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Murphree, James __Maker
Place Made:
Norfolk Virginia United States of America
Date Made:
HOA: 1-5/8″; DIA: 2-3/8″ __ __ __ __ __ __81.3 grams (one) and 83.5 grams (second)
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Significant pair of colonial Virginia silver saltcellars in circular form with gadrooned rims, three scroll feet and acanthus knees. Very little silver made in Virginia before the American Revolution survives either due to a local preference in the period for English-made silver or through loss through reuse (i.e., melting down) or plundering.

MARK: Struck three times on underside of base with an intaglio “I • M” mark in a rectangular reserve.

MAKER: The silversmith James Murphree (c.1730-1782) worked in Norfolk, Virginia from at least 1752, when he most likely completed his apprenticeship under John Jones, until relocating to nearby Nansemond County, Virginia after the British burned Norfolk in December 1775. Five years earlier, in 1770, Murphree took on nine-year-old apprentice James Gaskins (1761-1827), who would become a noted Norfolk silversmith after the Revolution. After evacuating Norfolk in 1775, Murphree is recorded living in Nansemond County for three years but does not appear to working as a silversmith, having married the well-to-do widow Susannah Archer Simms. He surfaces again in documents in 1781 when he and Susannah were living just east of Norfolk in Southampton County and Murphree was granted a license to operate an ordinary in Broad Water. He died a year later, probably a month or two after writing his will in April 1782. An inventory of his estate, recorded on 11 February 1783, listed eleven slaves, household furniture including five beds, and some personal silver items but no silversmithing tools. His parents and birth date are unknown, but he may have been the son of the James Murphree who owned 160 acres of land in Nansemond County in 1704. If the silversmith James Murphree completed his apprenticeship under Jones in 1752 at the traditional age of 21 years of age, he would have been born about 1731, making him about 50 years old at the time of death. See Catherine B. Hollan, “Virginia Silversmiths, Jewelers, Watch- and Clockmakers, 1607-1860: Their Lives and Marks” (McLean, VA: Hollan Press, 2010). See also Christine D. Minter, “James Murphree: Virginia Silversmith,” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Vol. III, No. 1 (May 1977): 1-10.

FORM: Salt was an expensive commodity before the eighteenth century and used ceremoniously, dispensed from elaborate containers. By about 1700 small salt containers designed to be used by an individual at his or her place at the table began to replace the great communal salts of medieval times. Early American salt containers were generally quite small and, befitting salt’s valued place on the table, often made of elaborately decorated silver. Because salt is extremely corrosive, most early saltcellars were open containers that could be easily emptied after each use. Glass inserts were increasingly used in the nineteenth century to protect the silver cellars. This remained true until the popularization of the salt shaker in the middle of the nineteenth century. The overall evolution from a communal form to an individualistic, personalized object reflects in part the vast changes taking place in American culture, which placed increasing emphasis on individuals and their place in society.

Sotheby’s “The Collection of Roy and Ruth Nutt: Highly Important American Silver,” Lot 603, 24 November 2015, New York, NY. Lot passed; misidentified as the work of Jacob Moulton (Newburyport, MA, 1760-1770).
Credit Line:
Partial gift in memory of William Y. W. Ripley; James H. Willcox, Jr., Silver Purchase Fund.