Deciphering Heraldry

We recently carried out a collection-wide project to identify the coat of arms and crests engraved on some of the silver teapots and tea caddies within The Chitra Collection, so that we may better understand the history of their ownership. Enlisting help from the College of Arms, they searched their records in order to shine some light on unidentified heraldry found on our silver teaware.

Heraldry, or coats of arms, is the art and science of devising and understanding hereditary symbols, often displayed on shields and on flags.  The recording of coat of arms and crests for noble families dates back officially to 1484, when the College of Arms was first established; however they had been in use long before and it is believed the inception of heraldry dates back to the 12th century. Originating in a society of illiteracy, heraldry allowed bold and striking designs to act as visual identifiers of their owners. In 1415, Henry V decreed that anyone wanting arms had to obtain an original design from the heralds, and by 1530, Royal control of coat of arms was established. Henry VIII even imposed a tax on families that had arms – a tax which lasted until its abolition in 1945!

CCN 1059. This coat of arms is engraved on a kettle made by Paul de Lamerie. It shows the marital arms of Dr. Thomas Crowe (1672-1751) and his wife Anne (1685-1764), daughter of John Kenrick, a London merchant.

By the 18th century, heraldry had evolved from merely an identification device to a way of portraying a family’s status and prestige, progressing far beyond its original intentions. Rules were devised and an understanding was required to follow the symbols depicted. When two families were married, a coat of arms was halved or ‘impaled’, bearing that of both the husband and wife, as seen on CCN 1059 and CCN 993. When their children came to marry, a further halving would take place, creating an elaborate and detailed family heritage within the shield.

CCN 993. The coat of arms on these tea canisters are of Platt of Wiggin impaling Piggott, representing a marriage between the two families.

As tea’s popularity and affordability increased in Britain throughout the 18th century, fine silver teapots were considered the ultimate symbol of wealth and taste. In line with armorial porcelain commissioned from workshops in China, engraving coat of arms on a silver teapot became highly desirable and reminded those invited to tea of their host’s genteel lineage. To cater to this fashion, many silversmiths produced teapots with bare cartouches, so that a coat of arms could be added when purchased or gifted to its final recipient.

CCN 399 This bullet shape teapot bears the arms of Pennington, with the central lozenge in gold (or) tincture, with five diamonds through the centre in red (gules) tincture.

In order to transfer the colourful coat of arms to silver, a system of patterns known as ‘tinctures’ was developed. Titled the ‘Petra Sancta’ method, after the Italian herald Sylvester Petra Sancta who devised it in 1638, this widely recognised system allowed these images to be rendered in engravings. There are three main categories of decoration: Colours, Metals, and Furs, their associated engraving illustrated below. One of the main rules in heraldry is that two engravings from the same category should not be placed on top of each other, for example, a metal on a metal, or colour on colour.

Conventional representations of tinctures

CCN 221 The coat of arms on this teapot is of the United, Religious and Military orders of the Temple and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Palestine, Rhodes and Malta, or the Knights Templar Freemasons.

This is especially apparent in CCN 221, where a diagonal band of ermine crosses a gold (or) background, overlapping red (gules). However, there would have been cases where an engraving was carried out incorrectly, defying the above rule and making identification of the owner extremely difficult, if not impossible. To add to the confusion, some depictions of coat of arms were used without authority, in that they would not be recorded with the College of Arms, or assigned to an owner. Someone hoping to avoid the tax or fee would instead visit a heraldic station shop and obtain a tweaked design used by someone with the same name as recorded in the dictionary of arms! With no way of checking its legitimacy, it would be happily adopted by the family and used as their own. Nevertheless, this system allowed a family’s coat of arms to be ‘emblazoned’ in black and white, and wealthy families were able to transfer their heritage – supposed or otherwise – to their silver teaware, manifesting their social standing amongst peers.

Our most exciting discovery as a result of the project concerned an early English teapot on stand (CCN 1379) dating to 1714/15. The crest on the exterior of the pot denotes that it once belonged to Sir Richard Beachcroft (1650-1721), a wealthy London cloth merchant and Lord Mayor of London in 1711-1712.