When many of us hear the word pewter, one of the first things that come to mind is silver-grey, tarnished pub tankards. However, pewter has a more intriguing story. For example, Svenskt Tenn, a contemporary Swedish interiors and design company, was founded on the basis of pewter. An art teacher by the name of Estrid Ericson first opened his Firma Svenskt Tenn shop in October 1924 in Stockholm to sell pewter pieces, which was one of the most fascinating materials of that time. The firm today, which expanded during the 20th century to now cover all interior design aspect, is famous for it worth with Josef Frank, a renowned architect-designer, and sill several of his original pewter designs. These include Estrid’s iconic ‘Brännvinsfisken’ schnapps flask, which is in the shape of a fish, along with dozens of other pieces that he designed over the decades, including jewellery, teapots, vases, and candleholders. They are all surprisingly modern-looking and shiny.
According to Duncan Campbell, silver specialist for the Antiques Roadshow and co-owner of the Beau Nash antique shop in Bath, polished pewter is white in colour. However, although it is quite glorious, it was definitely the poor cousin of silver. Campbell says that if someone could afford the version in silver, they would get that instead of pewter – both are available in stores like Silver and Pewter Gifts.
Antique pewter, far from being fussy, is being used today more for interior styling. According to Stuart Atkinson, a Fontaine antique dealer, pewter lends itself to many different kinds of interior – and fits in very well with English and Swedish county homes. A big charger full of lemons sitting on a contemporary table is a great look.
Pewter is a tin alloy along with small amounts of other metals like antimony, bismuth, or copper. It is among the world’s oldest manufacturing industries and dates back to the Bronze Age. Due to the low melting point of bronze, not much archaeological evidence exists today, meaning that old pieces would be melted down whenever there were changes in fashion. The earliest known pewter piece is an Abydos flask that was discovered in an Egyptian tomb that dates back to c. 1450 B.C.
According to Duncan Campbell, pewter dates back 3,000 to 4,000 years. However, it did not make it to England until after the Roman invasion. England was invaded for the tin supplies in England. The Roman had been making pewter for 2,000 years, with the best pewter containing a minimum of 85 per cent tin.
During the 17th century, pewter was at its peak, with all taverns and homes featuring pewter spoons, candlesticks, inkwells, wine cups, tankards, toys, buttons, plates, and jugs. Dutch still-life paintings from this time feature pewter ewers and flagons.
The Modern Age
However, by the time of the 18th century, new tea-drinking styles and then the Industrial Revolution saw the industry shrink, and pub mugs comprised most of the new wares.
During the Arts and Crafts period, pewter enjoyed a brief renaissance that started during the late 19th century and into the Art Nouveau period of the early 1900s. Designer Archibald Knox was able to master the material of pewter and designed inkwells, tea sets, clocks, and vases for the Tudric range for London’s fashionable Liberty store. Duncan Campbell adds that pewter has constantly gone in and out of fashion. A good example of Art Nouveau is an expensive pewter piece. A Liberty pewter designed by Archibald Knox sells for £5,000 to £20,000.
Dealers like Fontaine are selling more affordable decorative 18th-century and early 19th-century pewter for about £50-£100. Stuart says the decorators are using it and it is becoming much more fashionable. He says he has sued pewter for styling a restaurant inside a new hotel in London and uses it to make a cabinet or dresser look good.