Metal History Notes

  • Paul Revere Teapot, 1760-65. Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

    Figure 1. Teapot, side view. Source: “Teapot,” Museum of Fine Arts Boston, http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/teapot-38576© Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

    Details

    Artist: Paul Revere Jr., 1734-1818

    Date: 1760-65

    Origin: Boston, MA, United States of America

    Medium: silver and wood

    Dimensions: height 14.9 cm

    Collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 35.1775

    Provenance: (1) John Ross of Philadelphia, m. Clementina Plumstead; (2) her sister Miss Plumstead; (3) McCall family; (4) Phoebe (Hoffman) Bickerton; (5) donated in 1935 by Pauline Revere Thayer.[i]

    Inscription: Ross family crest, a dexter forearm erect, grasping a wreath below a motto on a scroll, “nobilis est ira leonis” (noble is the anger of the lion).

    Essay

    Until 1767, tea was extremely popular in the British colonies in America. Having been taken up in Britain in the mid-seventeenth century, tea drinking was soon adopted in America and, after Chinese production increased to meet demand around 1720, making tea more affordable, it was adopted by most colonists, reaching lower class Americans by the mid-eighteenth century.[ii] One of the greatest social impacts of tea in Europe and the colonies was its role in spreading practices of domestic sociability, creating new social rituals which engendered a sensibility towards social decorum centring around the equipage of tea and the accepted manner of imbibing it.[iii] Since the tea party was a social activity, the quality and fashionability of the tea service would have been one way in which colonists could exhibit their sophistication. Because of the early colonies’ ties to England, London trends set colonial fashions, including tea services, which usually consisted of porcelain cups and, for the most affluent, a silver teapot, sugar dish and tongs, cream jug, teaspoons and so on.[iv] When not in use, the tea service would usually be displayed in the parlour.[v] Here visitors could observe the quality of the pieces and discern the status of the household.

    This teapot, produced in Boston by Paul Revere Jr., must have played such a role for its owners. Heckscher and Bowman say that it was probably made for John Ross, a shipping merchant only recently arrived from Perth, Scotland, who, as a recent émigré, would have been familiar with British fashions.[vi] Its form and decoration typify the most fashionable silver being produced in Boston at the time. Its inverted pear body, chased ornamentation on the shoulder, ornamented cast spout and raised foot are typical rococo features. The inverted pear is a standard rococo teapot form.[vii] Its high centre of gravity, accentuated by the raised foot, gives it an element of imbalance which was characteristic of rococo’s whimsical approach.[viii] The chased ornament on the shoulder displays typical playful rococo motifs such as an asymmetrical cartouche, rocaille, c-scrolls, acanthus leaves, flowers, a bird, and a Chinoiserie pavilion. The tip of the spout and the upper socket for the wooden handle each are decorated with an acanthus leaf and the lid is topped with a pineapple finial. The outline of the entire teapot gives a sense of instability, the handle and the spout not quite seeming to balance one another.

    Figure 2. Teapot, top view. Source: “Teapot,” Museum of Fine Arts Boston, http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/teapot-38576. © Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

    Paul Revere Jr. learned the silversmithing trade from his Huguenot father, Apollos Rivoire, who had trained under Boston silversmith John Coney.[ix] A skilled engraver, Revere engraved his own and other smiths’ work, as well as plates for currency, labels, advertising and other prints.[x] His workshop went into hiatus during the Revolutionary War, re-establishing in 1780,[xi] and he is remembered today for his patriotic acts during the war, commemorated in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride”.

    Revere’s teapot is a typical example of Bostonian American rococo as an adaptation of English rococo. Rococo flourished in America between 1750 and 1775.[xii] It had arisen as an interior decoration style in France in the first quarter of the century and emerged as the mature rococo style, then known as genre pittoresque, in the second half of the 1720s upon the publication of the designs of Juste Aurèle Meissonier (1695-1750), court designer for Louis XV.[xiii] It soon became fashionable in London, where it became known through prints and pattern books, from imported goods and through the work of Huguenot craftsmen; Paul de Lamerie, a London-born Huguenot silversmith, was particularly influential in introducing the style.[xiv] An English rococo style developed under the influence of designers such as Matthias Lock and Henry Copland in the 1740s, and the style subsequently came to America from England in much the same way it had travelled from France to England, via imported items, immigrant artisans and prints.[xv]

    Because of its distribution via prints, rococo design quickly became popular among the middle classes in Europe; Park claims that it was more a middle class than an aristocratic style.[xvi] Its spread amongst the merchant class in major centres in America did not lag far behind London: in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, colonists were able to stay up-to-date with London fashions because the seaports located here provided a direct connection to England.[xvii] Imported English wares, including silver, were in high demand, but the commissioning of items from local craftsmen meant that they could be acquired more quickly and at a lower price.[xviii]

