National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 21, 1973

Annual Index
Author & Subject

The Compositional Analysis of 
French-Canadian Church Silver

by R. M. Myers and J. F. Hanlan
Canadian Conservation Institute

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4

This theory was borne out in fact because the unpolished areas, such as the interiors or bottoms of objects, and the relatively poorly-polished, heavily-patterned areas, always read higher in silver than the smooth, polished exteriors. Table I gives the results from selected pieces demonstrating this.

Since all analyses were done on smooth, well-polished areas, we are confident that our results are representative of the composition of the object as a whole.


If the history of early Canada is examined, it is apparent that a large amount of silver plate was brought over from France by the settlers in Lower Canada. Evidence attesting to this is given by a single auction in 1728, in which over 1.449 ounces (ninety pounds) of French silver belonging to the Intendent Dupuy was sold in Quebec City. (8) Of course, not every settler had this incredible amount of plate; however, many documents point to the fact that there was a fairly wide-spread use of silver by the general public. With this amount of silver available, it is clear that silversmiths were needed from earliest times to make repairs and to fabricate new objects, both for the settlers and for the Church.

Following the transition from the French to the English régime in 1763, the silversmiths enjoyed a greatly increased patronage. This was due in part to the severance of ties with France with a corresponding cut-off of supplies of silver objects, and in part to the expansion of trade routes and the ensuing general prosperity. There was also an increase in population due to Loyalist immigration from the United States, and to the influx of English officials, traders, and settlers. All of these factors combined to produce one of the most prosperous eras in Canadian silversmithing.

A major difficulty existed for the silversmith, however, because there were very few sources of silver for the fabrication of new objects. In fact, there was no readily available source on the continent. With a finite supply of metal and a greatly increased demand for goods, it became necessary for the silversmith to extend the amount of French silver (950%) that he could melt down by the addition of a poorer grade metal, thereby gradually decreasing the amount of silver in the metal used. This downward trend of silver content can be followed quantitatively over a period of about a hundred years (1760-1864), using results from our analysis.

Table II lists the silver pieces examined, and the results of the analysis of each major section of each object. Fig. 2 is a frequency histogram of all analyses. From this plot, it is apparent that most pieces show a silver content greater than 92.5% (the general coinage standard for the period), and therefore, it is unlikely that any single object was made entirely from coinage silver. Instead, a higher purity metal was used. It is also evident that all readings on the French silver were higher, within experimental limits, than the French silverware standard of 95%.

In general, lead and gold were found in all analyses, along with a scattering of other elements such as zinc, nickel, and iron. These were not quantitatively measured.

Since Ranvoyzé, Amiot, and Sasseville were the only silversmiths with enough pieces analyzed to achieve any statistical significance, the results from their work will form the main part of this report.

Figure 3 gives frequency histograms for analyses of objects by each of the three main silversmiths. The X axis reads per cent silver, and the y axis gives the per cent of analyses falling within a particular range of composition. Table III is a summary of these results, and includes results from the work of other silversmiths who were more or less contemporaries of the three in our study*; however, because of the overlap of working periods, placing a single piece as being in the period of Amiot as opposed to Ranvoyzé, for instance, can at best be only approximate.

*A chalice by Hendrey and Leslie were not included because it was nickel-rhodium electroplated prior to collection.

Ranvoyzé was the earliest silversmith of the three, and analysis of his work (see Table III) shows that 80% of the silver he used was above the 95% French standard. This is reasonable, because he worked shortly after the transition from the French to the English régime, and there would have been much of the original French silver available. Toward the end of his time, however, it appears that the availability, and thus the quality, of silver began its decline. Amiot, the second silversmith studied, worked during a slightly later period (although overlapping the period of Ranvoyzé's activity), and only 36.4% of his silver is above the 95% level. By the second half of the nineteenth century, during Sasseville's time, almost all of the available silver appeared to be below the 95% level, thus confirming the downward trend.

This downward trend is also illustrated in another way - by looking at the lowest readings (within experimental limits) recorded for each piece. None of the French pieces showed readings below 95%Ag. One of the five pieces by Ranvoyzé showed lower readings; five of eight pieces by Amiot showed low readings when analyzed; and finally all six pieces by SasseviIle had some readings below 95%. In fact, no silversmith after Amiot (up to the time of Lafrance) was able to make any articles with as high a silver content as the French pieces.

There were only two readily available metals - copper and coinage silver - that the silversmith could alloy with the available high-grade French silver in order to increase the amount of working material.* It is unlikely that pure copper was used, because any increase in volume would result in a considerable drop in silver content. The only other metal then was the 92.5% coinage silver, which when alloyed with the French silver would give a substantial increase in volume with only a slight degradation of quality. This was the most likely material to have been used.

*At later dates it is possible that English silver of the same standard as coinage was remelted.

By the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, it appears that high-grade silver was again available; however, there are not enough analyses from this period to be able to reach any firm conclusions.

Further examination of our work also demonstrated that the spread of results from all analyses on a single object is over a very narrow range of from 1% to 3%. If results of analysis of some particular part of an object are completely at variance with results of analyses of the rest of the object, then there is reason to look very closely for additions or repairs.

For example, in any single piece by Ranvoyzé, the total spread of results was at most 2%. However, on one piece, a chalice (accession number 14792), the cup read up to 5.4% lower than the rest of the chalice. This raises the question of whether the cup was done at a later date than the rest of the piece, or whether it was indeed made by Ranvoyzé. In fact, the cup has been under suspicion because stylistically it did not match the rest of the chalice (see fig. 4).

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