Published: September 19, 2017
By Laura Beach
NEW HAVEN, CONN. – In the fevered Eastern imagination, Texas decorative arts are bouffant and bodacious, or all frontier grit. Texas silver is neither, as it turns out. Judging from the sampling on view at Yale University Art Gallery through December 10, specimens from the Lone Star state have a subtle complexity reflecting their diverse origin and the relatively traditional, if not retardataire, taste of shoppers in what was then the hustings.
Documented Texas silver is also as rare as hen’s teeth, all the more reason to delight in the display of 27 examples lent by Houston collector and benefactor William J. Hill, a longtime supporter of American decorative arts at Yale. The silver joins a Wenzel Friedrich (1827-1902) horn chair, a gift from Hill, in the museum’s gallery devoted to the arts of New France, New Spain and Texas on the first floor of Street Hall.
Interviewed for this publication by Kate Eagen Johnson in 2014 at the time of the exhibition “Made in Texas: Art, Life & Culture 1845-1900,” Hill is an inveterate enthusiast whose passion for Texas decorative arts guides his support of the online database of Texas material culture (http://texasartisans.mfah.org), a project administered by Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Hill has given generously from his collection to both Yale and Houston’s MFA.
Accompanying the presentation is the slim volume Texas Silver from the William J. Hill Collection, written by Bayou Bend curator Bradley C. Brooks and published by the MFAH in 2016. The useful guide includes marks for the 27 objects in the installation, plus detailed photographs of the pieces.
Texas belonged to Spain, then Mexico, until the United States annexed it in 1845. It seceded from the United States to join the Confederate States of America in 1861. Texas, Brooks notes, attracted merchants and craftsmen from New England, immigrants from Germany and cotton farmers from Southern slaveholding states. Each cultural group left its mark on the region’s silver.
Brooks provides biographies for six of the most active silver makers and/or retailers in the state. Galveston native Frederick Allen (1849-1901) worked as an engraver with Prince & Barnum before going out on his own. He ultimately bought out T.E. Thompson to create the emporium Fred Allen & Company, active in Galveston until 1901.
German immigrant Ferdinand S. Adolph Bahn (1823-1901) was active in Austin until the 1880s. He died in California, his son having taken over the Bahn firm.
Samuel Bell (1798-1882) gets the most ink. Born in Pittsburgh, he moved first to Knoxville, Tenn., and then to Texas in 1851. The firm he founded in San Antonio continued as Bell Jewelry Company until 1961.
Of special interest to Patricia E. Kane is a tumbler made by Samuel Bell. The authority on American silver and the Friends of American Art curator of American decorative arts at Yale sees something of the history of Texas in the nearly 4-inch-tall vessel engraved on its front “APP U.S.A.” and marked “S. BELL” on its bottom. As Kane explains, the initials probably stand for Andrew Parker Porter, United States Army. Porter (1835-1866), a Pennsylvanian, the son of a founder of Lafayette College and the secretary of war under John Tyler. An 1856 West Point graduate, the younger Porter battled Comanche Indians in Texas territory after the Mexican-American War. His first postings, says Kane, were near San Antonio, where he would have acquired the tumbler between 1851 and 1861. Promoted commander of the Army of the Southwest, Porter died in Little Rock, Ark.
Two similar camp cups on view include one, also by Bell, that belonged to Captain Alfred Gibbs (1823-1868), a West Point-trained soldier who served in the Mexican-American War and fought for the Union in the Civil War. The third cup is by F.S. Adolph Bahn for the Virginia-born Alexander W. Terrell (1827-1912), an Austin lawyer who served in the 37th Regiment of the Texas Cavalry during the Civil War.
New Hampshire natives Abiel Carter (1827-1898), John William Dodge Carter (1840-1917) and Samuel F. Morrill (1838-1910) formed the short-lived Gonzales, Texas, partnership Carter & Morrill. “The Civil War was almost certainly the cause of the dissolution of Carter & Morrill,” writes Brooks, noting that the men had likely returned to New Hampshire by 1870. The Carter brothers formed a new partnership as silver retailers in Portland, Maine.
Houston maker and retailer John F. Torrey (1817-1893) was born in Connecticut. His three brothers joined him in Texas in 1842.
Originally from Tennessee, Benjamin C. Wells (1841-1913) arrived in Austin via Mississippi, continued on to Fort Worth, and finished his career as a jeweler in California.
The Yale display features pieces retailed in Texas but manufactured by East Coast firms such as Gorham Manufacturing Company, of Providence, R.I., and the New York makers Wood & Hughes and Whiting. Silver shops everywhere in the country made less of their own product as the Nineteenth Century progressed.
“Our understanding of Texas silver and those who made and sold it will expand and be enriched as more objects and information become known. Perhaps future discoveries will include documents such as inventories or account books that will show in much detail the technical capabilities of early craftsman and the range of transactions and clients that supported their business,” Brooks concludes. He is eager to know more about Mexican craftsmen, writing, “The full history of Texas silver cannot be told until this is better understood. Objects that can help us better differentiate objects made in Texas from those made in Mexico will be especially important discoveries.”
The show includes a spoon marked “RAMZ,” which the curators theorize was made by an as yet unidentified silversmith named Ramirez in the El Paso area.
To purchase Texas Silver from the William J. Hill Collection, visit www.mfah.org/shop.
Yale University Art Gallery is at 1111 Chapel Street. For further information, artgallery.yale.edu or 203-432-0600.
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