Knife and fork
Atkin Brothers Ltd
Date Made/Found: around 1870
Material and Medium: nickel silver, white metal, gilt
Department: Decorative Art
Accession Number: Virtual2004.750-751
This gilt nickel silver dessert knife and three tine fork were made by the Sheffield silversmiths Atkin Brothers, around 1870. The firm was founded by Henry Atkin and based at Truro Works. Henry Atkin first registered at Sheffield Assay Office in 1841 and used the mark 'HA'. He produced blades, handles and forks. In 1853 the firm became Atkin Brothers and expanded the goods they produced to include a large range of flatware, holloware and some cutlery. The firm were renowned for producing goods of exceptional quality. In 1958 the flatware business was sold to C J Vander and the holloware business to Adie Brothers of Birmingham.
The blade is stamped with the maker's mark, 'HA EA FA' in three separate punches. This mark was predominantly used for spoons and forks. Various different forms of this mark were used by the firm for different EPNS goods. For example, holloware was marked 'HA EA FA EPNS' with a motif of a hand holding three feathers. The knife and fork are also stamped 'EP A1'. The mark 'A1' or 'A' was often used by makers of electroplate goods as a supposed indicator of quality to the customer.
The hafts (handles) of these objects have been cast using copper and then gilded to give them a thin coating of gold. Silver and silver plate objects can be gilded for both decorative and functional purposes. For example, the interior surfaces of salts and egg cups were often gilded to protect the silver and prevent staining.
Two methods of gilding have been used widely in the light metals industry. The first is mercury gilding (or fire gilding). This involves applying a mixture of gold and mercury to the surface with a brush, then heating the object to vaporise the mercury, leaving behind a thin layer of gold. The second is electrogilding, which uses an electrical current to deposit a thin layer of gold onto an object.
After an object has been gilded decorative effects are often applied, such as incising through the gold to reveal the silver beneath, producing a textured surface. Sometimes only a small area of an object is gilded for decorative purposes, which is known as parcel gilt or party gilt.
The knife and fork hafts depict two very different mythological characters. The fork haft depicts Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and springtime. She is holding a large cornucopia (also known as a horn of plenty) overflowing with fruit and flowers, symbolising fertility. In direct contrast the knife haft depicts the aged, bearded figure of Time. He can be identified by the objects he is holding: an hourglass (representing the passage of time) and a sickle (symbolising the link between the passage of time and the inevitability of death). The figures are thought to be modelled from drawings by the renowned English artist and poet, William Blake (1757-1827).
Revealing the object's Hidden History…
In order to find out more about the knife and fork, we visited Sheffield Analytical Services at Sheffield Assay Office. We were able to have the knife handle tested to find out exactly what metals were contained in the alloy.
Hidden History: what do Sheffield Analytical Services do?
Sheffield Analytical Services are part of Sheffield Assay Office. They are responsible for the testing of products for purity. This is known as assaying. Objects made from gold, silver and platinum must be assayed before they are hallmarked.
Hidden History: how was the knife handle tested?
The knife handle was tested using a technique called X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF). This is a non-destructive method, meaning that the objects were in danger of being marked or damaged in any way. The tests were carried out for us by Matthew Hawker, who is Team Leader in the XRF Sampling Department.
Hidden History: what is XRF?
XRF is a surface analysis technique used by Sheffield Analytical Services to test items for purity before they are hallmarked.
Hidden History: how are XRF tests carried out?
An x-ray is fired at the sample which penetrates the top layer to a depth of 0.01 - 0.1 mm beneath the surface. The material then itself generates x-ray radiation that varies according to its composition.
The fact that the x-ray penetrates the surface means that the composition of the both the surface and underlying metal can be analysed. This is very useful if an object has been electroplated or gilded, giving it the appearance of solid silver or gold. The test will reveal the composition of the plate and the underlying metal.
If there is any ambiguity in the test results, the surface of an item can be scraped to remove the layer of plate. The object can then be retested to determine if is made from a solid precious metal or not. Obviously, surface scraping was not carried out on objects from the collection, as this would create permanent damage.
Hidden History: what did the test reveal?
We tested the knife handle, which confirmed that it was gilt. The underlying metal alloy was found to consist of copper (63%) and zinc (21%). As the name suggests, nickel silver contains nickel in combination with copper and zinc (but does not contain silver). This suggests that the handle was cast using a generic metal alloy and then gilded.
These objects form part of the Bill Brown Collection. Supported by the National Art Collections Fund.
Information on the silversmiths courtesy of Sheffield Assay Office.