    Although, at its most sophisticated, rococo decorative arts unify form and decoration to the extent that, Schroder says, the two cannot be separated, English rococo silver for the most part consisted of only the ornamentation of simple forms; this was particularly the case for tea silver, which for the most part consisted of curvaceous forms decorated only with chased or engraved designs and cast mouldings.[xix] American rococo decorative arts exemplify the English approach but are even more restrained.[xx] Decoration was usually limited to cast mouldings and engraved designs, and chasing and piercing only rarely because the extra time required to produce such work made items more expensive.[xxi] Of the three American silversmithing centres of the period, Boston, New York and Philadelphia, Boston was the most conservative with rococo decoration.[xxii]

    Figure 3. London-made teapot by Thomas Chawner, Victoria and Albert Museum, M.43-1993. Source: “Teapot,” Victoria and Albert Museum, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O104556/teapot-chawner-thomas. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

    The apparent restraint of American silver may to some extent be because so much ornamentation was executed in engraving, which has a delicate appearance by its very nature. By comparing chased pieces, however, we might have a clearer picture of the contrasts between American and English silver and between that of Boston and the other colonies. If we compare the Revere teapot with a similar contemporary London teapot (Figure 3), we can see that, although the London decoration is restrained, the scrolls are large and bold, even voluptuous, compared to the smaller, simpler designs on the Revere piece. The London motifs also appear more integrated with one another while the Revere design seems like a series of motifs placed together in a somewhat haphazard manner. We also see that, while the London teapot’s chasing has a three-dimensional appearance, creating the play between light and dark that was a signature rococo technique,[xxiii] Revere’s chasing is far more flat; indeed it looks like line-work that just happened to be executed in chasing. Revere was an accomplished engraver but would not have received the training of a London-based chaser, and the flat quality of his chasing probably reflects his familiarity with two-dimensional ornamentation. We can also observe how the double-scroll handle of the London teapot creates a more complex balance interaction with the curves of the inverted-pear form and the spout. A comparison with a teapot from Baltimore near Philadelphia (Figure 4) reveals how Revere’s work exemplifies relative restraint in Bostonian ornament. Here the chased decoration is more elaborate and integrated than Revere’s work, but still two-dimensional and with little light and dark play compared to the London piece.

    Figure 4. Baltimore teapot by Gabriel Lewyn, Yale University Art Gallery, 1955.10.4. Source: “Teapot,” Yale University Art Gallery, http://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/9739© Yale University Art Gallery.

    Revere’s teapot was made not long before socio-political upheavals which would leave it as a relic of the past. In 1767, the English Parliament passed the Townshend Act, introducing duties on tea and other goods exported to America.[xxiv] Soon, American resentment would lead to widespread boycotting of tea, leading to the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. Sixteen months later, the Revolutionary War began and tea-drinking was regarded as unpatriotic.[xxv] The rococo style was already dwindling in popularity in Europe when Revere was making the teapot. In France, genre pittoresque had already been criticised as vulgar in the 1740s, and French classicism was already influential from 1760.[xxvi] In England, the Adam style took over from 1765 but rococo remained dominant in America until 1775.[xxvii] After the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the neoclassical style was adopted and, soon after Revere re-established his workshop in 1780, neoclassical pieces became his stock in trade.[xxviii]

    Christina Clarke

    Footnotes

    [i] “Teapot,” Museum of Fine Arts Boston, http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/teapot-38576, accessed March 19, 2017.

    [ii] Andrew F. Smith, Drinking History: Fifteen Turning Points in the Making of American Beverages, (Columbia University Press, 2013), http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/smit15116. 44.

    [iii] Ibid.; Bruno Blondé and Wouter Ryckbosch, "Arriving to a Set Table: The Integration of Hot Drinks in the Urban Consumer Culture of the Eighteenth-Century Southern Low Countries," in Goods from the East, 1600–1800: Trading Eurasia, ed. Maxine Berg, et al., (Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Blondé and Ryckbosch argue that the “mental categories” for these sensibilities pre-existed the arrival of hot drinks culture in Europe.

    [iv] Morrison H. Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman, American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992), 9, 15, 79, exhibition catalogue.

    [v] Rosemary Troy Krill, Early American Decorative Arts, 1620-1860 (Blue Ridge Summit: AltaMira Press, 2010).

    [vi] Heckscher and Bowman, 85.

    [vii] Frances Gruber Safford, Colonial Silver in the American Wing, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 41 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983), 46.

    [viii] Ibid.

