American silversmiths rarely produced silver baskets. This handsome, Empire-style example is partially assembled from ready-made segments, such as the milled band used for the foot and the rim and the swage-struck corner ornaments. The solid sides lend a sense of monumentality typical of the Empire aesthetic and distinct from the delicacy and visual lightness achieved with piercing or wire-work on earlier cake baskets. As manifestations of the Gothic revival, Old English-style engraved initials were popular on Maryland and District of Columbia silver made in the 1810–1830 period.
Charles Burnett was born in Alexandria, Virginia; details of his early life are unknown. His surviving work is so strongly in the Philadelphia/Baltimore style that it is probable that he trained in one of those cities and maintained contacts with his colleagues after establishing his shop in the District of Columbia about 1800. Some of Burnett’s early work carries the small eagle-head mark that, in my judgment, was applied to Philadelphia-made silver sent out for retail elsewhere.
As one of the few silversmiths to work in the District of Columbia, Charles Burnett was in an almost unique position to receive government commissions. He made the silver skippet of 1815 to protect the seal on the Treaty of Ghent and quantities of Indian trade and presentation silver. As a prosperous Washington craftsman, he also made silver for important statesmen including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Henry Clay.1Brown 1980, 70–73.
The milled band used for the rim and edge of the foot of this basket appears on almost every extant example of Burnett’s Empire-style silver and appears to be exclusive to his shop. Burnett used a smaller variety of milled bands than most of his Philadelphia and Baltimore competitors, perhaps indicating that he did not have easy access to competent die-cutters. The Empire-style silver carrying Burnett’s mark is bold and massive in profile and proportion but surprisingly restrained in ornamentation.
Jennifer F. Goldsborough
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.