Friday, January 18, 2019

The London Silver Vaults

As well as the Anglo Saxon exhibition yesterday, I also went to see the Klimt and Schiele drawings at the Royal Acadamy - open until the 3rd of February, its worth seeing. The Klimt drawings are beautiful, the Schiele ones illuminating. Klimt is easy to like, but Schiele's uncompromising self portraits and awkward teenage prostitutes don't reproduce so well. It was somewhere in the gallery dedicated to erotica that the penny dropped.

His women look like they're doing what they're paid for with all the enthusiasm of any bored checkout person waiting for the next customer who's going to be an arse. There's an uncompromising honesty in them that hasn't lost any of its power to make the viewer uncomfortable. Three studies of chrysanthemums, and some affectionate portraits of friends later it was Schiele who came out the star of this show.

The other thing I'd planned to do was go to the London Silver Vaults. They don't allow photography so no pictures, which I'm not sure could do it justice anyway. It must be more than 20 years since my mother first took me here, but no matter how many times I've been it's never lost its power to impress.

The Silver vaults are just that, vaults, deep under Chancery Lane, originally intended for private hire to keep the family Silver in, they eventually became shops. The building above took a direct hit during the blitz, the vaults were unscathed. You go in at street level, have your bag checked, go downstairs and find yourself in a maze like collection of vaults - there are around 20 shops in them, some quite large, some small. I've never seen it particularly busy, the corridors have a 1970's bunker feel, the shops are everything from Very Grand to Aladdin's cave.

You will find anything you can imagine being made out of Silver, and probably a few things you hadn't imagined, in there. I was looking for relatively cheap tea spoons. I love silver, and like having a range of different sized tea spoons - eventually I'll have a comprehensive set I'll use for measuring. I found a delightful little coffee spoon sized thing with a thistle on top, and a couple of elegantly simple Georgian spoons in my price range and left happy. I also had a very satisfying conversation about grape scissors.

Grape scissors are another preoccupation at the moment. I have a nice plate pair that my father gave me, but I'd like some really opulent silver ones (it's a long term ambition, they're expensive). Generally when I ask about them in antique shops I'm told nobody wants that sort of thing anymore, yesterday I found a man who had a whole drawer full. Plate, silver, silver with steel blades (coveted, they were obviously going to cut well). Even a matching pair if I wanted. I like them so much because they're ridiculously ornamental, and turn a bunch of grapes into an extravagant ceremony.

If you have time to kill in London the vaults are well worth visiting. Its better to go in the week, I have been on a Saturday, but a lot of the shop owners are Jewish, and less of the vaults were open (this may have changed). If there's any chance you might be buying do your homework first - the prices for a lot of the things I was looking at were 3 times what I would expect to pay around here - you will not find a bargain.

What you do get is choice and quality, and there is some room for negotiation. I'm more interested in price than quality, but everybody I spoke to was very helpful when I said I wanted cheap (which was nice, it's not the case in every antique dealers) either directing me to what they had, or other traders who might have what I wanted.

Even if you have no intention of buying anything it's still worth a visit, it's the most shiny stuff I've ever seen in one place, and there are some beautiful and bizarre things to admire.


  1. I envy you the Klimt/Schiele exhibition, I admire both artists greatly.

    It is better that I stay away from the silver vaults because I covet the stuff so much; I understand your longing for grape scissors.

    1. At last someone understands! The Silver vaults are fascinating but dangerous. The Klimt Schiele exhibition was a treat, I'm lucky that work has a corporate membership with the RA so I can get in for free - it helps balance the exorbitant cost of train tickets on East Midland Mainline.

  2. I was trying to see some Schiele on a recent visit to Vienna, but the Leopold Museum was closed temporarily and didn't make it to the second half of the Belvedere -- I suppose it was just as well as I was with my teenaged daughter and that might have been incredibly awkward if the paintings were along the same theme! (We did see plenty of other nice art). I'd never heard about the Silver Rooms, must try to visit if I get back to London someday.)

    1. I've been pining for Vienna after going this time last year. I don't think you'd find these pictures awkward to look at with your daughter. Schiele is quite confrontational, but not salacious even when he's explicit - there's certainly a chance to have an interesting conversation about the male gaze. The Silver vaults are well worth a visit if you ever have a bit of spare time in London.