Hester Bateman: A Woman Before Her Time

December 2010
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ANTIQUE WEEK...


It's the stuff of great literature: the setting is 18th century England, and a woman's lot is completely dependent upon the men in her life. Her options are few, and her rights are even fewer. When one uneducated woman finds herself widowed, she beats all odds when she takes over her deceased husband's business and keeps the family afloat.

A compelling story, to be sure, but in the case of Hester Bateman, there's more to the tale than gripping human interest. There's the amazing output of silver pieces that first caught the imagination of consumers more than 200 years ago. With exquisitely clean lines and elegant fine detail, the wares of the House of Bateman are still regarded with favor and remain highly sought after. And the fascination with the story of the Queen of Silversmiths remains.

Details of Hester Bateman's personal and professional life remain sketchy at best and are primarily limited to several occurrences noted as public record. These facts are certain as far as they go, but filling in the blanks is a matter of supposition. Born Hester Neden (or Needham) and the youngest of five children, she was baptized on Oct. 7, 1708. Her formal education, if any, was very limited, and she signed legal documents with an "X," which probably indicates she was illiterate. It is believed that her older brother John introduced her to John Bateman, described in various London records as a gold chain maker, watch chain maker, wire drawer, goldsmith, and silversmith. There are no records of him having served any apprenticeships in his field, nor is there evidence of his having attained freedom from any of the Companies of London, the equivalent of being declared a journeyman.

With little to their name, Hester and John Bateman were married in 1732. They first said their vows, for a nominal cost, before a priest incarcerated at The Fleet, a prison for debtors. Although this sort of legal service was not an uncommon option for impoverished couples, a second ceremony was later performed at the Church of St. Botolph in Aldersgate. The union was blessed with five children.

Because of a lack of information indicating otherwise, it is assumed that John Bateman did his metalworking from home, working on contracts for master craftsmen. In keeping with the ways of the time, Hester and the children learned the trade from Bateman and assisted him with his work. As the couple became more financially successful,they moved to a home in Middlesex, where one part of the house was reserved for the family life and another for the family business.

In 1760, John Bateman died of consumption. In his will, he bequeathed all of his tools to his wife. Left to carry on for the family, Hester continued to do what she had been doing when John was still at her side: she worked in fine metals. She registered the first of nine punch-marks with the Goldsmith's Hall in 1761. She continued to take commissions from other silversmiths, and even though she signed some of her pieces, many of her marks were overstamped by those she supplied. Although women were often "invisible" in the world of commerce, the fact that Hester forged on with the family enterprise is not all that surprising in itself. What makes the story extraordinary is the degree of success she was soon to enjoy.

Her earliest pieces were simple items such as flatware, primarily spoons. Success begat success, and the company was able to expand with the purchase of additional equipment, making other techniques feasible. Small hollowware pieces, including salts and creamers, followed. With the rise in popularity of tea in England came the production of a wide variety of serving pieces. Nearing the end of her tenure as head of the family firm, Hester would come to enjoy satisfaction in overseeing the production of presentation and ecclesiastical wares.

Hester Bateman is proof that illiterate does not mean unintelligent or untalented. Although she was not an educated woman, she clearly had a mind for business and was undoubtedly very persuasive when it came to marketing her lines. She kept prices down and still managed to provide for her extended family. It has been estimated that no fewer than 11,000 pieces of silverware were produced during her 30-year career. Among those aiding her over the years were her sons John, Peter, William, and Jonathan; an apprentice, John Linney; and Jonathan's wife Ann, who herself came from a family of Huguenot silversmiths. Hester continued working until 1791; her sons continued with the family business after their mother retired. Hester Bateman died on Sept. 26, 1794.

For Bill Rau, Hester Bateman and her silver are something very special. As proprietor of M.S. Rau in New Orleans, he does not hold back in his praise. "She remains the most important female craftsperson in the world," he said unequivocally. Because of her artistry and business acumen, there is little wonder why she achieved success during her lifetime and that her fame has endured over the years. "She feminized the silver, and that's the crux of it."

The House of Bateman produced pieces that can be categorized as light and airy, and, at the same time, austere and elegant. Bateman's pieces do not reflect the ornate rococo style popular during her day; they are of a simpler, neo-classical nature. The hollowware produced under her aegis was worked in thin-gauge sheet silver, decorated with Bateman's signature thinline beading, piercings, and bright-cut engraving.

Her business sense equaled her artistic talents, according to Rau. The real cost of a piece of silverware reflects the labor involved, and Bateman made the decision early on to keep the price of her wares within the reach of the emerging upper middle class, a profitable business strategy that did not compromise quality or aesthetic value. Selling what people wanted at a price they could afford, she was positioned in the right place at the right time.

"It's hard to imagine the prejudices she faced," Rau stated. "Had she been as good and not better than her competition, she would not have survived. She broke the mold because she could be better than anyone else."

And in some circles, the prejudice can still be found. There are those who attempt to shift the credit for the House of Bateman's success away from Hester herself, suggesting that an illiterate widow would be the unlikely head of such a venture. Rau does not buy into this line of reasoning. "The proof is in the pudding," he asserted. Any question about the matriarch's role in the business is easily answered, he continued. The transformation seen in the silverware after John Bateman's death is dramatic. In Rau's mind, what John did before his death is not the question, nor is what happened after Hester's retirement the important part of the story. It is all about what Hester was able to achieve.

Detractors suggest that Bateman did not do every piece herself, and to that, Rau counters that it would be ridiculous to even imagine that one person could be responsible for such an output. "Everybody had a factory," he said, adding that this fact in no way diminishes Bateman's importance. "This was all done under her guidance, subject to her approval. She controlled the process. They were her drawings, her stamp, her level of sophistication."

Just as her husband had no formal training in silversmithing, neither did Hester. She relied heavily on a good eye for aesthetic beauty, according to Rau. "I believe it was instinctive for her. She had talent. And she had the willpower to do it right." On the subject of her sons, Rau said that although they were undoubtedly talented in their own right, "They weren't Mom."

"Whether or not she sat at the bench and made every piece is not the question; that's not really what's important." What matters most is the beauty of what was created under her direction, and her ability to market her wares.

Today, silver pieces from the House of Bateman are what Rau considers to be "affordable," in light of their important place in the history of silver making. An extraordinary example of Hester Bateman's work can be had for $5,000 to $6,000, he said, although small pieces can be picked up for $1,500 to $2,000. "Even average pieces are great." For himself, Rau prefers Bateman's hollowware. Although spoons are the least expensive of all pieces and can be purchased at about $100, "you cannot see the genius in them," Rau said. "You're only buying her name." Over the years, M.S. Rau has been "the largest Hester Bateman dealer in the world," according to its owner. Currently, Rau's inventory includes approximately 40 pieces recently acquired from a 40-year collection.

Few can deny that Hester Bateman deserves the title "Queen of Silversmiths." To be certain, portions of her personal life story remain in doubt and, because of the passage of time, some answers will never be known. But there is no question about the tangible things she left behind: a legacy of extraordinary silver. "It was a combination of a good eye and deft hand," Rau concluded. And in the end, her personal life is not what makes Bateman silver what it is. "The fact that she was a female silversmith is not the most important thing. Even without her terrific story, the silver still speaks for itself."

The authors thank Bill Rau and the staff of M.S. Rau for their editorial and photographic contributions to this story.

Image Descriptions:

This rare silver soup tureen, hallmarked in 1787, is one of only two oversized items created by Hester Bateman. Its Greco-Roman design is perfectly balanced and proportional, with Bateman's trademark beading, intricate bright-cut engraving, and upswept reeded handles flowing gracefully into the upturned lid.

Pair of wine coasters demonstrating Bateman's ability to produce fine pierced pieces with distinctive beaded edging.

Sterling silver coffeepot featuring a flared base and straight spout, beautifully balanced by the scrolling wooden handle. Topped with an urn finial, this coffeepot exhibits a delicately engraved armorial.

Hester Bateman's signature brightcut engraving takes center stage in this Georgian period silver creamer. The addition of beaded edging emphasizes the inherent beauty of this piece.

Accentuated by two rows of refined repoussé and applied beadwork, this Georgian silver salver by Hester Bateman illustrates the silversmith's flair for elegance.

A fine Georgian silver wine funnel, this piece would have been attached to the rim of a wine bottle via the hook, and red wine would have passed through the perforation in the center of the funnel and into the glass, allowing the wine to "breathe."

Exquisite bright-cut engraving distinguishes this lovely Georgian sterling silver mustard pot. The pot retains its original cobalt blue glass liner.

These rare and exceptional sterling silver master salts exhibit a striking reverse scallop edge and Bateman's trademark bright-cut engraving.

 

Hester Bateman: A Woman Before Her Time

Hester Bateman: A Woman Before Her Time

Hester Bateman: A Woman Before Her Time

Hester Bateman: A Woman Before Her Time