Decorative Art

RAMM’s decorative arts collection has something to suit many tastes and interests, from precious silver to intricate watch movements. The largest collections include Exeter silver, ceramics, glassware and clocks and watches.

The fascinating horology collection includes clocks, watches and workshop tools. Most of the watch collection was bequeathed by C.R. Venn in 1928 and is one of the most important outside London. Clockmaking was not highly organised in Devon and some local makers acted also as wholesale dealers and retailers, offering materials, parts and finished clocks made elsewhere. In rural areas some combined their horological activities with other trades such as ironmongery, gunsmithing and even taxidermy. Records suggest that at the beginning of the 18th century there were only ten or so clockmakers active in Exeter. Even so, the area produced some notable makers such as Ambrose Hawkins (d.1705) and Jacob Lovelace (d.1755) of Exeter, Abell Cottey of Crediton (d.1711) and William Stumbels of Totnes (d.1769).

Silver wares have certainly been made in Exeter since the 12th century and probably since Roman times. However a town mark did not appear until the 1570s and the Museum’s collection of Exeter and West Country silver is mostly dateable to between the late 16th and 19th centuries.

Silver and the church in 16th century Exeter

Up to and including the 16th century, West Country silversmiths relied heavily upon the church for business. Two notable Exeter goldsmiths of the 16th century were John Jones and Richard Hilliard. One of the most productive goldsmiths of his age, John Jones (d.1583-84) was Bailiff in 1567 and Churchwarden at St. Petrock’s in 1570. More than a hundred of his communion cups have survived. The father of Nicolas Hilliard, the famous miniaturist, Richard Hilliard also produced church plate of outstanding quality such as the communion cup made for St. Sidwell’s in c.1572.

Silver in Exeter’s ‘golden age’

By the end of the 17th century Exeter was entering a ‘golden age’ of trade and commerce when a new class of wealthy patrons demanded a wide variety of domestic silverware. Much of the wealth resulted from the important West Country trade in wool and cloth. In 1700 Exeter, Chester, Bristol, Norwich and York established their own assay offices, and in Exeter the assaying of plate began in 1701 and continued until 1883. John Elston (d.1732) was Exeter’s most successful goldsmith of the early 18th century. Elston, who became Mayor in 1727 also helped to establish the Assay Office in 1701.

19th century silver and the Great Exhibition

By the beginning of the 19th century the decline of Exeter’s economy had reduced demand for silverware. Competition from the industrial firms of Birmingham, Sheffield and London also forced many West Country goldsmiths out of business.

Colour photograph of a silver brooch on a blue background. The brooch comprises two birds with turquoise flowers in their mouths perched on a metal bar. Behind the bar is a safety chain which dangles below each bird. Made by Ellis of Exeter.

Henry Ellis (d.1871) was one of the few Exeter goldsmiths to thrive during this period. In 1814 he opened his first shop in the High Street. A watchmaker by trade, Ellis retailed goods made locally and in Birmingham and London. In 1847 his eldest son, Henry Samuel, registered the firm’s design for ‘Patent Safety Chain Brooches’, some of which were made from silver mined at Comb Martin on Exmoor. After the purchase of five brooches by Queen Victoria, Ellis & Son were appointed silversmiths in ordinary to the Queen in 1848 and exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

For more than 3000 years glass has been used in the production of a vast range of objects both decorative and functional. Although in Exeter and Devon glass production has been limited, the Museum’s collections are wide ranging and the most significant historical periods of glassmaking are well represented – from ancient Rome through to the 20th century. A collection of some two hundred English 18th century drinking glasses was bequeathed by Henry Hamilton Clark in 1928.

Outstanding glass objects

Individual articles of special note include: the 17th century Exeter Flute Glass, engraved with a portrait of Charles II; a pair of beakers associated with the 19th century prophetess, Joanna Southcott, and an outstanding Victorian reproduction of the Portland Vase, engraved by Zach.

The Museum’s ceramics collections reflect the history of Devon pottery in both the north and south of the county.

Ceramics from North Devon

In North Devon, pottery has been made in the Barnstaple and Bideford area since at least the 13th century. Here the industry thrived because large quantities of red clay were available locally. Furthermore, the nearby estuaries of the rivers Taw and Torridge enabled a profitable trade by sea. By the 17th century North Devon wares were exported to Wales, Ireland, Northern Europe and the New World. Home markets also flourished as communities demanded a wide range of domestic wares.

North Devon harvest jugs

Many of the North Devon harvest jugs in museum collections were made as decorative, commemorative objects. However, a far greater number of plain, functional wares have not survived. These were used for transportation of beer and other drinks to thirsty agricultural workers out in the fields. North Devon harvest jugs, dating from the mid 17th century onwards, are notable for elaborate sgraffito decoration which includes ships, unicorns, birds, flowers, and hunting and harvesting scenes. Many of these jugs were made as gifts or to commemorate events such as marriages, christenings and successful harvests. For Sgraffito (after the Italian “to scratch”) sharp tools were used to scratch or carve away the outer coating of pale slip clay to reveal the red body beneath.

Ceramics from South Devon

The Torquay and South Devon pottery industry was launched in 1869 when a deposit of fine red clay was discovered at Watcombe. Further deposits were soon located and several potteries were established during the closing years of the 19th century. The expansion of the industry was helped by the construction of new railways. This brought more visitors along with reliable supplies of coal.

During the 1870s and 80s a wide variety of terracotta (unglazed red) wares were made. Decorative wares, which included vases, figures and busts were commonly based upon Greek, Etruscan, Roman or Egyptian originals. In the 1890s and early 1900s as holidaymakers arrived in increasing numbers, mottowares were introduced. These were decorated in coloured slips with Sgraffito motto inscriptions and sold locally and throughout the country. Despite falling demand several South Devon potteries continued production well into the 20th century but this once thriving industry is now virtually extinct.