The Wallace collection is a fantastic treasure trove of masterpieces and their permanent collection is currently augmented by a display of silver boxes that have not been seen in public for 60 years. This is a collection that belongs to the Past Overseer’s Society. The oldest piece – a small horn box – dates from 1713 and the newest celebrates the 2012 Olympics.
The 1601 Poor Relief Act levied a tax on property to fund relief for the poor. The collection of this tax was entrusted to the overseers, who formed a society that they could join when they had finished their term of office. It seems that rather than having decided that their remit – help the poor – also included commissioning lavish silver tobacco boxes, they paid for the collection privately.
When the case of the original horn box had been covered in silver engravings about the current events that were taking place the society proceeded to commission a bigger box in which to place it. This they covered in engraved silver again with a picture of the Overseers at work and more inscriptions commemorating contemporary events. When it too was full – they commissioned another, bigger case to house that box. This continued until 1935 when they began to commission individual pieces of silver.
Inscriptions feature the names of current Overseers, who were often churchwardens of St Margaret’s or St John’s in Westminster. They also celebrate court cases, Nelson, Wellington, the defeat of Boney, the restoration of St John’s and other topics such as Royal births, deaths and jubilees and the infamous trial of Queen Caroline.
By 2007 the Overseers choose their new piece of silver design by open competition, and chose an asymmetrical dish by Mary Ann Simmons, inscribed with records of Barak Obama’s election and the International banking crisis. A new horn box will start the next century of the society.
These silver items are an interesting and rarely seen glimpse of history as seen by a group of wealthy Londoners. It can be very parochial – the relevant years have no mention of the French Revolution or the American War of Independence. But they remain a guide to the events that were deemed to be of import and show the progression through history of the need of man to make records.
On display until 23rd April 2013
The Wallace Collection,