This elegant early eighteenth-century silver teapot on a stand is a magnificent and early example of foreign filigree for which Dutch hallmarked silver was made. Until now the earliest known examples of this combination of Oriental filigree given a silver interior in the Netherlands dated from the last quarter of the eighteenth century, when filigree caskets were fitted with one or more silver tea caddies. This teapot, however, was made in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Moreover, there is no other known example of this pairing—a teapot on a stand with filigree.
A Filigree Teapot On Stand
In 1722 Alger Mensma made a completely plain silver teapot especially for this Oriental filigree basket on a stand, with the spout protruding through one of the eight segments of filigree work. The tall handle is attached to the basket with four rosettes. Mensma also made a silver lining for the filigree lid and the filigree stand. The filigree mantles of the teapot and the stand are held in place with silver nuts.
Filigree is one of the most complex techniques for making objects in silver. It involves soldering together fine silver wire and tiny silver granules of solder. The word filigree is a corruption of the Latin filum (thread) and granum (grain). The fine silver threads are obtained by drawing a rod of silver through increasingly smaller openings. Two threads are then twisted and flattened with a roller, which provides greater rigidity in the finished piece. After the threads have been bent to the desired design and shape, silver solder ground down to tiny grains or beads is scattered over them.
The technique is both extremely labour- intensive and technically complicated
The piece is then put in a kiln and heated so that the solder granules melt. The technique is both extremely labour- intensive and technically complicated. When the piece is soldered it is very important that the temperature of the charcoal in the kiln is high enough to melt the solder, but not so high that the silver threads can no longer absorb this heat and start to burn. The technique produces extremely beautiful, delicate objects. Because filigree pieces are much more fragile than other silver objects, they are more complicated to restore or even conserve. In consequence, relatively few objects have survived.
Even though the filigree technique was being used in Egypt and Greece as early as the second century BC, it did not come to Europe until voyages of discovery established a connection with the East. Its exotic character meant that filigree rapidly became highly sought-after by rulers and the very rich in Europe. Towards the end of the seventeenth century and in the early eighteenth, many of the European courts had their own Cabinets of Filigree, among them Louis XIV in Versailles, Fredrick I William in Berlin and Queen Charlotte in London. Catherine the Great had an insatiable desire for everything Oriental, particularly filigree silver. Her collection is now part of the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg.
Filigree in the Low Countries
It was the vessels of the Dutch East and West India Companies that first brought filigree to the Low Countries. Objects made in this technique are described in seventeenth-century Dutch inventories as ‘Chinese work’ or ‘Indian silver’. It is not until the last quarter of the seventeenth century that we encounter the name ‘fildegreyn’. Chinese silversmiths from Parian (present-day Manila), Canton and Macao and from the Indian state of Goa were particularly skilled in filigree work. It made economic sense for them to set up in business in the major trading posts.
Costly silver teapots were made to serve the extremely expensive tea
From 1661 onwards, Batavia was the Dutch Republic’s most important trading post and it seems likely that the majority of Oriental filigree came to the Netherlands by way of this town. Needless to say, only the very wealthiest Dutch people could afford these exotic objects—and they could also afford the tea that came in on these same voyages. Costly silver tea caddies and teapots were made to store and serve the extremely expensive tea.
Alger Mensma was born in Leeuwarden in 1682. He was the third generation of silversmiths in the family, and the most important. Alger was named after his grandfather, the silversmith Alger Clasen Mensma, who was active in Leeuwarden from 1632 onwards (see Elias Voet 1974, no. 401). In 1658 he sent his son Nicolaas—Alger’s father—to Amsterdam to improve his skills in the techniques of chasing, embossing, drawing and modelling under the tutelage of the silversmith Jurriaen Pool. A Leeuwarden book of apprentices reveals that Alger Mensma followed this example.
After an apprenticeship with his father in Leeuwarden, Alger likewise went to Amsterdam, where he became betrothed to Elisabeth Steenstraat in 1709. A year later he was enrolled as a silversmith in the register of burghers in Amsterdam and admitted to the city’s guild of silversmiths.
Alger used a man with a club as his maker’s mark. Like the mark his father used (a swan ), this was most probably derived from the family coat of arms—a swan, a half eagle and, most prominently, a man with a club. Mensma moved into a house in Tuinstraat in 1728, the year his wife Elisabeth died. In 1730 he married his second wife, Sara van der Weide.
In 1742 Mensma’s annual income was estimated at six hundred guilders—twice that of a skilled labourer at that time. In 1751 and 1754 he was a deacon in the guild. In 1754 his daughter Alida gave notice of her marriage to Hendrik Voerken, a harp maker, who acquired burghership on 4 March 1756 thanks to his father-in-law’s influence. Alger Mensma died in his birthplace of Leeuwarden at some point after 1757.
The silver teapot and the silver stand are both fully hallmarked with the Amsterdam city assay mark, the Dutch lion, the date letter M for 1722 and Alger Mensma’s maker’s mark.
The edge of the filigree of the stand and the foot ring of the mantel are marked with an I, the tax stamp for unwarranted objects used from 1906 to 1953.