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The Silver Claret Jug

Martin McIlroy, Head of the Silver Department, charts the rise in popularity of the silver claret jug from Queen Victoria to the Art Deco movement. He also traces the English love of claret from the 12th Century to modern times.

A Victorian Claret Jug decorated with fairies, insects and flowers, London 1873.

A Victorian Claret Jug decorated with fairies, insects and flowers, London 1873.

The English love of claret can be blamed on Henry II who married Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152. Part of Eleanor's Kingdom included the vineyards of Bordeaux and it wasn't long before the best red wine in the world was being shipped to England. Not only did this prove the death knell for the huge number of English wine grower's but it also turned them into "a nation of shopkeepers".

Claret continued in popularity and demand up until the latter part of the 18th century, when circumstances changed in France and they decided to have a revolution followed by years of Napoleon. During this period, the importation of claret declined and finally ceased, bar a small amount imported by a few entrepreneurs better known as smugglers!

In 1860, the re-importation of claret commenced with reduced duty payed on the wine to encourage trade between France and England. Once again, claret took its rightful place as England's premier alcoholic beverage.

With the resurgence of claret in the late 19th century, not only was it taken up with vigour by the upper classes but also by the wealthier middle classes. Coinciding with this was the rise in the formal banquets and dinner parties, together with all the etiquette that came with them.

Rather than just have opened bottles on the table, a jug was used to hold the wine and so the claret jug was born. The end of the 19th century also coincided with vintage years for claret in 1894, 1896, 1899 and 1900.

The claret jug normally came with a clear glass body that would show off the colour of the claret to be drunk. It would have a silver mounted collar to the neck of the jug with a scroll shaped handle and, of course, the hinged lid.

The glass body had several variations in decoration from plain and clear translucent to cut designs, which included the hob nail, palmette and starburst designs. Sometimes the glass would be engraved with traditional English subjects such as stag hunting or fox hunting. The silver mounts would also reflect the latest fashion trends from the traditional bacchanalian scenes of putti, vine leaves and grapes to a more simple scroll and foliate bordered decoration.

Often the finial to the hinged lid would be in the form of a lion or stag holding a shield onto which the owner would have his crest or monogram engraved.

As we move from the Edwardian period towards the Art Deco, once again the claret jug adapted its decoration: the glass body was plain, cylindrical and tapering, lids tended to be flat rather than domed and the handles angular rather than scrolled.

Since the 1930s, claret has again fallen out of favour due to individual vineyards in Bordeaux producing fine wines that people now collect and drink under the vineyards label. These include Chateau Laflite, Chateau Latour and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Perhaps it is a greater awareness of fine wines by the British that has in turn led to the demise of the ever collectable claret jug.


  • Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood
  • Silver Claret Jugs

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About the Author

Martin McIlroyMartin McIlroy
Collectables and Toys
Works of Art and Clocks

Martin McIlroy is the Head of the Works of Art and Silver Departments at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood.

Martin McIlroy was educated at Exeter School in Devon and took a gap year before continuing his education at Teacher Training College. He subsequently worked at The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, cataloguing reserve collections before spending seven years working for a local auction room gaining further experience.

He joined the internationally renowned auction house Philips in 1982, where he catalogued sales in Exeter, Cornwall and London for sixteen years. He then joined Bearne's in 2000 to catalogue silver and works of art and subsequently became Head of these deparments.

His favourite subject is bronze sculpture, church silver, toys and collectables.