article # 106



by Rod Elser and Jane Carroll
(click on photos to enlarge image)

(part 1)

The Victoria and Albert Museum -or just the "V&A" as it is more commonly known- is located on Cromwell Road in London and was established in 1852. It started as the Museum of Manufactures but was soon renamed the South Kensington Museum. Over the next few decades its collections expanded rapidly so that by the end of the century a new building was designed and built. Queen Victoria laid the cornerstone in 1899 and because of the generous support she and Prince Albert had provided over the years, the museum was renamed again and became the Victoria and Albert Museum. It has continued to grow and it now houses over 5 million objects spread over nearly 8 miles of galleries.
As we approached the side entrance to the museum we were visibly reminded of what London suffered during the "Blitz" by a sign on the wall noting the damage the building sustained during the 1940 bombings -as evidenced by the many fist-sized pock marks in the walls- has been intentionally left unrepaired. Once inside we were pleasantly surprised to note that their policy allowed still photographs (without the use of tripod equipment); the challenge then became to locate the open salts among the millions of pieces and miles and miles of galleries. While I’m certain we failed to find all that were on display, we did sleuth out at least three dozen, mostly located in the "Silver Collection" but others that were scattered among other collections of objects from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. A subsequent visit to the V&A web site found photos of other salts that were not on display and with the kind permission of the museum have been included here as well (these photos are noted with © Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
Their collection of salts spanned a period of manufacture of nearly 500 years—dating from the early 1500’s to a very contemporary silver salt made in 1979. The earliest ones clearly dated to a time when salt itself was held in much higher esteem than it is today. While not dating from the medieval period when your place at the table, whether "above or below the salt", was indicative of your social status (I’m fairly certain my ancestors at this point in time were either busy cleaning the stables or out plowing the fields), these "standing salts" still showed the symbolic importance of salt. Even the later ones from the 19th century, however, when salt was no longer such a treasured commodity, show a level of craftsmanship befitting the historical significance of salt.
The descriptions noted are those provided by the museum with only minor edits. Where dimensions were given they have been noted here as well. For lack of a better methodology, the salts have been organized by age. Obviously we are very appreciative of the V&A’s policy on photography so we can share these open salts with fellow collectors and we would certainly encourage anyone visiting London to view these items in person as well as the many other lovely items in the museum’s collections.
The Burghley Nef open salt
Nautilus shell with parcel-gilt silver mounts, raised, chased, engraved and cast, and pearls; 1527-28; Paris, France; H 35.2 cm., W 20.3 cm.
Medieval manuscript illuminations from as early as the 14th century show similar nefs acting as lavish and public status symbols on the dining table, often marking the place of the host or honored guest. Nefs were particularly prized in France and Italy, where noble and royal inventories from dating back to the 13th century list copious silver and gol d ships, but their appeal was more widespread, reaching Germany, Spain and the Low Co untries.
The Burghley nef would probably have been specially commissioned, but it is clear from contemporary depictions of goldsmiths’ shops that smaller, less elaborate nefs were part of the medieval goldsmith’s stock-in-trade.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Burghley Nef open salt © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver-gilt salt: Italy, c. 1530
Silver-gilt salt
unmarked; Italy, c. 1530. H 5.00 cm., L 8.20 cm., W 8.00 cm.
This four-sided salt cellar is supported by lion’s feet. The decoration of this exquisite salt cellar is inspired by architectural and ornamental motifs from the classical world, copying Greek and Roman sculptural friezes with female figures dancing and playing musical instruments.

