Life Home & Garden

Friday 20 July 2018

Treasures: Take a shine to pewter

This tankard made €400 at auction
This tankard made €400 at auction
Wrigglework pewter mug which sold for €3,605
Link bracelet

A few months ago an old lady came into Mealy's auctioneers in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny. When she was clearing out her attic, she'd found a few items that once belonged to her father, including a couple of old pewter tankards. She didn't think that they'd be worth very much at all.

The tankards went into Mealy's Spring Sale on March 13, estimated to sell between €200 and €300. The prettier of the pair was catalogued as: "An old wrigglework pewter mug with hinged cover and a scrolled thumbpiece, decorated with a lion and birds, and applied with a scroll handle. The cover with oak leaves and acorns around a coronet." It sold for €3,605. A second plainer tankard: "A rare early quart hammerhead measure with the touch mark of Robert Martin (1665-66)" fetched €400.

Pewter is an alloy, made of tin and other metals. It was used to make dishes, drinking vessels, containers, and candlesticks. In the Golden Age of pewter (c 1550-1750), even households that could afford silver would also have used pewter tableware. Many of the drinking vessels, like the one sold at Mealy's, had lids.

Pewter was a cheap, functional metal, but it was also beautiful. When it was polished, it shone. People called it "the poor man's silver". The real poor used wood.

Wrigglework decoration is unsophisticated, charming, and easily identified by its wiggly lines. English pewterers were expert metalsmiths, but they weren't trained as artists. Ronald Michaelis, writing for The Antique Collector (1963) describes it as made by "pushing a tool with a narrow chisel-like blade along the metal, at an angle, and actually digging out a zig-zag groove by rocking the blade from side to side." Wrigglework was very popular between the mid 17th and the mid-18th centuries.

According to the antique dealer Roger Grimes, the tankard sold at Mealy's is probably English, dating from the reign of Charles II, and decorated with a symbolic English lion. He also thinks that the buyer got themselves a bargain. "Wrigglework decoration is very rare and expensive," he says.

Pewter can often be identified by a "touch marks", the trademark of the maker, but many of these marks have been worn away over time. Chargers, dishes and plates - collectively known as "sadware" - are also dated by the detailing on the rim.

In the 1980s, a colleague of Grimes went to view a large old empty house for sale in the Cotswolds. "In the drawing room was an oak plate rack running around the room, a couple of feet below the ceiling. And there, above the fireplace were the most remarkable two chargers!" Both were 18th century and both were worth a great deal of money. One was in pewter, with a double reeded rim; the other was a ceramic piece by the famous Danish potter, Thomas Toft. The owner knew they were worth a lot of money but he couldn't reach them. He procured a long linen line pole, tipped each one forward, dropped the pole, and caught them one at a time!" English pewter was regulated by a guild system from 1474 but Irish pewterers didn't have a guild of their own. This led to problems with quality control. By 1714, Lloyd's Newsletter reported: "That all new pewter sold by Seamen & other strangers under colour of English pewter, is suspicious and frequently seized upon for its badness."

"Early Irish pewter is more collectible than English because of its rarity," Grimes explains. Currently, he has a set of haystack measures (€450), so called because they resembled the haystacks of the time, for sale in his shop in Mulranny, Co Mayo.

There are plenty of fakes though. Wrigglework, for example, is not always genuine as it could be added to pieces from the correct period.

Pewter collecting became a fad in 1880s London and collectors were fair game for fraudulent dealers like Richard Neate (1880-1953), also known as "Naughty Richard". He, and others, were very good at "discovering" pieces to fill gaps in people's collections. His "discoveries" are now collectibles in their own right. As WS Gilbert wrote in his operetta, The Gondoliers (1889): "The end is easily foretold, when every blessed thing you hold, is made of silver or of gold, you long for simple pewter."

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Link bracelet

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