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What's In Store: Metalwork Collections

Triptych, depicting scenes of St Patrick's life in Ireland, enamels and brass inlaid with silver and painted with enamels, London, c. 1903 by Alexander Fisher

Visitors to the What's In Store? gallery can explore Museum collections normally kept in storage. Find out more about enamel, pewter, bronze, brass and electrotypes featured in this gallery.


The enamel collection consists mainly of French and English pieces, with a small number of Irish, Spanish, Russian, Norwegian and German examples. It ranges from 13th-Century Limoges to 18th-Century Battersea to 20th-Century neo-Celtic. It contains examples of the different types of enamelling (champlevé, cloisonné and painted) and includes religious plaques, snuff boxes, patch boxes and cutlery. As in the case of the brass and bronze collections, enamel was acquired for its artistic and aesthetic merits and as an example of high quality craftwork.


The earliest references to the making of pewter in Ireland date to the 14th Century, but no Irish-made wares survive any earlier than the 1600s. During this period there are references to pewterers, not only in Dublin but also in Cork, Galway, Kinsale, Youghal and Clonmel. A system of marking and quality control developed, rather similar to the hallmarking employed by silversmiths. Chalices, tableware, cups, mugs, beer pots and tankards were produced, some copying contemporary English and European styles, some with distinctively Irish characteristics. Measures were also much in demand, especially in shops and taverns and following the introduction of Imperial measure in 1826 the capacity marking of measures and drinking vessels became compulsory. The vessel regarded as being most distinctively Irish was the ‘haystack’ measure, developed around the end of the 18th Century, which became particularly associated with the Cork firm of Joseph Austen.

The introduction of electroplated ware and the increasing use of glass in hotels and taverns led to the gradual decline in the employment of pewter, although it did continue in use into the 20th Century.

The collection contains examples, not only of Irish-made pieces, but also of English and European pewter, ranging in date from the 17th to the end of the 19th Century.

Sheffield Plate

Sheffield plate was produced by the fusion of silver and a base metal, usually copper or copper and brass. The process, developed initially at Sheffield around the middle of the 18th Century and later at Birmingham, remained popular for about 100 years until the advent of electroplating in the 1840s. Durable, visually attractive and considerably cheaper than silver, it was extremely popular and was put to widespread use. Candlesticks, dish rings, coasters and a wide range of tableware were produced. Large quantities were imported into Ireland, especially in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. The examples in the Museum collection were acquired largely between 1895 and 1910, at a time when there was considerable emphasis on exhibiting contemporary design, style and craftsmanship.


Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, has been used from very early times to make weapons, domestic utensils, jewellery and works of art. The material in-store here ranges in date from the late 1500s to the early 20th Century and includes examples of work from Ireland, England, France, Germany and Italy. The collection contains material acquired for its religious, utilitarian or artistic merits.


Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, did not come in to general use until the 16th Century. As with bronze, it was put to a whole range of religious and secular uses. The collection consists of Irish, English and European pieces, including a considerable amount of 18th-Century Dutch material and several examples of Russian religious objects.


Electrotypes are replicas produced by a combination of mould-making, electro-chemical process and craftsmanship. They were particularly popular in the second half of the 19th Century and were copied from original metalwork objects in museum collections throughout Europe.

The Birmingham firm of Elkington and Company developed a particular expertise in their production. With the cooperation of the South Kensington Museum, they copied many of the great medieval masterpieces. The pieces produced were generally of a high quality and were faithful copies of the originals, although not made from the same material. They were usually plated with gold or silver, while many of the originals were of iron, bronze or pewter.

Electrotypes were made as examples of design and style and to provide inspiration for contemporary craftsmen. At a time when travel was more difficult and expensive than today, they also had a strong educational function, providing students with access to the great medieval works of art. They were produced initially as museum pieces but were also sold to the public. The National Museum of Ireland, then the Museum of Science and Art, was a sister institution of the South Kensington Museum and acquired a substantial collection of Elkington material around the end of the 19th Century.

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