Arts & Culture

Object lesson

Silver style on a pewter budget

Edward S. Cooke Jr. ’77 is the Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts.
Yale University Art Gallery/ Mabel Brady Garvan Fund

Yale University Art Gallery/ Mabel Brady Garvan Fund

Israel Trask used a high-quality pewter called Brittania to make this seven-inch-tall teapot in the early 1800s. View full image


One of my favorite pewter objects in the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection is this teapot made by Israel Trask, who worked in Beverly, Massachusetts, between 1807 and 1830. Many scholars and antiquarians consider pewter merely a common material, a poor man’s silver; it was usually produced in quantity, with the aid of brass molds. But Trask had a deft feel for the material and a flair for innovative techniques that brought out its considerable beauty.

Trask was an early user of Britannia, a kind of high-quality pewter introduced in Britain in the 1790s that was lighter in weight, shinier in finish, and more flexible for shaping and working than traditional pewter, which often contained some lead. Trask’s pewter had the highest tin content of any used by his American peers, which suggests he had access to raw tin rather than having to rely on old pewter turned in by customers. Other American pewterers of the early nineteenth century simply cast a weighty vessel by pouring melted pewter into a mold. With a greater proportion of tin, though, Trask was able to produce thin sheet pewter using brass rollers.

To make this teapot, he wrapped a rectangular piece of sheet metal around an oval wooden form and then soldered a vertical joint along the handle. The bottom, the spout, the top, and the handle termini were also made from sheet pewter. In fabricating vessels from seamed sheets, Trask followed a silversmithing technique of the period, which is not surprising, since he trained with a local silversmith. The ball feet and wigglework engraving, achieved with a roulette cutter, were also common features of contemporary silverware.

In applying silversmithing techniques to high-quality pewter, Trask produced a progressive vessel to support refined social activities among a broader population in the new republic—competing with some of the simple silver of his day. Lighter than traditionally cast pewter teapots and more reflective than pewter with lower tin content, the teapot demonstrates how his sense of the possibilities of the material matched the contemporary taste for taut surfaces and minimal massing.


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