Antiques & Collecting: Sheer Class on a Plate at the Dining Table; Richard Edmonds Looks at the History of the Tiffany Flatware Table Service, Made at a Time in America When Dining Was an Art

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Summer is the time when you bring out the best porcelain and silver for those special candle-lit dinners which end, at this time of year, with strawberries and cream and a pudding wine.

It all has something to do with warm weather and relaxation, table flowers and good company, the kind of guests who appreciate a well designed cutlery service, or a fine wine glass.

But food has always had its special rituals, and you only have to look at the tea ceremony in the 18th century, with its beautiful porcelain tea pots, tea bowls and hand made silver teaspoons, to grasp my meaning. And so a dinner table, set out well for half a dozen guests is a complex affair sending out its own signals of spending power (the food, the wine and the table service) and intellectual snobbery (a choice of menu, the origin of the different wines along with talk of good restaurants visited in other countries, perhaps).

How very nice then to delight your guests with, say, a Tiffany flatware table service, made at the time in America when dining was an art.

It has always seemed to me that good silverware can make even the most humble dish - perhaps baked beans on toast - seem like the food of the Gods.

It all depends how you present it and the table silver helps.

But Tiffanys dealt with the American well-heeled customer in the 19th century and the firm had a multiplicity of specialised implements within the main body of the dinner services.

These could range from terrapin forks to petits fours servers.

The designs of the various patterns included evocative names suggesting the grandeur of the past, there was The Richelieu Pattern, for example, The Colonial Pattern and The English King Pattern.

At the dinner tables of the Vanderbilts, the Astors or the Rockefellers, these splendid Tiffany confections in silver graced equally beautiful porcelain by Sevres, Worcester or Derby.

And all of it would have been laid on mahogany tables with linen placed settings edged with chantilly lace.

The glassware was probably by Waterford, Whitefriars or St Louis.

Manufacturing processes allowed a kind of style mix. Thus, a Renaissance pattern teaspoon handle could be combined with an ice cream spoon bowl.

A Chrysanthemum Pattern gravy ladle might be given, rather surprisingly, a dessert spoon handle rather than the expected table spoon hand.

It still looked handsome, of course, but it makes identification difficult for today's collectors.

But in the richly illustrated Tiffany Silver Flatware by Hood, Berlin and Wawrynek (Antique Collectors' Club, pounds 45) the whole subject of the Tiffany tablewares and their designs and manufacture is examined thoroughly and after reading this splendid book you are very likely to know all that there is about the subject to date.

And there are some lovely oddities amongst the various chapters. I have never seen an olive spoon in all my years of visiting fairs and private dealers. …