Author’s note: at last I’m posting the full text of my recent article in Piedmont Virginian magazine–you know, the one about a silver cup found in a Virginia barn. For the full article, check out the Winter 2014 issue of Piedmont Virginian magazine at http://thepiedmontonline.com/
“Could you help me with an item we found when we purchased our home? We found this in the bottom of an old trunk left in one of the barns on our property. Our curiosity is piqued and we are wondering if this may be of any historical value, or simply a conversation piece.”
Both! Even if this lovely lidded cup had no special provenance, the mere fact of finding it would make a wonderful dinner party story. But it has a charming and romantic history that begins more than a century before your discovery. Add to that the fact that it is solid sterling and has survived in nearly pristine condition, and you’ll be dining out on this tale for years.
First, what is it? The small scale helps identify it as a piece designed for a child and indeed, this is a fine Victorian example of a covered, double-handled porringer (porridge bowl), boxed and presented with a silver spoon to commemorate a child’s baptism. The form is also known as a christening cup for this reason.
Antique silver has a language all its own, and in this case that language speaks volumes. Three separate inscriptions—on the front, back and underside of the bowl—tell us that Princess Victoria of Prussia presented this gift to her godson in 1887 on the occasion of his baptism. Hallmarks on the lid and bowl confirm the dating and identify the English silversmith (see sidebar).
Princess Victoria (1840-1901) was the daughter, wife and mother of emperors. As the eldest child of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, she was known as HRH The Princess Royal. As the wife of the Kaiser, she became known as Empress of Germany and Queen of Prussia. To her family, their lively precocious daughter was known simply as Vicky.
Her marriage to Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia in 1858 was both a dynastic alliance and a love match. What’s more, it was the original celebrity wedding. Much of what today we consider essential wedding elements—from Mendelsohn’s march to rows of bridesmaids in matching gowns—originated with the wedding of Princess Victoria. Paintings and prints of the spectacle circulated throughout Europe and across the British Empire, and were enthusiastically studied by American royal watchers, who quickly adopted white as the only suitable color for a wedding gown (before that, most American women were simply married in the best dress they owned, whatever the color).
At the time your porringer was created in 1887, Princess Victoria was on the edge of great change. Just six months later, her husband ascended the throne as Emperor Friedrich III. Already terminally ill with throat cancer, Friedrich reigned only three months, and died on June 15, 1888. Like her mother, the Queen of England, Princess Victoria dressed in mourning for the rest of her life. She died at Castle Friedrichshof on August 5, 1901.
To have found such a treasure is exciting enough, but this Victorian porringer has a local history that makes the discovery even more special. The inscription goes on to tell us that it was presented to the infant Victor Montgomerie, first child in a line of distinguished British naval officers with ties both to the crown and to the rising class of knighted tradesmen. His descendents, playboys and horsebreeders, settled in Virginia in the 1940s and 50s. This silver heirloom must have crossed the ocean with them and been passed down through the family, before being lost and forgotten in the shuffle from estate to estate, through births, deaths, marriages and divorces. How lucky for you and for history, that you found it.
Who knows what other Treasures of the Piedmont are waiting to be rediscovered?
Sidebar: What is it? What makes it special? How do you know?
The lidded, double-handled cup is a variation on the child’s porringer or porridge bowl. Rare in America, in Britain the form enjoyed a revival during Victoria’s reign. Because it was traditionally presented to mark the birth or baptism of an aristocratic child, the form is commonly known as a christening cup. As in this case, the gift often included an engraved sterling spoon, a tradition which probably gives us the expression, “born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
A quick look at the cup’s various hallmarks confirms its noble origins. The royal crest and extensive inscription identify it as a gift from Princess Victoria of Prussia to her godson at the time of his christening in 1887. Approximately five inches high and six inches across, the footed bowl has two delicately scrolled handles and finely worked gadrooning (that delicate, swirling pattern on the body and lid). No fewer than five hallmarks help to identify the sterling silver bowl as the work of English silversmith Henry Stratford of Sheffield, and confirm the dating to 1887.
Discovered in near perfect condition along with a sterling silver spoon in the original satin-lined presentation gift box, this royal christening cup is a valuable find. Stateside, Victorian and Edwardian christening cups commonly sell at auction for $1,000-2,000. In the United Kingdom prices are higher, and a royal provenance can send results skyward. In 2006, Christie’s sold a christening cup presented by Princess Victoria’s younger sister to her godson, the Duke of Gloucester, for a record $21,336.
About the author:
As a child, Kirsten Dueck dreamed of becoming a detective. In college she set her sights on art history and antiques, a path that lead to a career at Sotheby’s. Today, the owner of Tangible Good Appraisal + Advice indulges both passions, helping families and collectors discover the value of their property. She lives in Warrenton, Virginia with her family. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your own Treasures of the Piedmont, or visit http://www.tangiblegood.wordpress.com .