Symon Owen (English, active 15951624)
Silver gilt; Ewer: H. 15 3/4 in. (40 cm); Basin: Diam. 19 5/8 in. (49.8 cm)
Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1968 (68.141.135,136)
This ewer and basin bear the mark of Symon Owen (active 1595, a prominent London goldsmith, probably a member of the Welsh family of armorers who may have come to London on the train of Henry VII. The combination of ewer and basin was a refinement of life borrowed from the East in very early times, before the general use of forks made the washing of hands during a meal unnecessary. The hands were held over the basin and a server poured a stream of perfumed water over them. When their use at table was discontinued, such matched sets of ewer and basin became the centerpiece of display plate, kept on the sideboards of great houses and corporate entities such as guilds and colleges.
The delicately engraved badge of Henry Frederick, prince of Wales (15941612) and eldest son of James I of England, appears on a disk of silver slipped under the edge of the central boss. It probably replaced what was there before Henry's investiture in 1610, which entitled him to use the three feathers and the motto Ich Dien as an emblem of his position. The ewer and basin may have been used either in Saint James Palace or at Charlton House, the prince's residences before his death in 1612.
The double rose of the Tudors also appears in the decoration of these pieces, as though to recall the descent of the Stuarts from Henry VII, who used the motif to signify the end of the dynastic wars between the Yorkist and Lancastrians, whose emblems had been a red and a white rose, respectively. Dolphins playing with barrels, seen in some of the reserves, was a popular motif at the time this set was made. It recalls the ancient belief that Greek mariners would throw barrels overboard to provide a diversion for playful dolphins who followed their ships and might inadvertently overturn them in their excitement.