By Kathryn Wilson, of Roebuck Antiques, Camarthen
The famed Welsh thriftiness has ensured the survival of many antiques which otherwise might have been lost. Of course, many of these items have survived despite being past their best, Welsh ingenuity in fitting metal handles to replace broken ones to keep pottery jugs in service is a well known example. Thanks to the care of many generations of Welsh families some of their pewter has been saved for us to enjoy today.
Pewter plates and dishes, along with candlesticks, salts, measures and other items, have adorned Welsh dressers over several centuries and unlike their English neighbours have traditionally been displayed with their faces turned to the wall. Quite why this is remains a mystery and the accompanying Welsh tradition of energetically polishing the backs has eventually robbed most of them of their marks. The reflective surfaces of these plates would have significantly added to the light available for tasks such as spinning, in the gloomy and smoky candlelit interiors of eighteenth, and early nineteenth century dwellings.
Pewter from Bewdley in Worcestershire was sold in quantity to all areas of the Principality as shown by surviving order books. London pewter also made its way into Wales. However, the plates and dishes found in South and West Wales more usually came from South West England. There is evidence that these were imported in large numbers in the sixteenth century into local ports such as Carmarthen and Haverfordwest. The trade continued and flourished well into the eighteenth century.
Many plates produced in the eighteenth century in the West Country were intended for export to America. They were often produced in the 8.25-8.5” sizes and these sizes though scarce in England are still found in West Wales, showing that not all of them were shipped so far away. Most have pairs of ownership initials rather than the triads more usually found on English pieces. Sadly they are often found here in poor condition, the metal being relatively thin and not so resistant to wear and tear and the repeated cleaning typical of the Welsh household! They have also often been pierced on the rims, another Welsh tradition, possibly to hang them on beams or walls after they went out of fashion and transfer printed pottery had taken their place on the dresser. However worn, they remain as a reminder of the West Country craftsmanship in pewter and are now attractive pieces of Welsh history. Occasionally these plates and dishes have vestigial marks allowing attribution to a pewterer, usually from Bristol. Even without this the collector will recognise the beautiful Bristol metal with its leady feel and soft, moonlight glow.
The Pewter Society, and a number of books, will lead you to a better understanding, perhaps. But all I want to do is enthuse you, show you what I enjoy, and lead you to where you might want to find out more for yourself.