article # 74



by Willand Ringborg ©
(click on photos to enlarge image)


The enamelling technique rose to its peak in Russia in the late 1800s. It was applied to various pieces of art, important gifts and jewellery. It may seem a little surprising and contradictory that this extraordinarily complicated technique was applied to traditional Russian utility goods for everyday use, such a spoons, kovsh, charka and other items for the ordinary household originating from rural Russia. This is explained by the emphasis on genuine national heritage in the design of highly valuable pieces for decoration and not for use. This was also the case for enamelled salt cellars and the most prominent examples of those, salt chairs or salt thrones. The appearance of these objects is not so often traced back to its origins.
The prototype, or basic shape of a salt chair, square and boxed, carved in wood, 19th century, most common in central Russia. All significant details are there, the expressed back, the bend between the seat and the back, and the fine ornaments. A repeated ornament is the circle (half and quarter with spokes, a sun, star or a wheel). The lid above the seat is missing, it is not a necessity, and this was added later. Height 13 cm, width and depth 10.2 cm (sketch after Alison Hilton).
Interpreting this model, we know that silversmiths in the big cities transformed the shape of the salt chair to resemble an armchair, while staying true to the Old Russian Style in the design of the ornaments. And when applying polychrome enamel technique in transforming a functional household item to a piece of art, it became more fanciful in its presentation. The enamelling technique used was mostly cloisonné (enamel within a silver frame on solid silver tin) or, more seldom, champlevé (thin, flat enamelling on a silver surface). Pure silver salt chairs are relatively more frequent compared to enamelled ones and the latter seldom exceed the height of 8 cm.

The demand for enamelled pieces of applied art, compared to similar pure silver art, came fairly late in Tsarist Russia, where enamelled pieces became more frequent in early 20th century, when enamelled tobacco cases, napkin rings, coffee-cups, teaspoons etc appear, most of them stamped in the period of 1908-1917. Also corpus art: bowls, kovsh, salt cellars, are mostly from this period.

One motive that appears in the salt throne representation is the old rural izba house with raised gable with wheels, ornaments of saw-tooth, finials with symbolic animals (birds, rooster or horses) protecting the house and its inhabitants.
A traditional Russian rural izba house here artistically represented in polychrome cloisonné enamelling technique on a silver tea caddy by Gratchev workshop, workmaster Johan Olsonius, St Petersburg 1880 (photo Uppsala Auktionskammare).
The silver salt throne we will examine now is uncommon from at least four aspects, its unusually big size (close to the wooden one), its strong reference to the original squareness, not adapting the common wide-angle shape, the symbolic ornaments and, which is most rare, the use of two enamelling techniques.

Further, this piece is a forerunner and predecessor to what later comes of enamelled salt thrones, it is as early as 1887.
Enamelled salt throne by master P.R. (in Latin transcription) for Pyotr Rykovsky , stamped in Moscow 1887, assaymaster A. Romanov. 88 zolotniki silver content (916/000) and two enamelling techniques: the general surface cloisonné, but the cartoche at the back, and some minor additional features, is made in plique-a-jour (full translucent in small frames). The salt chair has an impressive size, heigth 12 cm, width 9 cm, depth 5.3 cm, weight 168 grams
The ornaments are fascinating, they ingeniously combine to most of the symbolism applied to traditional salt chairs with a polychrome presentation. The back shows a frame: the gable of the old Russian wooden house, izba, and the guarding birds, here heraldic roosters with crowned heads. The additional ornaments are floral windings and loops. The cartouche in the middle is made in plique-a-jour technique.

All four sides of the strong box-shaped throne are decorated with polychrome cloisonné in floral pattern ornaments, and the chair feet are Old Russian Style. The lid of the seat shows similar ornaments with a cartouche in the middle, not engraved.
Detail of the lid of the seat, floral ornaments in cloisonné technique
The translucent cartouche on the seat back is absolutely unique for a salt throne, and when seen in daylight it is most charming.
The translucent appearance of the cartouche of the seat back, with some added small plique-a-jour pieces below and integrated in the cloisonné pattern.
Enamelled salt thrones of this size and technique are rare. Some very few have become known by the public, in exhibitions and auctions. One later, 1890, but important, is made by the imperial jeweller and silversmith Pavel Ovchinnikov.

Surprisingly, lately one enamelled salt throne by the same silversmith P.R. appeared, made the same year 1887. The size and style are the same, square boxed, izba gable, birds and rich ornamented seat back. Also, enamelling techniques, cloisonné, and plique-a-jour in the cartouche, have been used.
A similar salt throne by silversmith P.R. (Pyotr Rykovsky), Moscow 1887, 88 zoloniki silver standard, enamelled with cloisonné and plique-a-jour, height 14 cm (photo Stockholms Auktionsverk)
Who was this silversmith Pyotr Rykovsky? He is not commonly represented among collectors or in auctions, his workshop was probably small. He is known for plique-a-jour works, among those a valuable snuff-box from 1890 and a full translucent plique-a-jour cigarette case; he is registered but fairly unknown. But by his interpretation of the salt chair tradition in Russian silversmith’s production, he is undoubtedly important.

This salt throne is a presentation gift of importance, it has not been used for salt ceremony purposes, it has been treasured as a prominent “objet de vértu”. It reflects the puristic tradition of Russian nationalism, and although it is very traditional in shape and symbolics, the intricate enamelling and the expressive size add a significant artistic touch.

Willand Ringborg © - 2007 -