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Wrigglework Decoration

An Introduction to the Wrigglework research articles
This research was begun to find and photograph the wrigglework decoration on 300 pieces of Old English Pewter.

A number chosen at random - but perhaps a large enough sample.
Thus far there is some small record of over 400 pieces and any other examples would be welcomed.

There are not many conclusions – this is a work in progress; hoping to present sufficient images for any future researcher.

Is wriggle work like handwriting and did each workman work (write) differently?

As with an artist’s brush strokes; or as we might recognise who had sent a greeting card by the writing on the envelope.

We cannot know or find the name – but would it be possible to say this man did this piece - and this other piece?

Do wriggle workers as artists have different quirks or styles?

For example - Is a flower, bird or leaf shaded by one worker one way and by another worker differently?

Is the design style sometimes particular to the worker/artist?

Wrigglework is found throughout Northern Europe, although not apparently in Scotland, over many years. If it was used in Southern Europe, then I have found and been offered no examples.

Although known of for many years in England the new freedoms with the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 and the tolerant approach of Charles II brought more freedom of expression, happiness, and decoration. Thus, most found herein are from the period 1660-1720, when it was apparently fashionable to have pewter so decorated.

The intention of this research is not to provide masses of information about the pieces but to concentrate on the actual wriggle work.

Article by Peter R G Hornsby

The following extract is from in the Pewter Society Journal of Autumn 1988  is the most found that was previously published on the subject.
Commentary is added in green, very much aware that 31 years have passed since this article was published. Also, tech changes have made such research as this document shows reasonably quickly possible for the first time ever. There is no intention to criticise the Hornsby article - just to add to and update previous thoughts.
'An experimental technique was adopted for the talk and discussion on wriggle work plates at the Melton Mowbray meeting on June 18th 1988. Members were given a questionnaire on wriggle work at the start of the meeting and asked to fill it in before the evening talk.
Each of the questions posed was then discussed and draft conclusions developed by the meeting. The members later submitted their forms and this report is based on the discussions and the forms. 

1.) When was wriggle work first used on pewter?
2.) When did wriggle work start and finish as a popular method of decoration?
3a.) Why were plates decorated? 3b.) Were they for use for display?
4.) Did the buyer select the design and was it then engraved or were the plates already decorated and on display in the pewterer's shop?
5.) Why was so little straight line, traditional, engraving undertaken on British pewter?
6.) It is widely suggested that the Guild required journeymen in the pewterer's work shop to do the work rather than employ artists? What evidence is there for this view?
7a.) How did it come about that so many Hitchman plates are wriggled? Are there other prolific makers and if so whom?
7b.) Were there perhaps only a few pewterers undertaking wriggle-work?
8 a). What are the most common motifs found on plates?
8b.) What was the meaning or symbolism of leading motifs or why was the design popular?
9.) Did the craftsmen engrave the design freehand directly onto the plate? If yes· then how do we know this?
10.) Or did the pewterer first place the design on the plate by drawing, tracing, pricking or by some other method?

Surprisingly enough, in view of the popularity and value of wriggle work, little has been written on the subject. Most standard works contain only a few lines on this attractive form of decoration.

It is necessary at the start to identify the differences between traditional engraving, wrigglework and bright cutting.
Engraving consists of a continuous line o! cutting whilst wriggle work is composed of a broken line of cuts. Bright cuttings employ a shaped tool which leaves a continuous but uneven cut on which light can reflect. Examples of each form of decoration are found on British and European pewter.
Bright cutting is rare however and compared with European examples there is little traditional engraving on British pewter apart from Coats of Arms and inscriptions. Wrigglework is found on Scandinavian, Dutch, Flemish, Swiss and German pewter, but tends to date from the late eighteenth century onwards.

1.) & 2). PERIOD.

Members knew about a few examples of wriggle work which were circa 1630-40, but only with inscriptions or brief scrolls or patterns, and it was agreed that the bulk of wriggle work dates from after 1660 and that it continued until the 1730s.

