Published: September 7, 2004
“Pewter at Colonial Williamsburg,” a long-running exhibition at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, assembles for display more than 250 pieces from the notable collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF), many of which are usually kept in storage or used to furnish various houses on the site. John D. Davis, senior curator of metals, organized the exhibition and prepared the accompanying scholarly catalog of around 400 objects, which was published with the help of the Sara Lee Corporation.
As would have been the case in colonial Williamsburg, the majority of the material in the exhibition and catalog was made not in America but in England. In fact, CWF owns one of the finest collections of British pewter in the United States. Davis explains, “A conscious choice was made from the beginning that English pewter was perhaps more appropriate. Early writers like Ledlie Irwin Laughlin, who wrote Pewter in America, Its Makers and Their Marks, first published in 1940, make it very clear that most pewter produced in this country was made in the middle and northern colonies, while the South produced relatively little pewter.
“It’s not that we didn’t use pewter here – we used as much as anyone else – but we depended on the importation of pewter. Household inventories indicate that individuals occasionally did own molds for casting a basic plate or dish or spoon for their own use.”
The English examples in the catalog carefully note the dealer or collection from which they were purchased. Many of the forms are earlier in style and more elaborate in decoration than the American pewter familiar to collectors on this side of the Atlantic. Plates were not always left plain but could be engraved with coats of arms, as on the rim of a huge Seventeenth Century charger, almost a yard in diameter, or with royal insignia, such as a dish from 1662 that honors King Charles II. Tankards also gave buyers an opportunity to put politics where their mouths were, as on an example by John Donne, London 1686-1688, which is engraved with a portrait bust of James II.
Davis, however, stresses, “We hope in time to acquire more American pewter than we have at the present time.” The exhibition “Pewter at Colonial Williamsburg” is an excellent measure of the progress already made in that direction. For example, a mug made by Samuel Hamlin, who worked in both Middletown and Hartford, Conn., and Providence, R.I., in the late Eighteenth Century, was given to CWF in 1991 by Williamsburg benefactors Mr and Mrs Foster McCarl Jr of Beaver Falls, Penn. The museum also owns two mugs purchased in 1950 from Dr Percy E. Raymond of Lexington, Mass., one of which was made 1780-1788 by Joseph Danforth I of Middletown, Conn.
Williamsburg possesses a representative collection of American pewter sundials, including a square example purchased at a Virginia estate auction in 1995. The clearly marked dial was made by Goldsmith Chandlee of Winchester, Va., who worked between 1785 and 1821. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., owns part of a Chandlee mold for sundials of this design. The talented artisan was noted as well for his tall case clocks and surveying compasses.
Both the exhibition and catalog are arranged by function – “Lighting Devices,” “Drinking Vessels,” etc – which provides collectors with the opportunity to compare British and American forms. Eighteenth Century porringers from England, for example, can be viewed nearby the slightly later examples from New England. The catalog illustrates a porringer made by Hamlin of Providence, 1794-1801, in the chapter on “Dining Wares” and Hamlin’s eagle touchmark in the useful appendix on “Pewter Marks.”
The collection of lighting devices is particularly strong in unusual Seventeenth Century English candlestick forms, whose popularity was almost completely supplanted in Britain by brass metal models in the Eighteenth Century. In contrast, most of the surviving American pewter candlesticks, as well as lamps, are from the Nineteenth Century. Williamsburg owns candlesticks by James Weekes of New York, 1830-1845, and an outstanding oil lamp with a “Brook Farm” touchmark, which was probably made by Ephraim Capen, 1844-1847. Capen became a member of the Brook Farm transcendentalist cooperative community in West Roxbury, Mass., in 1844 and left in 1847. He later was in partnership with George Molineux in New York City and specialized in making lamps.
The section on “Religious Objects” ends with the beautiful chalice and flagon made by Johann Christoph Heyne of Lancaster, Penn., 1752-1781, a 1982 gift of the McCarls. Heyne came from Saxony, worked in Stockholm, and eventually migrated from London to Philadelphia, before settling down in Lancaster. His personal faith was expressed through his carefully crafted communion sets for churches in the area, which exhibit both English and Continental influences. The harmonious curves of the chalice stem are echoed in the simple ornament of the flagon body, which rests on cherub’s head feet.
He continues, “More than half of the value of pewter in the Eighteenth Century was involved in the cost of the metal itself, not in the workmanship. I think the whole equation of the cost of domestic metalware is not really understood today. For instance, we had some very large, detailed brass candlesticks made for use in the capitol building. We asked the foundry to hand finish them in the same way that the process would have been accomplished in the Eighteenth Century. Back then, the bill might have been something like ten shillings for the pair – materials six shillings, labor four shillings. When we got a bill for the reproduction candlesticks from our foundry, it read ‘brass $6.82, labor $1,900.’ The whole sense of relationship between material and labor was completely different.”
The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg is entered through the reconstructed Publick Hospital of 1773 on Francis Street and is open daily 11 am to 6 pm. Space is available for the extensive pewter exhibition while “Furniture of the American South” from the collection is on its national tour. The catalog Pewter at Colonial Williamsburg is available for $70, plus shipping, from the museum shop at 757-229-1000, ext 2937. General museum information, 757-220-7724 or www.colonialwilliamsburg.org.
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