By the 18th century, entertaining had developed into an art. A new emphasis on decorating the table led to the centerpiece. One of the more elegant centerpieces was the epergne, from the French epaigner, meaning to be thrifty, the saving of space and time for the presentation of food.
Records show that the first epergne appeared on the English table in the 1720s. Early examples were long and low with a bowl in the center and, on either end, dishes for foods rich in sugar, called “sweetmeats,” such as candy or crystallized fruit. Later examples of epergne were tiered and constructed with a frame and scrolling arms that supported hanging baskets and dishes filled with flowers and sweetmeats, many imported from India.
Drexel’s sterling silver epergne has a Chippendale pagoda design with a pierced canopy and alternating flutes and small bells. A detachable, silver caste pineapple with added leaves adorns the top. Four foliated columns support the pagoda. In the center is a gondola-shaped basket with alternating planes of pierced ovals and asymmetrical filigree designs. This decorative basket would most likely have been filled with flowers. A ring of chased flowers is positioned below the fluted central skirt with alternating bands of beading and beaded leaves. At the sides are four looped, scrolling arms supporting hanging baskets and dishes.
At the time, it was the practice for the silversmith to stamp on the bottom or the side of the object an indication of the date, where the silver piece was made and the initials of the artist. This epergne is marked with a “k” in a shield indicating the year 1765, a standard lion passant for the locality, London, and the maker’s mark, T.P., in a rectangle for the silversmith, Thomas Pitts. He is recorded as a goldsmith and chaser and specialized in the production of epergnes and baskets.
After Anthony Drexel purchased the 18 th-century epergne, possibly on a trip to Europe, he had each of the dishes and baskets engraved with the Drexel family crest, the Stag-and-Crown, and the initials of his wife, Ellen Rozet Drexel, “ERD.” The epergne is currently on display in the Rincliffe Gallery on the third floor of the Main Building and is recorded in Anthony’s Drexel’s accession book.
--Jacqueline DeGroff, curator of the Drexel Collection