On July 4, 1772, the race at Wells in Somerset was won by Mr. Bassett's horse Priscilla, beating Weazle, Offa, and Zepherina. Priscilla's prize for her achievement was this spectacular two-handled cup. Its rim is engraved "Wells Cup 1772, John Lethbridge, Esq. Steward"
The tradition in England of awarding silver or gold objects as race prizes goes back at least to the sixteenth century, and in the last third of the eighteenth century some of the most richly ornamented examples of English silver are trophies in the form of large, covered two-handled cups. Daniel Smith and Robert Sharp, silversmithing partners who executed the Wells Cup and applied their makers' mark to it, were not its purveyors. The cup was actually sold by another silversmith, William Pickett. This we know from the engraving on the inside of the footrim: Wm. Pickett & Co. Fecit.
Clearly, William Pickett wanted to be certain that he received credit for the cup. Two years earlier he had done the same with the Richmond Cup, also by Smith and Sharp. We cannot know whether he was successful in this instance, but certainly this engraved signature must have provided good advertising for Pickett's business, which flourished. In the year of the Wells Cup, 1772, the enterprising Pickett took Philip Rundell into partnership, and in the 1780s the firm expanded to become Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, jewelers and goldsmiths to the Crown.
The Wells Cup, unlike most racing cups of the era, is devoid of pictorial references to horses or to racing. Aside from the engraving at the rim, which denotes it as the Wells Cup, the only clue to its having been a prize is the figure of Victory that stands atop the cover.
Today the cup is less important as a trophy than as a superb achievement of Neo-Classical design. Fashioned as an urn, the form most closely identified with classical antiquity, the cup is profusely ornamented with classical decoration, such as swirled flutes, acanthus leaves, drapery swags, paterae, and lyres. The handles are pairs of entwined snakes grasping rings in their mouths that support the drapery. Whether cast or chased, the ornament is executed with admirable facility.
In England Neo-Classical taste was first codified in the work of architect Robert Adam in partnership with his brother James. Adam's inspiration from the classical world came from his first-hand experience of ancient remains that had been excavated only relatively recently. The Adam style swept over England in the 1760s and 70s and, especially in its simpler rendering, spread to Europe and America. Although Daniel Smith and Robert Sharp made trophy cups after a design by Adam, the Wells Cup cannot be so closely associated with Adam himself. Nevertheless, it expresses with great clarity English Neo-Classicism as he defined it.