As the Industrial Revolution burst into life during the 18th century, a new professional class emerged, marking the birth of the middle class. Success for members of this social group was accompanied by a desire to give expression to their new wealth and position in society.
In the 18th century they were often referred to as the ‘middling sort’ and among this diverse group were a number of lady entrepreneurs. It took the intuition of one particular lady to notice the potential demand from this emerging professional class for aspirational silver; her name was Hester Bateman. (1708-1794). Hester was the mother of six children. In 1760 her husband, John Bateman, a maker of gold chains, died of tuberculosis, leaving her his tools in his will. Hester took over the family business and began to make silver objects. In 1761 she registered her first maker’s hallmark, an ‘HB’ in script, with Goldsmiths Hall in London. By the mid-1770s she had significantly expanded her family firm. Bateman pieces were often pierced and punched from thin gauge silver sheets using machines. Industrial manufacturing techniques allowed the firm to compete with those making Sheffield Plate pieces.
The finest silver in the mid-18th century set fashions and tastes. Regular readers of this column will remember the part played by the Chelsea porcelain manufactory in establishing the rococo taste in England. Chelsea founder Nicholas Sprimont (1716-1771) was born in Liège and apprenticed as silversmith to his uncle Nicholas Joseph Sprimont. He came to England in 1742 and worked as a silversmith until he established the Chelsea factory in 1745. His work as a silversmith is of the highest quality and today examples are to be found in The Royal Collection. He worked in silver for such a short time that his silver objects are rare. Take, for example, this set of three George II silver graduated tea caddies or condiment vases and covers by Nicholas Sprimont. Each cover has a tapering, foliate knop finial above a fluted, undulating rim. The pentagonal lobed bodies have oval guilloche borders above later-engraved crests, inscribed ‘Feroci Fortior’. The reeded, tapering bases are raised on spiral-fluted, undulating pentagonal feet. Hallmarked in London in 1743, they measure between 15cm and 14cm high and sold in a Toovey’s specialist silver auction for £7600.
For the emerging professional class, objects as fine as these Nicholas Sprimont caddies were out of reach. Hester Bateman and her sons, Peter and Jonathan, expanded their range to include items like sweetmeat baskets, jugs, tea caddies, salvers and salt cellars in the neoclassical style. In addition, they continued to produce silver tableware. The silver sweetmeat basket shown here, which realised £550 at Toovey’s, illustrates the characteristic bright-cut engraving and beaded decoration so typical of their output.
Hester Bateman retired in 1790 but the business continued under the direction of her sons and family. She died on 16th September 1794. Her work and achievements are applauded by silver collectors and social historians alike. As a true 18th century manufacturing entrepreneur of the Industrial Revolution, Hester Bateman challenges our contemporary perceptions of women’s place in Georgian society and deserves to be celebrated.
Today, English silver has become one of the boom markets at Toovey’s with interest from collectors throughout Britain and the rest of the world, including the newly emerging professional class of China. Hester Bateman pieces are particularly popular with collectors in America.