The Merits and De-merits of Replating Old Sheffield Plate
It is generally considered something of a crime to re-plate Old Sheffield Plate, and many feel that a piece of Old Sheffield Plate which has been re-plated should never be bought. In this article I would like to discuss the pros and cons of re-plating a piece of Old Sheffield Plate, and attempt to explode the myth that such pieces should never be touched.
At this juncture I must point out that I am a great lover of Old Sheffield Plate, and enthusiastically use and study it. I don’t question for a moment that it is ideal to have a piece with all the original plate, in superb condition. I do think though, there are times when re-plating is perfectly acceptable, if not ideal.
A sensible place to start this discussion would be to review the reasons why re-plating is considered such a bad thing.
First and foremost, the method of fabricating Old Sheffield Plate itself is of considerable interest to many collectors. Old Sheffield Plate is, in fact, “fused plate”, as the method for attaching the silver to the base metal is through a process of fusing by heat. This was an innovative and breakthrough technique, which many people find fascinating in and of itself.
Sometimes a more casual distinction is drawn between early plate (including but not exclusively Old Sheffield Plate), and late plate, meaning electroplate. For our purposes Old Sheffield Plate is a more precise term, but there are those who are interested in all forms of early plate, and reject “late” plate as less worthy of study or interesting to a collector. I am not one of these people, however I do appreciate the clever method involved in the fabrication of “fused plate” and the techniques developed in its construction in to objects. When collecting Old Sheffield Plate for this reason, it is undeniable that something is lost by re-plating.
The modern method of plating of course, is Electroplating (invented by Fredrick Elkington in 1842). Quite sensibly people feel that it is not ideal to refresh the silver of a piece of fused plate with a different method, and as fused plate can only be made in sheet form, then to be fashioned in to objects at a later date, it is not possible to re-plate using the original method!
Indeed, fused plate is made with Sterling Silver, while electroplating must use fine silver (999/1000 parts pure or higher). There is a subtle difference in colour between fine silver and sterling, the latter being more blue gray, while the former is whiter and harsher looking. Therefore the finished look would be different to that of the original piece. This is somewhat mitigated by age, as of course a piece will regain some wear and patina as time goes on. In fact, the difference in colour is so subtle and slight as to be undetectable in most lighting conditions, and takes years of training to properly perceive.
In the past, particularly in Victorian times, there was no real interest in Old Sheffield Plate for its own sake. Pieces were functional objects like any other, and indeed, one important function of a piece of high quality silver plate (Old Sheffield Plate or otherwise) was to imitate silver. Clearly a piece with the copper wearing through is failing at this function, and to the platers it must go! In the very late Victorian period and early 20th century Old Sheffield Plate begun to receive the recognition it deserved. At this time what the Victorians thought of as a disfigurement (namely the showing of the copper on the high points which received the most wear) gained the less offensive term “bleeding”, and begun to be considered desirable, not least because it was supposedly evidence that a piece had not been re-plated. This of course was nonsense, and is even more so today, as the first pieces to be re-plated are now over 150 years old, have developed a good patina, and no doubt pass for the real thing all too often. Bleeding certainly is desirable, and many collectors, myself included, love the look of the copper blushing through on the high points. It looks particularly fine against a red wood like mahogany.
We have already mentioned patina, and a very real and sensible objection to re-plating Old Sheffield Plate is that one looses any patina a piece might have. Just as in furniture, patina is one of the delights of Antique Silver and Old Sheffield Plate, and a source of value as well as of beauty. It is a great crime to spoil a wonderful fine patina, and such pieces should of course always be preserved in this condition. There are those who prefer the “brand new" look however. For these people, who are not interested in antique wear, a re-plated piece of Sheffield in a pleasing design is more desirable, and of course, cheaper too!
The specific construction of a piece is often of interest to the student and collector of Sheffield, and it is certainly true that much of what can be observed in the study of this is hidden by electroplating. Rubbed in silver shields, silver edges and cleverly disguised seams are all lost under a layer of electroplated silver. If the principle reason for collecting is to study construction and the clever methods of the early plate manufacturers used to hide seams and such, then re-plated pieces are at a disadvantage.
Of course, many people wish simply to use Old Sheffield Plate. After all, it is a much more affordable way to acquire a beautiful piece of Georgian craftsmanship and design than buying Sterling. For use, even every day use, Old Sheffield Plate is ideal. It is in no way troublesome to use a piece of Sheffield which is bleeding on the outside, but of course insides should (and usually still do) have a layer of silver, gold washed silver or tin, as copper does not mix well with food! If a piece intended for eating or drinking is worn through to the copper then at least the inside should be re-plated, re-tinned or gilt.
Of course some pieces are worn beyond the attractive stage of bleeding. When a piece is particularly interesting in other regards it should probably be left alone, but many are principally interested with the use or aesthetic qualities of a piece and if this is the case, a re-plated piece does the job perfectly well!
Our final objection is perhaps the most important one. In order to re-plate a piece it must be professionally polished in order to ensure the plate bonds well. This is a slightly abrasive process, and if not carried out carefully some detail can be lost on the high points. Generally this is so minor as not to be noticed, but an old piece which is already heavily worn, or worse, has already been re-plated once or even twice can begin to look very tired. In this case re-plating can be very detrimental to the quality of the piece.
I hope that during the course of this article the point which has repeatedly been alluded to is now obvious. Different sorts of collectors have different standards, and fundamentally, different reasons for collecting. As we have seen many such reasons genuinely eliminate re-plated Old Sheffield Plate. Many more do not. The dividing line seems to be between those who are mostly interested in Old Sheffield Plate objects in an academic sense, as opposed to those who simply appreciate the quality and design of the piece. Both groups may potentially wish to use Old Sheffield Plate, and much pleasure can be gained from this. I think in the past, the mantra that one must never buy a piece of re-plated Old Sheffield Plate went hand in hand with a sort of snobbery that there was only one reason to be interested in the subject at all: Academic interest in the method of plating, construction and finishing, and interest in the history of the Old Sheffield Plate trade in general. While I personally find all of these subjects fascinating, I do not feel that every object I own has to be a lesson in them. I certainly don’t feel that there should be only one reason to collect this wonderful material! I feel perfectly happy watching candlelight dance off the sides of my re-plated 1780’s Argyle, and actually feel rather better about pouring wine from a re-plated wine ewer of a similar date. I would be unhappy re-plating perfectly good pieces just to make them more usable or to satisfy the tastes of those who dislike the look of copper. But if the work has already been done, I feel no pressure to give the piece a wide berth. A beautiful object is still a beautiful object, after all.
Article by James Baldwin
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