Alexander Crichton: The Fairytale Silversmith

Published 24th February 2014

Valuation mornings are often full of surprises and unusual pieces, and the continued success of Bearnes Hampton & Littlewoods valuation mornings at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery in Dowell Street in Honiton has resulted in turning up an intriguing example of an elusive Victorian silversmith.


 a three piece silver gilt tea set by alexander crichton 1878

A Three piece silver gilt tea set by Alexander Crichton 1878 

Alexander Crichton is a mysterious figure of the Victorian era, whose place of birth and death are still unknown. His mark was registered with Goldsmiths Hall in 1872 and a pair of shields made by Crichton after designs by Sir Joesph Noel Paton were exhibited in Edinburgh in 1886. Paton’s great artworks ‘The Quarrel’ and ‘The reconciliation of Oberon and Titania’ were themselves based upon ‘A Midsumer Nights Dream’ and contain a plethora of fairytale figures that inspired Crichton.

detail of insect decoration

Detail of insect decoration 

Crichton seems to have embraced the fanciful world of fairytales, no doubt influenced by his relationship to Paton and through him Crichton may certainly have had an acquaintance with Sir John Tenniel. Tenniel’s creations of Lewis Carols figures was perhaps the main impetus for Crichton’s best known work, the wonderfully fanciful silver mounted claret jugs made between 1881 and 1882. Fish, squirrels, owls, cockatoo’s and dodo’s were a number of animals that Crichton used to produce some of the finest eclectic silver of the Victorian period. 


marks for alexander crichton and london assay 1878

Marks for Alexander Crichton and London Assay 1878 

This small three piece silver gilt bachelor tea set bears all of the whimsical styling of Crichton’s work, with butterflies, herons and cockerel executed in high relief. Hallmarked for London 1878 it pre dates the better known claret jugs, but is perhaps an important step in the little known life of Crichton himself. Looking at the octagonal form and naturalistic cast handles, it clearly has influences of the Arts and Crafts period, and the decoration may well have been influenced by Tenniel’s illustrations for Walter Crane’s ‘The baby’s own Aesop…’ 
Working among such luminary figures at the end of the 19th century, it is clear that Alexander Crichton embraced the mood of the nation and its passion for fairytales. Whilst his creations are remembered and coveted by collectors worldwide, the fate of the fairytale silversmith remains unknown, except for an application for discharge from bankruptcy filled in Sheffield in 1899. 
That this tea set should appear (as if by magic) it continues the story of Crichton’s work onto a new era. Included in Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood’s next quarterly fine sale of 29th April 2014 and should easily attract interest form all realms with a pre-sale estimate of £400-£600.

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