Perhaps he was unaware of the Charles 1st Dish in the Ashmolean – a very fine example of the design of the age covering the whole plate fully. The confidence of the design and presentation suggests this was of the style of the age even if no more such pieces are known. This plate could be celebrating Charles I any year of his reign before perhaps 1646.
3a.) & 3b.) ORIGINS AND PURPOSE The first group of wriggled dishes and plates which we know of date from either the Restoration, Coronation or Marriage of Charles II (1660-1662). Because examples come from such a short period it is likely that the idea was developed by the pewterers themselves and it is most likely that the designs were both patriotic and commercial: an attempt to sell more pewter. The first wriggle work is thus probably a marketing technique stimulated by an important series of political events, underpinned by the new demand for polychrome delft which offered very similar images to that employed later on wriggle work plates. This document shows such examples. It was noted that no sets of wriggle work plates survive although there are large sets of broad rims and triple reeded plates.

The Michaelis sale in 1973 mentioned a set of 24. It is therefore probable that they were mostly made in singles or pairs. Many surviving plates are inscribed with owners’ initials and some are clearly marriage gifts.

While some wriggled plates have knife cuts these might have been added later when the plates had no family significance. Many others have been cleaned at some stage to highlight the decoration and it is thus hard to decide as to their use based on physical evidence.
The bulk of wriggled plates 1670-1730 were therefore probably decorative, gifts to commemorate some family event.

Whilst the Commemorative dishes and chargers were probably made and decorated by the pewterers to stimulate demand it is more likely that subsequently people went into the pewterer's shop and ordered a specific design chosen either from a stock of plates or from books or drawings. There is considerable dispute as to when the commemorative designs were produced.

5.) & 6.) REASONS FOR LACK OF STRAIGHT-LINE ENGRAVING. The traditional answer is that the guild regulations forbade the employment of professional engravers.

However, the reference of 1588 in the Company's records is to ·graving' and in view of the absence of any known wriggled work from this period the reference may well apply to straight line engraving such as inscriptions and not to wriggle work. In any case the second reference to this refers specifically to the employment of women workers within the pewterer's workshop: that is the use of non-skilled labour rather than trained journeymen.

There is thus no direct evidence that the decoration of pewter had to be done within the workshop. All formal engraving. such as coats of arms, appear to be the work of professional engravers. If the technique was derived by pewterers to fight the growth of polychrome delft flatware and to sell more pewter it would have been natural for them to match the designs of the delft makers and to do as much work as they could within the workshop, thus keeping costs down and profits high.

It has been suggested that straight line engraving might weaken a plate, but this is clearly false as many hundreds of European examples prove.

7a.) & 7b.) MAKERS. Clearly some Hitchman plates have been wriggled in recent years but their frequency does suggest that only a few pewterers adopted this method of decoration and it may indeed have been limited to only a handful of makers. Other makers whose work is well known are Gregory, Lovell and Fly.

Strange that he names Gregory, as this research has located only one plate poorly wriggleworked attributed to Gregory. A list of 82 pewterers follows, whose pieces were wrigglework decorated. This list is taken from those recorded in this research only - thus, refuting the ‘handful of makers’ comment above. This is not a comprehensive list. Also, this list extends through much of England from perhaps the far North West to the far South West. However, the North and Central and North East and such important places as York do not feature much at all before arriving at the South East.
List of Pewterers with Recorded Examples of Wriggleworked Pieces includes

W S Allen (5952) Lawrence Anderton, Philemon Angel, Robert Baldwin, Christopher Banckes I, Robert Bancks, Thomas Banks, Samuel Billings, Sampson Bourne, Richard Boyden, Elizabeth Boyden, “IB” “TB “WB” Ann Carter, Chapman (OP885A) “TC”, Robert Dawe, John Donne, Richard Donne, John Dolbeare, Peter Duffield, John Duncombe, William Eddon, Samuel Ellis, Edward Everett, John Felton, I Martha and son Tim Fly, Sir John Fryers, Gerard and/or Gilbert Ford, Thomas Forde (?) French “RF”, William Gilbey, William Howard, William Hutchins, Jonathan Ingles “II”, Nicholas Jackman, John Jackson, Jenkins (Southampton), Thomas King,
Robert Hand, Henry Hartford, Samuel Hodge, Joseph Hodges, Francis Kingston, John Kirton, Francis Knight, Thomas Leach, Edward Leapidge, Letherbridge(?) “IL”, Ralph Marsh, Morgan, Joseph Maberley(?) OP3028 John Paine, John Penington, Helier Perchard, John Pepper, John Pratt “WP or WB” Thomas Rowland, John Shorey, Greg Smith, Richard Smith “RS” “TS”, Edward Trapp (possible), Peter Turner “ET” (OP5965A), John Underhill, Charles Wareing, Moses West, Abraham Wiggin, 5552 & 5640A 1415A & 5722 5836 4007A 5722 5580c 146501

Apart from the Commemorative dishes and chargers and hollowware with the Royal Coats of Arms, the most common designs on wriggle work are those of flowers, beasts and birds.

Designs Found Are Listed In The Index In Simple Terms.

Most popular are tulips, roses, the lily pot, peacocks, swans, pelicans, lions, and deer. These are also the most popular designs found on delft and on seventeenth century needlework.

In the past some writers have felt that these designs were heraldic, but this view is not supported by any evidence.

From the middle ages people associated certain designs, patterns, shapes, colours, numbers and natural forms with religious meaning. Most people were illiterate, and the bible story was best told by drawings on church walls rather than through the written word. We have now lost our understanding of many of these symbols but to seventeenth century man their meaning was clear.

For example, the colour white represents purity and the colour green stands for hope. Each number too had its inner meaning as did most shapes and patterns.

The fleur-de-lys, mistakenly thought to be a reference to France is the symbol of the Holy Trinity and purity. The lily in its pot stands for purity and the Virgin Mary. The rose represents the Virgin Mary or the 'Rose a Mundi' or Christ. A deer refers to the 'hart in the field' and, like the lion, is a reference to Christ. The swan is white and pure and denotes intelligence. The pelican in her piety represents Christ's sacrifice on the cross and so on. That symbols retained a powerful grip on men's imagination even in the eighteenth century can be seen by the many Jacobite symbols which were adopted.

The peacock and peahen may have a more down to earth meaning, representing the married couple in their wedding finery and of course the Tulip simply stands for itself. The tulip mania of the late seventeenth century started in Holland, and swept throughout Europe, to appear in every media and art form.


Some members believed that the journeymen were capable of drawing freehand on the surface of the plate but there is some evidence in European literature that designs were pricked out on card and the outline marked with paint or chalk on the surface. No two designs are every exactly the same but are so similar that it does appear more than likely that some method of stencilling or drawing was employed.

The shading of the designs and the lines themselves are often very different even in similar designs such as peacocks and peahens for example.


Wriggle work was first used, on any scale, in 1660. Early examples were probably stimulated by delft pottery designs and fuelled by the need to sell pewter.

The patriotic decoration proved successful and the method was used later by a limited number of pewterers, mostly for plates (1670-1730) and holloware. (1670-1700).

Most designs had a religious or political significance apart from the ever-popular tulip and the peacock and peahen marriage plates.

The work was done within the workshop of the pewterer for commercial reasons.

A collector with considerable experience comments -

'The wrigglework on the tankard is simple but we don't know who did the decoration originally. Yes, the wriggling should have been applied by the pewterer himself, but once the piece was out of the maker's hands, anyone could decorate the piece. Again, I want to use the term "folk art". It would be so easy for the owner of the piece to add decoration to make his piece more attractive (to his eye). I don't think that all wriggling was done by the pewterers. Plus, the wriggling could have been done by the second and even the third owner, so you would end up with a piece with designs not conforming to the period of when the piece was actually made. I'm attaching an image of a piece that is nicely wriggled, but very simple in its execution. The lines of the bird are simplistic yet effective with a very uncomplicated background. Who's the artist? I owned this piece several years ago and it has since been sold.

We study and collect items that were made three hundred years ago that come out of a mold. These pieces are exact and precise when they are are finished, even to the point of unsigned pieces being attributable. Then these pieces become a
canvas where anyone can decorate to his pleasure. We as collectors appreciate the art work to the point that the very sight of this decoration enhances the value, sometimes greatly. We can go just so far in analyzing what we see. So many of the decorated plates come from the shop of James Hitchman, that it is certain he did the decorating, or he had a busy helper.
So, that is my opinion, and don't know how much is right or wrong. In truth, we will never know all the answers. I do know I enjoy seeing my collection of early English pewter and if someone added their artistic handy work, I enjoy it even more
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.