Salt or spice-stand
silver-gilt, raised, chased, embossed, cast and matted; about 1540; possibly Córdoba, Spain; H 7.00 cm., L 21.05 cm., W 21.05 cm.
This triangular vessel from Spain, similar in form to small salt cellars, may have been used as a spice dish. The decoration is inspired by motifs found on classical antiques and architecture, such as the scroll-shaped feet, the three supporting figures in the shape of grotesque females and the reliefs around the sides depicting cherubs fighting dragons. The dragons have been based on images in bestiaries, books about the behavior of animals, which were used by Renaissance artists as sources for design.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Salt or spice-stand: possibly Córdoba, Spain about 1540 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Ecclesiastical salt 1550-1600: possibly Toledo or Cuenca, Spain, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Ecclesiastical salt
silver gilt; 1550-1600; possibly Toledo or Cuenca, Spain; H 9.00 cm., L 13.00 cm.
This hexagonal receptacle contained consecrated salt for purifying holy water. Holy water is used for ceremonies of consecration (such as Baptism), was placed in water stoups at the entrance of a church or in private homes, and was also used for healing the sick. Inside this Spanish example are six niches with figures of the Apostles with their attributes.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Silver-gilt salt
engraved; c. 1575; Memmingen, Germany; H 2.50 cm., L 9.20 cm.
Small triangular salt cellars mounted on three feet were common pieces of tableware in affluent homes in late 16th-century Germany. The cities of southern Germany dominated the goldsmiths’ craft there from the 15th to the early 19th centuries. Their goldsmiths and merchants travelled widely, the former sometimes settling in cities that promised new sources of patronage, the latter selling silver goods as far north as the Baltic Sea and as far east as Russia.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver-gilt salt, c. 1575, Memmingen, Germany, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London Silver-gilt salt, c. 1575, Memmingen, Germany, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Mostyn Salt, 1586-1587, hallmarked) London, England; © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Mostyn Salt
silver gilt, embossed, chased, punched and engraved; 1586-1587 (hallmarked); London, England; H 41.5 cm., W 19.1 cm. (including feet), D 7 ¼ in.
This type of salt cellar is known as a 'standing salt'. From the late medieval period a large ceremonial covered salt, or 'great' salt, was placed on the high table at the host's side. This distinguished the status of the diners, who sat either 'above' or 'below' the salt. Smaller salts were arranged around the tables, next to the trenchers, or plates. These are known as 'trencher' salts. Great salts were common by the mid 16th century, but were still an important part of household silver, valued as high status objects, exchanged as New Year's gifts and passed on as heirlooms. The ceremonial function of great salts ensured that they were ornamented in the very latest fashions. This example is decorated with motifs characteristic of the late Renaissance, such as strapwork, masks, flowers and fruit.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Vyvyan Salt
silver gilt, with painted and gilded glass (verre églomisé); 1592-93 (hallmarked); London, England; cover: H 23.0 cm.; standing salt: H 9 in., W 6 ¼ in., D 6 ½ in.; Weight 3.9 lbs.
This 'salt' is a large, ceremonial object which would have been placed in front of the head of the household or the guest of honor as a container for salt during a meal. The glass panels are made of verre eglomisé which is a process in which the image is painted on the reverse of the glass and backed with silver or gold foil to make it reflective. The panels are painted with images from emblem books such as Geoffrey Whitney's A Choice of Emblemes (1586) and Paradin's Devises héroïques. The designs shown on this salt include a fruiting vine around a tree, a snake in a strawberry plant and red roses with bees and spiders. Each picture was symbolic: for example, the image of the snake and the strawberry plant warned against flattery and sugared words. The glass panels are also decorated with portrait heads of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Ninus and Cyrus. A figure of Justice acts as the finial. This salt has been passed down through the Vyvyan family of Trelowarren House, Cornwall since the early 17th century.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Vyvyan Salt,  1592-93, hallmarked London, England © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver gilt salt, 1594-1595 London
