Sometimes described as ‘poor man’s silver’, pewter has been made into tableware and household items since the ancient Chinese and Roman periods some 2,000 years ago. Essentially pewter is an alloy of tin, lead and copper although, by as early as the 18th century, lead was being phased out as understanding grew of its poisonous qualities. Modern pewter has replaced the lead content with antimony and is more properly known as ‘Britannia Metal’ which is not strictly pewter, although its appearance has changed little.
Pewter is generally considered to be at its best when a dull grey colour, having acquired a natural patina through oxidization and regular use. Many good examples of this can be seen in the pewter corridor of the main house near the exit. The most familiar manifestation of this is in the traditional beer tankard. Indeed it is often said that beer tastes best from a pewter tankard which also has the advantage of keeping the contents cold.
The time lamp
This unusual piece is German in origin. It has a glass reservoir which holds the oil, the level of which drops as it is burned away. The oil used was almost certainly whale oil.
The level is read off against the hour marker. Unlike clocks, which until fairly recently were very inaccurate, the oil in the time lamp burned at a regular and predictable rate and may well have been a more reliable way of keeping time. Sadly, despite the help of the Pewter Society, we have not been able to date this piece any more accurately than pre-20th century.
Another German piece, this flask ('Prismenflasche' to give it its proper name) dates from the late-17th century. The decoration is in a technique known as 'wriggle work' and is of a very high standard. Four of the panels show birds in foliage, whilst the other two feature a man and a woman in well-detailed costumes of the time. Notice in particular the man’s square-toed, straight-sided shoes which are a good clue to dating it to before the 18th century. As happens with many decorative items, the date of 1531, which is scratched onto one of the panels, is a later addition to make it seem even older.
The Swiss tureen
This 'Wocherinnenschussel' (as it was known in Switzerland) is a very high-quality item made by Nikolaus Ubelin II of Basle, Switzerland, that dates from between 1730 and 1750. The decoration is a mixture of punch work and wriggle work, and is of very good quality. Known as an 'Ohrenschussel' in Germany and an 'equelle de bouillon' in France, these vessels were traditionally filled with nourishing food by neighbours and presented to women in childbirth. You can make out the initials of the former owner, M.C.B. on the lid.
The English candlestick
This candlestick is a good example of English pewter of the 17th century. It is not made in one piece but in small sections soldered together. The drip tray is now thought to be a replacement as it does not match the quality of the rest of the work.
The shape is, for perhaps obvious reasons, known as the bell-footed pattern and, although typically English in manufacture, the original influence was Dutch, a nation with whom the English traded heavily during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Wimbledon dish
Made around 1610 by Caspar Enderlein of Nuremburg, this dish is one of a handful of identical pieces by Enderlein of which only a few now survive, including one in the Louvre.
This attractive item is interesting, not so much for itself as for a familiar copy. In 1864, Elkington & Co of Birmingham made an electrotype copy of the dish. Named the Venus rosewater dish, it has been presented to the ladies’ champion at Wimbledon every year since 1886, although it is not known where the inspiration was found to choose this particular piece. As the central boss depicts the figure of Sophrosyne, the personification of temperance and moderation, it may be that it was considered to represent the ideal attributes for Victorian female athletes.