    [ix] Nonie Gadsen, "Arts of the Colonial Americas: The Eighteenth Century," in American Decorative Arts and Sculpture ed. Gerald W.R. Ward (Boston: MFA Publications, 2006), 79.

    [x] Safford, 41, 53; Krill. 21.

    [xi] Gerald W.R. Ward, "Neoclassicism and the New Nation: The Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries," in American Decorative Arts and Sculpture ed. Gerald W.R. Ward (Boston: MFA Publications, 2006), 97.

    [xii] Heckscher and Bowman, 15.

    [xiii] Timothy Schroder, The National Trust Book of English Domestic Silver, 1500-1800 (London: Viking in association with the National Trust, 1988), 182.

    [xiv] Ibid., 182-84.

    [xv] Ibid., 184-6; Heckscher and Bowman, 2, 5.

    [xvi] William Park, The Idea of Rococo (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992), 41-42.

    [xvii] Heckscher and Bowman, 15.

    [xviii] Gadsen, 55.

    [xix] Schroder, 183, 200-202.

    [xx] Elaine Barr, "Neoclassicism," in The History of Silver, ed. Claude Blair (Twickenham: Tiger Books, 1997), 155.

    [xxi] Heckscher and Bowman, 72-73.

    [xxii] Ibid., 74

    [xxiii] Schroder, 182-183.

    [xxiv] On the Boston Tea Party see Smith, 41-43.

    [xxv] Ibid., 50.

    [xxvi] Fiske Kimball, The Creation of the Rococo Decorative Style (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1943; New York: Dover Publications, 1980), 225.

    [xxvii] “neo-classical style” in Harold Newman, An Illustrated Dictionary of Silverware: 2,373 Entries Relating to British and North American Wares, Decorative Techniques and Styles, and Leading Designers and Makers, Principally from C.1500 to the Present (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), 221; Heckscher and Bowman, 15.

    [xxviii] Barr, 155; Ward, 97.

    Further Reading

    “Teapot.” Museum of Fine Arts Boston. http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/teapot-38576. Accessed March 19, 2017.

    Heckscher, Morrison H., and Leslie Greene Bowman. American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/american_rococo_1750_1775_elegance_in_ornament#.

    Ward, Gerald W.R., ed. American Decorative Arts and Sculpture. Boston: MFA Publications, 2006.

    Bibliography

    Barr, Elaine. "Neoclassicism." In The History of Silver, edited by Claude Blair, 141-55. Twickenham: Tiger Books, 1997.

    Blondé, Bruno, and Wouter Ryckbosch. "Arriving to a Set Table: The Integration of Hot Drinks in the Urban Consumer Culture of the Eighteenth-Century Southern Low Countries." In Goods from the East, 1600–1800: Trading Eurasia, edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gottmann, Hanna Hodacs and Chris Nierstrasz, 309-27. Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

    Gadsen, Nonie. "Arts of the Colonial Americas: The Eighteenth Century." In American Decorative Arts and Sculpture edited by Gerald W.R. Ward, 53-85. Boston: MFA Publications, 2006.

    Heckscher, Morrison H., and Leslie Greene Bowman. American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/american_rococo_1750_1775_elegance_in_ornament#.

    Kimball, Fiske. The Creation of the Rococo Decorative Style. New York: Dover Publications, 1980. First published 1943 by Philadelphia Museum of Art.

    Krill, Rosemary Troy. Early American Decorative Arts, 1620-1860. Blue Ridge Summit: AltaMira Press, 2010.

    Newman, Harold. An Illustrated Dictionary of Silverware: 2,373 Entries Relating to British and North American Wares, Decorative Techniques and Styles, and Leading Designers and Makers, Principally from C.1500 to the Present. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

    Park, William. The Idea of Rococo. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992.

    Safford, Frances Gruber. Colonial Silver in the American Wing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin Vol. 41. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983. doi:10.2307/3269000.

    Schroder, Timothy. The National Trust Book of English Domestic Silver, 1500-1800. London: Viking in association with the National Trust, 1988.

    Smith, Andrew F. Drinking History: Fifteen Turning Points in the Making of American Beverages. Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/smit15116.

    “Teapot.” Museum of Fine Arts Boston. http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/teapot-38576. Accessed March 19, 2017.

    “Teapot.” Victoria and Albert Museum. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O104556/teapot-chawner-thomas. Accessed March 19, 2017.

    “Teapot.” Yale University Art Gallery. http://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/9739. Accessed March 19, 2017.

    Ward, Gerald W.R. "Neoclassicism and the New Nation: The Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries." In American Decorative Arts and Sculpture edited by Gerald W.R. Ward, 87-113. Boston: MFA Publications, 2006.

© Christina Clarke 2018