THIS MONTH the first museum of British pewter will be opened in Stratford-upon-Avon. A permanent exhibition is long overdue given that pewter was of primary importance for hundreds of years for use in the home, church and tavern. The museum was made possible by the generous donation by retired Scottish businessman, Alex Neish, of one of the country's finest collections. Consisting of over 1,100 pieces, the collection covers the manufacture of pewter from its introduction during the Roman occupation through to the early twentieth-century Art Nouveau revival. Further additions will reflect the output of a thriving modern industry.
The extraordinary gift was made in 1996 to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, an independent registered educational charity which relies on income from visitors to the five Shakespeare related properties in and around Stratford-upon-Avon.
Shortly before being offered the collection, the Trust had taken over the management of an ornately carved Elizabethan town house in Stratford known as `Harvard House'. The building offered an excellent setting to display the gift. The pewter trade was especially strong during Shakespeare's time so the substantial sixteenth- and seventeenth-century elements in the collection were of particular interest to the Trust, which seeks to educate people about all aspects of life at that time.
A `taster' exhibition opened in September 1996 representing the complete chronological range of the collection. The following year a fine, panelled chamber on the first floor was furnished as a room setting with late seventeenth-century pewter and oak furniture. Over the last autumn and winter substantial renovations have been carried out to ensure that the building could continue to cope with the 30,000 or so visitors that come each year. Among other refurbishments this has involved replacing crude roof supports installed in the 1960s, which effectively barred access to the third floor rooms, one of which has rare wall paintings dating to c. 1600.
The range and role of pewter goods is fully demonstrated in the collection. Pewter is an alloy of tin which on its own is relatively soft and difficult to cast in moulds, but the addition of small amounts of hardening agents like copper, lead, bismuth or antimony overcomes these problems and adds durability. The craft of pewtering was introduced to England by the Romans who were probably keen to exploit the tin to be found in Cornwall, at the time, the only source of the metal in Europe. …