local gentry in the late summer and autumn, were an ancient custom at great houses. At Welbeck, this tradition was maintained until the Napoleonic Wars, with sometimes up to 50 local gentry attending. In August 1790, William Gould the steward wrote that ’52 with the family sat down to dinner, the dinner was very much praised.’ Celebrations for the coming of age of the Duke’s sons, held at Welbeck in 1789 and 1795 (without the Duke), also demanded old family plate; punch was served from the 1682 wine cistern, and to the Steward’s disgust, ‘people got drunk and made and many stayed till next morning’.”