This extraordinary tureen is an extremely important addition to Paul de Lamerie's surviving body of work. During his long career, perhaps the only works of comparable sculptural realism are the beautiful small shell-form dishes of the 1730s. P.A.S. Phillips in Paul de Lamerie, His Life and Work, London, 1935, p. 110, describes one from the collection of the Earl Spencer as being "one of the surpassing wonders of de Lamerie's creation. If this piece were not made of silver, we could imagine that we were holding a veritable shell with its encrustaceons taken direct from the bed of the sea". In both the case of the shells and the turtle tureen, there can be no doubt that the silversmith worked directly from an actual example in the workshop. In the case of the shells, they may have been cast from moulds taken from a real shell but, as the body of the tureen is raised, the silversmith would have had to copy every detail by hand. It is an astonishing work of art from a period late in Lamerie's working life, when he was certainly less fashionable than in the 1720s and 1730s and some, but not all, of his productions lack the creativity of his earlier work.
The only other recorded English 18th century tureen incorporating silver in the form of a turtle appears to be that made by Paul Crespin, also of 1750, now in the collection of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat. The bowl is made of an actual turtle shell within silver mounts. It is perhaps significant that both Lamerie and Crespin retailed each other's work. Although this seems to have been mainly confined to the 1720s, it implies quite a close working relationship and it is tempting to speculate that Lamerie might have seen the Crespin example in the making.
We know from the amount of tortoiseshell (a misnomer for turtle-shell) used in snuff-boxes, and on a larger scale in boulle furniture, that turtles were being imported in considerable quantities. Turtles were not only imported for their shells but also for their meat; the Green Turtle (Chelonia Mydas) was said to be the best for eating, as recorded in The Gentleman's Magazine, February 1750: "Turtles are found as frequently upon the coasts in America, as in Asia and Africa. There are four kinds, the trunk turtle, the black bill, the loggerhead and the green, but the flesh of the last only is reckoned wholesome." An even earlier reference from 1657 also speaks of the superior qualities of the Green turtle; "a third kind called the Green turtle ...far excelling the other two (Loggerhead and Hawksbill) in wholesomeness and rareness of taste."
It was found that if the turtle was kept in a tank of fresh water they could be brought back to Europe alive and then cooked "in the West Indian fashion". Numerous contemporary references extol the merits of turtle meat and soup. A turtle dinner was seen as the height extravagance and luxury. Robert Adam, when bemoaning his clients' parsimony, complains that they are not only bad at paying him but, even when they do, they "give nothing worth taking. So may the devil damn them altogether. I'll turn soap-boiler and tallow chandler; they grow rich and eat turtle." The cost of live turtles was high and this led to the creation of 'mock' turtle soup, an ersatz creation fashioned from the cooking of a calf's head. The Gentleman's Magazine, 13 July 1754 records the presentation of a turtle by Lord Anson: "The Right Hon. The Lord Anson made a present to the gentlemen of White's Coffee House, of a turtle which weighed 300 weight, and which laid five eggs still in their possesion. The shell was four feet three inches long and about three feet wide." This huge example is by no means the largest. Chamber's Cyclopaedia of 1738 informs the reader that: "On the Brazilian shore they are said to be so big as sometimes to dine four score men; and that in the Indian sea the shells serve the natives for boats...in the island of Cuba they are of such a bulk, that they will creep along with five men on their backs." Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, published in 1719 describes the most famous of castaways dining on turtle meat: "June 17 I spent in cooking the turtle; I found in her three score eggs". There are numerous recipes for the preparation or 'dressing' of a turtle, the one illustrated here comes from the first edition of Elizabeth Smith's The Complete Housewife published in 1758; others from the 1770s and 1790s can be found in Williamsburg cookbooks of the period. The fashion for turtle soup continued into the 19th century. Sara Paston-Williams in The Art of Dining, 1993 describes a dinner enjoyed by The Rev. Thomas Talbot at Saltram in 1811:
"At dinner we had nothing less than two Earls and a turtle. Lord Paulett [sic] (a most profoundly stupid Lord he seems, though very good-natured). Lord Mount Edgecumbe [sic] was extremely amusing and gave us some excellent imitations and stories. We dined in the great dining room and had the very best exertions of Mr Howse, the cook, put forth, which he certainly did with considerable effect, being pronounced one of the most accomplished Turtle dressers of the Age, which certainly, and accompanied with Ice Lime Punch, cannot be pronounced a very bad sort of diet."
It has not, as yet, been possible to establish by whom the tureen was commissioned. On the exterior of the cover, there are signs of the erasure of a crest. Spectographic analysis confirms that all the metal in the tureen is consistent with an 18th Century date, including an inserted disc, beneath the finial, which can only be explained by the removal of a coat-of-arms on the interior of the cover or perhaps, more likely, by a last minute change in the design of the finial. While such a piece might well have been commissioned by a wealthy landowner from Jamaica or the Carolinas, it is also equally possible that an English trading company might have ordered such a tureen.
The tureen appears to have been first recorded when it was offered for sale at Christie's in 1906 by the estate of the late Richard Hill. He also sold further pieces of silver, but nothing in comparison to the turtle tureen. His wife Evereld (d.1906), daughter of Rev. George Hustler of Weald Manor, Oxfordshire, had inherited a considerable amount of property and silver from her wealthy Quaker grandfather but there is no indication in her will that the tureen belong to him. When offered for sale in 1906 the tureen did not sell, but was presumably purchased very soon afterwards by the firm of Elkington and Co. as it was recorded as being in their possession when illustrated in Sir Charles Jackson's History of Old English Plate, published in 1911. It changed hands very shortly thereafter, as it reappeared at Christie's in 1914 as part of the collection formed by Geraldine, Countess of Milltown (d.1914). This time it was purchased by the Swedish Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Count Wrangel. His wife had been born a Baour and was the last surviving member of a wealthy Bordeaux wine-making and shipping family. The Wrangels returned to Sweden after the end of the First World War, and in 1932 used the tureen as a centrepiece for a dinner held in honour of King Gustaf V of Sweden when it was greatly admired. During the Second World War, it was placed for safe-keeping in the National Museum, Stockholm. Eventually the tureen passed to her nephews who now offer the tureen for sale.
PAUL DE LAMERIE'S TURTLE TUREEN A George II silver soup tureen formed as a Green Turtle (Chelonia Mydas)
Since the catalogue was printed, we believe we may have identified the original owner as John Hill, a forebear of the Hills who offered it for sale in 1906. This John Hill was Commissioner of Customs and very wealthy in the mid-18th Century. He had a brother who died in Antigua in the 1720s. He was also the neighbour of the Osbaldeston family who were patronising Lamerie in the 1740s. While this is far from proven, he would seem a likely person to have commissioned such a unique work of art.
THE PROPERTY OF THE NEPHEWS OF COUNT AND COUNTESS WRANGEL
END OF SALE
18 5/8in. (47cm.) long 161ozs. (5,018grs)
C. J. Jackson, An Illustrated History of English Plate, London, 1911, p.817-818, illustrated fig. 1056
Richard Hill (1843-1906), Thornton Hall, Nr. Pickering, Yorkshire
Anon. sale [Richard Hill];(+) Christie's, 28 June 1906, lot 104
Elkington & Co.
Geraldine, Countess of Milltown (d.1914) and thence by descent to her nephew, Col. Reginald Chandos-Pole (1853-1930)
Col. R. W. Chandos-Pole; Christie's, 1 July 1914, lot 21 (¨323 to Harman)
Count Herman Wrangel and thence by descent