Carnegie Museum of Art has acquired the Tennyson Vase, 1867, a superbly crafted silver urn from the late 19th century, by British sculptor and designer Henry Hugh Armstead, and made by Hancocks and Sons, silversmiths to Queen Victoria.
The vase was exhibited at the 1867 World's Fair in Paris, and then at the 1873 World's Fair in Vienna. In 1887, it was chosen as the Ascot horse racing cup to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. At that time, a British royal coat of arms and the words “ASCOT/1887/JUBILEE CUP” became part of the object's decoration.
“The Tennyson Vase is one of those rare objects that has the ability to transform Carnegie Museum of Art's late 19th century art collection, already a well-known strength for the museum in both fine and decorative arts,” says Jason Busch, the museum's Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman curator of decorative arts.
The Tennyson Vase will enhance the museum's 19th century decorative arts collection through its successful use of a technically complex and highly interpretive decoration on silver. No other silver object in the museum's collection demonstrates a comparable level of ornamental skill, achieved through a balanced mastery of casting, hammering, chasing, repoussé, and electro-plating.
Born in London in 1828, Mr. Armstead is best known for the quality of his craftsmanship and skillful ornamentation, as seen in his most famous sculpture, the Prince Albert memorial in London. The Tennyson Vase is considered one of his major accomplishments and will complement the Wells Cup (1772), by Daniel Smith and Robert Sharp, which is prominently featured in the recent reinstalled neoclassical gallery in the museum's Scaife Galleries.
The Tennyson Vase was named after the beloved poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose popular poems “Morte d'Arthur” and “Guinevere” inspired Armstead to adorn the handles of the vase with fully-sculpted figures of Queen Guinevere and Merlin, and to craft detailed scenes of the legendary battle of King Arthur on the sides.
“It was envisioned as homage to King Arthur and Arthurian legends, as well as to the imperial success of Queen Victoria, and her Consort, Prince Albert,” says Busch. The vase is also ornamented by a fusion of medieval and Renaissance motifs such as dragons, angels, and stylized sunflowers that relate closely to designs in the museum's larger collection.