Silver gilt salt
chased and engraved; hallmarked for 1594-1595; made in London by an unidentified maker with the mark ‘NR’.
Silver-gilt salt set with enamelled bosses
1600-1625; Spain; H 22.07 cm., L 10 cm.
This salt cellar can be detached into three parts, each standing on shell-shaped feet. The containers were used for salt or sugar and the top part was a sprinkler for spices. This piece suggests a reaction in early 17th century Spain against the severity of the Herreran style, influential in Spanish goldsmiths' work in the later 16th century. Although the pilaster ornament is a remnant of the earlier style, the surfaces are now covered with engraved scrolls and colorful enamel medallions with ornate patterns
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver-gilt salt set with enamelled bosses, 1600-1625, Spain, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver-gilt salt: c. 1600; Germany © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver-gilt salt
c. 1600; Germany; H 9.50 cm., L 2.30 cm.
Small triangular salt cellars mounted on three feet were common pieces of tableware in affluent homes in late 16th-century Germany. The cities of Nuremberg and Augsburg dominated the goldsmiths’ craft in Germany from the 15th to the early 19th centuries. Engraved designs for silver flowed off their printing presses into workshops across Europe
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Standing salt
silver, parcel-gilt, chased and engraved; 1624; possibly Fransoys Eeioet or Frederick Elioet; Utrecht (city), Netherlands; H 14.00 cm., L 14.00 cm., W 14.00 cm.
Ceremonial standing salt cellars were important pieces of dining silver throughout northern Europe from the 15th to the 17th centuries, a reflection of the precious status of salt. This example is decorated with bells, a gilt military figure and engraved ornament. The three holes on the upper surface suggest that some further decorative features have been lost.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Standing salt, 1624, Utrecht (city), Netherlands, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Stoke Prior Trencher Salt, 1639-1640, hallmarked London, England, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Stoke Prior Trencher Salt
silver, engraved; 1639-1640 (hallmarked); London, England; H 1.8 cm., D 6.3 cm. at foot.
The inconvenience of a central standing salt encouraged the development in the mid-16th century of sets of small plain trencher salts without covers for daily use. They were made in plain, lightweight silver such as this one but also in pewter or ceramic. Trencher salts took their name from the large piece of coarse bread or the wooden platter from which diners ate. This salt and several other pieces of domestic silver were found in 1891 by a boy chasing rabbits at Stoke Prior, near Leominster. It is a particularly interesting group as this sort of relatively simple household silver rarely survives
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Moody Standing Salt or ceremonial salt cellar
silver with repousse´ work and chasing; hallmarked for 1664-1665; probably made in London by Wolfgang Howzer for a member of the Moody family whose initials are pricked on the salt. H. 18.8 cm., W. 19 cm.
Decorative holders for salt were popular as gifts at marriage and christenings for either the couple or the child. This form of salt without a cover but with scrolled branches was popular from about 1660. It was the last common form of ceremonial salt made before the salt evolved into a centerpiece around 1700. The scroll arms are designed either to hold an embroidered cloth cover or napkin or to bear a dessert dish. They show the transition from salt to centerpiece that took place in the 17th century and the related new emphasis on the dessert course.
The Moody Standing Salt or ceremonial salt cellar: 1664-1665,  London
Kemp Salt, c. 1690
"Kemp Salt"
silver, unmarked, c. 1690.
It is engraved with the crest of Kemp of Norfolk and later the crest of Howard, Dukes of Norfolk.

