Silver Centrepieces take centre stage: Showstoppers, Temple Newsam – Exhibition review

This post is a first for the Historic Interiors blog, a guest exhibition review. One of the great joys of social media is that one gets to exchange views with people that share an interest. This is how Dr. Phillippa Plock got in touch to share in our enjoyment of the house, collection, and curatorship of Temple Newsam, the subject of a recent post. This exhibition can be viewed at the house until 15 October 2017.

Tucked away at the top of Temple Newsam, a surprise awaits the attentive visitor. In a darkened room, plain dining-room chairs surround a black table bearing four stunning silver confections by contemporary artists Miriam Hanid and Junko Mori, and eighteenth-century artists Pitts, Willaume and Tanqueray. Given the opportunity to linger awhile, Showstoppers: Silver Centrepieces, on until 15 October, provides a highly enjoyable encounter with some familiar stars of Temple Newsam’s collection, cast in a new light.

Historic and contemporary pieces shine in all their glory

The last time I visited the house at Temple Newsam was back in December 2014 with my two-year-old son in tow to see Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences. This time, I appreciated the much slower pace. The unobtrusive interpretation around the edge of the table put me in mind of the polite utterings of fellow diners rather than boorish distraction.

Curated by Rachel Conroy, a newly-appointed member of the Leeds Museums & Galleries team, this exhibition certainly encourages conversation. Firstly, the obvious ones between the collection’s amazingly technical pieces of historic silversmithing and loaned works by two leading contemporary practitioners. But also secondly, one between the makers, the pieces on display, and the exhibitions’ visitors.

Piercing and tiny bells on Pitts’ dessert epergne create an airy confection

Starting off conversations was of course part of the function of the traditional table centrepiece – shy ladies or tongue-tied gentlemen need only glance up to find a ready subject: ‘Just how was it made? Have you seen this delightful section?’ Such musings would, of course, also have been expected to be accompanied by more internal reflections on the wealth and power of a dinner-host who was able to commission such a showstopper. My own reflection on seeing these pieces was certainly around sensing a new ambition at Temple Newsam to present thoughtful exhibitions, perhaps usually associated with more well-known venues nearby such as The Hepworth or Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

There’s plenty of room to take a seat and take the time to study the pieces carefully. Conroy explained to me that she had decided to create a black-box space to separate out the exhibition from the rest of the collection. When I visited, two different groups of visitors appeared to be slightly taken aback by the difference; perhaps not expecting such an experience at this point in their visit, but perhaps also highlighting a change in Temple Newsam’s usual offer to their house visitors.

Mori’s technically stunning work takes centre stage against the dark back-drop


To help people join in the dialogue, there are two small interactive screens set at the table corners. Here I was able to choose ‘Read’ to look at a brief catalogue-style entry on each piece, or ‘Watch’ to hear Miriam and Junko talk about their own creative processes. Both artists respond in different ways to the meditative potential of their art. This reflective, peaceful tone is taken up in the larger video projection on the back wall, think modern-take on a chimneypiece painting, with its gentle soundtrack of Miriam’s hammer taps while chasing a piece like her award-winning Deluge Dish (2009); the ring of fairy bells in the piece by Pitts; and the sound of the Welsh seascape, Junko’s source of spontaneous inspiration for her Lichen Cloud (2012). It certainly made me want to linger in the calm atmosphere.

Hamid uses repoussé and chasing to create flowing waves in the silver

On the small screen, Miriam also talks particularly eloquently while handling the eighteenth-century pieces about the techniques used by their long-dead makers in a way that brings the craft very much alive. It was a shame that Junko wasn’t also given this space to speak, particularly as her masterful ability to create very large pieces with minimal weight seemed a brilliant re-interpretation of the piercing used by Thomas Pitts to such dazzling effects in his 1759 centrepiece, designed to display fruits and sweets during a dessert course.

The video behind brings out the subtleties of Pitt’s epergne and Mori’s Lichen Cloud

That said, Miriam is certainly an engaging guide to the feel of the historic pieces, giving us clues how women of the past would have handled them up close, seeing inside, as well as admiring them from afar, flickering in the candlelight. On this note, I loved the close-ups of women’s hands working the metal in the large video – exposing normal conventions of associating such masterful skill with male artists in a simple and non-confrontational way. As if to further emphasise this point, I was interested to learn that one of the eighteenth-century pieces on show was made partly by a woman, Anne Tanqueray (1691-1733). It was frustrating that there was no information given about this exceptional artist in the accompanying labels for the Kirkleatham Centrepice of 1731-2. A little more on Anne’s experience would have helped to situate Junko and Miriam’s work in a longer history of women’s access to training and opportunities to practice metalworking. Junko’s short statement of gratitude and pride about having her work shown alongside such masterful historic pieces in her short film spoke volumes.

The Kirkleatham Centrepiece made by a brother and his sister, Anne Tanqueray, in 1731

It is a credit to Conroy and her team that they have already managed to speak volumes with their first exhibition. I just hope the Yorkshire art-going public hear the invitation, and get plenty of chances to join in this conversation now and in the future.

This is a guest post written by Phillippa Plock, Curator (Web Content), Waddesdon Manor


Phillippa Plock

Dr Phillippa Plock (PhD, 2004, University of Leeds) is Curator (Web Content) at Waddesdon Manor, responsible for the online catalogue. She came to study trade cards in 2006 as Leverhulme Research Fellow, University of Warwick. A decade later, her remit has extended into many different aspects of Waddesdon’s collection. You can find her on twitter.