There is something truly romantic in the vicissitudes of fortune through which the ware known as pewter has passed. As long ago as the early fourteenth century its makers were skilled craftsmen, belonging to an honourable guild, whose members prided themselves on producing good, honest work of simple but beautiful design. But, in spite of this, the ecclesiastical and domestic plate supplied by them was gradually replaced, the former by more costly and the latter by cheaper articles, in more durable material.
True pewter is readily fusible, and ill-fitted for use in the strenuous, hurried life of the present day; whilst the blocked tin, zinc, and galvanised iron that came into vogue later for kitchen utensils will stand a considerable amount of wear and tear.
Before the beginning of the nineteenth century the day of pewter seemed to be over.
Relegated to the kitchen, and despised even there, it was rarely repaired when damaged, but either thrown away as useless or melted down and recast - a fact which led to the destruction of countless specimens that would now be treasured as valuable curios. Soon, however, the art world began to recognise the aesthetic merits of old pewter. The fiat went forth that it was worthy of collection, and a vigorous search for it was made by connoisseurs, who now vie with each other in their eagerness to secure
* The chief authority on pewter is the " History of the Pewterers' Company," by S. Welch, F.s.a., now out of print, published some years ago by Messrs. Blades, East & Blades; but practically ail the information contained in it is embodied in " Pewter Plate," by J. L. J. Masse, M.a. (George Bell & Sons). Other trustworthy books on the subject are "Old Pewter," by Malcolm Bell (George Newnes, Ltd.), and "Pewter and the Amateur Collector," by Edward Gales (Mediei Society).
Genuine old pieces. For all that, it fortunately still remains comparatively inexpensive, so that it is possible even for those not endowed with wealth to adorn their homes with fine specimens. The simple dignity of form and pearly-grey colour of pewter, especially when relieved against a suitable background, makes a charming decoration for simply furnished halls and rooms.
The Law and Pewter
As a matter of course, the revived interest in pewter led not only to the introduction into the market of much spurious ware, but also to many attempts to revive the ancient craft, none of which have, however, been really successful. The alloys, or mixtures of metals, used by modern makers are not the same as those imposed by law upon the old guildsmen, and though modern pewter is more durable than that which it endeavours to imitate, it lacks its distinctive charms. Simplicity of form and decoration, with thorough appropriateness to the use for which it was intended, were the chief characteristics of the work turned out by instead of copper or brass, the "Ordinances" laying down the rule that all other things - that is to say, those that were not to be made of fine pewter - that are wrought by the trade, such as pots rounded, cruets rounded, and candlesticks and other rounded vessels were to be wrought of tin alloyed with lead in reasonable proportions. And it was added: "The proportions of the alloy are to I Owt. of tin 22 lb. of lead, and these are always to be called vessels of pewter (vessele desteym)."
The Constituency of the Alloy
The proportions quoted by Mr. Welch differ slightly from these, for he speaks of 26 lb. of lead to the hundredweight; and Hazlitt, in his valuable work, the " Livery Companies of the City of London," says that, judging from certain legal proceedings of 1350, the alloy of tin and lead recognised by the customs of the trade was 112 lb. of the former to 16 lb. of the latter.
Whatever, however, may have been the actual amount of each of the two constituents of the ware made by them, the pewterers who infringed the rules laid down were the pewterers of olden times, and the rules laid down for their guidance were of great stringency.
Old English Pewter Cream-jug Old English Pewter Tea-caddy Old English Pewter Cream-jug The simple dignity of form and beauty of colour of genuine old pewter has never been attained by modern craftsmen
Only two qualities were legally recognised as of standard value - namely, what was called Fine Pewter, and an inferior kind known as Second-class Pewter. Concerning the former, it was enacted as follows in the Ordinances of the Pewterers of 1348 - to quote the words, rendered into modern English, of the ancient document: "Be it understood that all manner of vessels of pewter, such as porringers, saucers, platters, chargers, pitchers square, and cruets squared, and chrismatones - vessels used for holding the consecrated oil used at christenings, confirmations, etc. - and other things that are made square, or cistels - that is to say, ribbed or fluted - shall be made of fine pewter, with the proportion of copper* to the tin as much as of its own nature it will take."
This proportion was, so the best authorities suppose, about four to one; and in the second quality of pewter lead was used
* In some copies of the "Ordinances," including that given by Mr. Welch in his "History of the Pewterers' Company," the word "brass" is used instead of " copper." subjected to very severe penalties, as was also anyone " who dared to intermeddle with the craft if he were not sworn before the good folk of it according to the points ordained, such as one who had been an apprentice or otherwise, a lawful workman known and tried among them." " Those of the trade," it was further declared, " who shall be found working otherwise than is before (determined) and upon assay shall be found guilty; upon the first default let them lose the material so wrought; upon the second default let them lose the material, and suffer punishment at the discretion of the mayor and aldermen; and if a third time they shall be found offending", let them forswear the craft for evermore."