Silver, parcel-gilt salt

1692; Amsterdam, Netherlands; H 6.00 cm., L 9.00 cm., W 9.00 cm.
Restrained designs for silver grew increasingly popular throughout the second half of the 17th century, possibly in reaction to the theatrical grandeur of much Baroque silver. The combination of controlled forms with pierced hearts and scrolls, punched surfaces, bands of beading and cut-card work (pierced sheets of silver applied to the surface) was typical of goldsmiths' work around Amsterdam in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. A fine layer of gold has been applied to the bowl of this salt cellar to prevent the salt reacting with the silver.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver, parcel-gilt salt, 1692, Amsterdam, Netherlands,  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver salt with parcel-gilt: Johann Ulrich Jebenz, Augsburg, Germany, 1708-10
Silver salt with parcel-gilt
mark of Johann Ulrich Jebenz; Augsburg, Germany; 1708-10.
Salts like this were part of sets for use on the dining table.

Silver salt cellar

(one of a pair) with gilt interior and applied, cutcard acanthus leaves, engraved with the crest of Sebright; mark of Louis Cuny; London, 1728-9.
The first London-made version of this pattern, derived from a French model that appeared in around 1712. It remained popular until the 1750s. The gilding prevented the salt from corroding the bowl.
Silver salt cellar: London, 1728-9
Miniature silver salt, c. 1730, London, England, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Miniature silver salt
c. 1730; made by David Clayton, London, England; H 1.03 cm., L 2.8 cm., W 2.41 cm., weight 3.2 grams.
This miniature salt or salt cellar is a toy. The term toy included any knick-knack or fashionable trinket for adults, as well as a child’s plaything. Silver toys like this one copied the exact details and proportions of normal sized pieces and came in a variety of subjects and sizes, ranging from domestic utensils to elaborate furniture. There are several explanations for them: they might have been intended to furnish dolls’ houses, as miniature trade samples, as practice pieces for apprentices, as fashionable novelties for adults to collect or they might simply have been playthings for rich children. The high point of production in London was the period 1700-1750. Because they were light and small, silver toys are not fully hallmarked and often the form of the maker’s or retailer’s mark helps to date them.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Silver salt cellars

left:(one of a set of four); mark of Edward Wood; London, 1735-36.
right: (one of a set of four); engraved with an unidentified crest; mark of Edward Wood; London, 1726-7.
Silver salt cellars: London, 1735-36 and 1726-7
Silver salt cellar: David Hennell, London, 1740-41
Silver salt cellar
(one of a pair); mark of David Hennell; London, 1740-41.

Silver-gilt salt

embossed; c. 1750; Moscow, Russia; D 11.60 cm., H 11.80 cm.
The maker of this hourglass-shaped salt cellar has used a south German example as a model. It is embossed with scrolls and foliage in the exuberant Rococo style and is very light in weight. Moscow goldsmiths had their own repertoire of traditional Russian forms and techniques but from the early 18th century, when Tsar Peter the Great established St Petersburg as the Russian capital, they also adopted the international styles of Western Europe
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver-gilt salt, c. 1750; Moscow, Russia,  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver salt cellar with gilt interior, London, 1762-3
Silver salt cellar with gilt interior
engraved around 1765 with the royal crest and later of Bridge mark of Thomas Heming, London, 1762-3.
Thomas Heming was the Royal Goldsmith from 1760 to 1783. The Prince Regent gave this, with other silver, to an ancestor of the Browne family around 1815.

Silver salts with blue glass liners

(pair); engraved with unidentified crest; mark of David and Robert Hennell I; London, 1770-1.
The Hennell family was a family of successful silversmiths founded by David Hennell I who entered his first mark at Goldsmiths’ Hall in 1736 and remained in business until his death in 1811. He specialized in salts and supplied retailers such as George Wickes. Robert Hennell I registered a joint mark with his father in 1763 but worked under his own mark from 1772. The firm still exists today in Bond Street.
silver salts with blue glass liners: David and Robert Hennell I, London, 1770-1
Silvered brass salt cellar: England, about 1770
Silvered brass salt cellar
unidentified makers mark ‘IB’ and false marks, England, about 1770.
Copper alloys can taint food and drink, so protective silvering and tinning were common. Silvered brass offered a cheaper alternative to silver. The silvering of this piece has been renewed but it still must have been quite convincing when it was first done. The false marks on the base imitated standard silver hallmarks and were obviously intended to fool the casual purchaser.

go to Part 2 of this article click here
Rod Elser and Jane Carroll
Rod is Editor of the National Newsletter of the Open Salt Collectors, an organization based in the United States.
His wife Jane, a native of England, is ever patient with his "obsession" (her words) with open salts.
- 2009 -
Information about Open Salt Collectors is available at their web site: