SILVER-MOUNTED COCONUT SHELL DISH
This little beauty often goes unnoticed. It sits shyly towards the bottom of a display cabinet where some more ostentatious companions flaunt their charms. Often passed over by visitors, this dish is a high quality piece of craftsmanship made from precious and uncommon materials. It is an excellent example of understated elegance.
The online catalogue describes it thus: “A small, oval cup or dish made from a coconut shell with silver mounts on the rim and foot. It is stamped with mark H.S struck lightly on the outer rim. This is most likely to be the mark of Henry Sherwin who was a Freeman of the Goldsmiths Company in Dublin from 1695-1733 and who worked in Copper Alley in the city.”
Copper Alley (in Dublin’s Temple Bar area) is surely an apt address for a silversmith. Even more appropriate, in 1837 we find a Richard Sherwin, Silversmith, living at 39, Golden Lane.1
Cup Item Code HCL 008 – The Hunt Museum Collection, Limerick, Ireland
The Sherwin family has given us many silversmiths. The Goldsmiths Company of Ireland lists John Sherwin as Warden 1767-8 and again as Master 1769-70.2 The National Museum of Ireland has a pair of Dublin sauce tureens and covers by John Sherwin, 1801.3
And also here it is the WS hallmark of William Sherwin, Dublin, 1832. 4
The use of coconut shell is remarkable. Coconuts were noted by Marco Polo in the 13th century, and again by Vasco da Gama in the 16th century. It was believed that coconut shells had magical healing powers and were able to neutralize the effects of poison. “They [were] fashioned into elaborate goblets inlaid with precious metals and gemstones. This practice continued well into the 19th century.” 5
The coconut triggered an art movement in 14th century northern Europe, as craftsmen and silversmiths used the nut to fashion extravagant goblets decorated with gold and silver (The Irish Times, Feb 18, 2020). 6, 7
The first coconuts brought to Ireland as a tradeable commodity were probably carried by a merchant ship that sank off Schull, Co. Cork around 1630 (The Irish Examiner, May 23, 2012). The wreck was discovered in 2012. Because coconuts were considered exceptional at the time, they would have been valuable.8 In the early seventeen-hundreds coconut would still have been extremely rare in Dublin. Its use in Sherwin’s dish would have made this item very exotic, an attractive conversation piece, desirable and prized.
Limerick silver is very much rarer than Dublin silver, and consequently many times more valuable. Henry Sherwin’s beautiful coconut dish shares a shelf with three pieces from his almost contemporary Limerick silversmith, Joseph Johns, described as “the most prolific and arguably most successful of Limerick goldsmiths”. Johns (died 1775) lived and worked in Main Street, Englishtown (now Mary Street), opposite Fanning’s Castle. Johns served as Mayor of Limerick in 1773 9.
The pieces by Johns in the Hunt museum are an intricately decorated salver, a finely crafted ladle, and an exquisitely simple pap boat.
The cup seen on the right by John Purcell (died 1813) is another fine piece by a Limerick silversmith. Purcell lived “under the King’s Head Tavern nearly opposite the Exchange”, a stone’s throw from the Limerick home of Joseph Johns.9
The online catalogue describes it as “a horn cup with silver-gilt mounts on the rim and foot. The mounts are stamped with the makers mark I.P.”
Pursell’s cup resembles Sherwin’s dish in the quality of its craftsmanship and also in its composition. Both items combine an organic base material with finely wrought precious metal mounts.
- From: List of voters taken from Proceedings at the Election for the City of Dublin … 1835 … available at Google Play Book Store
- Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks & Makers’ marks
- Antique Irish Silver | Web Catalogue
- Hallmakers Of English Silver Marker’s mark identification
- Ramin Ganeshram; January/February 2017 – Cracking Coconut’s History
- Robin Laurance; July 2019 | A lovely bunch of fun facts about coconuts
- Coconut: How The Shy Fruit Shaped Our World, Robin Laurance, Pub 2019 by The History Press
- Sean O’ Riordan; May 2012 | Discovered wreck may have been first ship to bring coconuts to Ireland
- A Celebration of Limerick Silver, John Bowen & Conor O’Brien, Pub 2007 by The Collins Press and The Hunt Museum