Rare 16th-century pieces from aristocratic family’s silver passed to Scottish museum
An extremely rare silver-gilt ewer and basin from the 16th century will go on display at the National Museum of Scotland after the items were acquired for the nation.
The Panmure ewer and basin, once owned by a leading Scottish aristocratic family, will go on permanent display from today at the museum in Edinburgh.
Ewers and basins were used for ceremonially washing hands at meals but most were melted down to craft more fashionable items over time, making the Panmure set particularly rare given few originals survive.
Dr Godfrey Evans, principal curator of European decorative arts at National Museums Scotland, said the set displayed “particularly fine” craftsmanship.
The ewer and basin will go on show after being accepted in lieu of inheritance by the UK Government from the collection of the Earls of Dalhousie, whose family seat is Brechin Castle.
He added “I am delighted that this remarkable set has been acquired for Scotland under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme.
“Their craftsmanship is particularly fine and the representations of lots of scaly dolphins, flying fish, snails and other weird and wonderful animals offer us a glimpse into a period when such objects demonstrated the wealth, power and sophistication of the elite.”
The ritual of washing hands with scented rosewater at a banquet was widely practised by royalty and aristocrats in Britain during the 16th century, with the custom long observed all over the world.
The passing scent of the rosewater would have competed with the highly perfumed bodies of the diners, who relied on scented pomanders to mask their natural body odour.
It is believed Elizabeth I had at least 40 sets of silver or silver-gilt ewers and basins in 1574, but today fewer than a dozen sets made in London before 1600 survive.
Further research will be carried out in Edinburgh to determine the history of the Panmure set, which was acquired by Scottish Whig politician William Ramsay Maule, first Baron Panmure (1771-1852), the second son of the 8th Earl of Dalhousie and father of the 11th Earl of Dalhousie.
In 1967, the Panmure ewer and basin were exhibited in Treasures from Scottish Houses: European Decorative Arts, in what was then the Royal Scottish Museum.
The elaborate piece of silverware was created in London in 1586 or 1587 by the goldsmith HC – who the museums believe was the Dutch immigrant goldsmith Harman Copleman.
It would have been used ceremonially and displayed to impress people with the owner’s wealth and status.
The set was allocated to the National Museums Scotland by Arts Council England and Christina McKelvie, the Scottish minister for culture, Europe and international development.
Ms McKelvie said: “I’m really pleased National Museums Scotland is now in possession of these beautiful Renaissance pieces for the public to enjoy.
“These are a welcome addition to its outstanding collection, obtained through the Arts Council England’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme.”
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