Is one of Britain’s oldest manufacturing trades dying out? Or is collaboration between pewter makers and new designers helping them to survive?
Changing trends and the adoption of lighterweight materials has seen Britain’s once-thriving pewter industry in sharp decline. We take a look at this fascinating industry’s heritage and find out how times might be changing for the British Pewter Industry. Pewter is one of the UK’s oldest manufacturing industries in continuous production, brought to Britain by the Romans in the second century. It is either made in sheet or ingot form, with sheet pewter generally fabricated or spun (from a circle), whilst the ingots are cast into moulds. It was introduced to Sheffield in 1769 by James Vickers, the pioneer of an alloy for pewter that allowed it to be worked into a sheet form imitating silver. Silverware designs such as tea and coffee services could therefore be reproduced, using the same tooling and pattern methods. It was a popular metal choice with interior designer Christopher Dresser (1834-1904), as well as with designer Archibald Knox (1864-1933) who sold his pewter metalwork and jewellery designs to Liberty of London. In fact, Knox made such an impact with his designs that he was chosen to design the head stone for the store’s founder Arthur Lasenby Liberty after his death in 1917.
The industry in Sheffield grew ten fold over the forty years following Vickers’ introduction. Founded in 1806, James Dixon of Sheffield was one of the major British manufacturers of the Industrial Revolution, employing eight-hundred people in the manufacture of shooting accessories, whistles, sporting goods, precision tooling, and aircraft propellers. The company was still manufacturing in the UK until 1976 when an American company bought them out.
Providing Sheffield with big business, by the 1940s the pewter industry was employing hundreds of local people, supplying tea and coffee pots to companies such as Boots gift department. The industry later exported tankards to America, bought mainly as gifts for High School graduates. Until the 1980s, half a million tankards were being produced in Sheffield each year.
Founded in 1949, A.R.Wentworth is one of only four pewter factories remaining in Sheffield today, and is run by Richard Abdy. A family affair, Richard’s father took over the factory with his business partner Alan Hollingsworth when Mr Wentworth died in 1982. His mother and sister have also been involved in the business, his sister having graduated with a metalwork and jewellery degree from Sheffield Hallam University.
Over the last twenty-five years Richard Abdy has seen production slow. The largest output in his lifetime has been twenty-thousand tankards a year; a long way behind the company’s previous production highs of one-hundred-thousand tankards, produced in twenty-four hour shifts. Of the remaining trade, tankards remain a significant production element along with other drink and celebration objects such as flasks, goblets and the traditional Scottish whisky Quaich. Easily engraved, items such as these retain a market owing to the opportunity offered for commemoration, gifts and corporate presentations. However, it isn’t enough.
There are a combination of factors behind the industry’s decline, including a shift in trends and consumer tastes, a preference for drinking from porcelain rather than pewter, and the ability to import cheaper stainless steel products. Stainless steel is also a harder metal, more popular for applications of serveware such as large bowls and serving utensils.
Today’s pewter trade is supported by the Association of British Pewter Craftsmen (ABPC) who in turn are members of the European Pewter Union. The Association controls and restricts the use of the pewter touchmark, similar to a silver hallmark, and communicates with regulatory bodies on standards and specifications. Together they work as a support group to the industry and share best practice in today’s tough climate. The current membership of 20 with 20 non-members is a reflection on how tough the climate actually is.
So what next for the British pewter industry?
A.R.Wentworth have recognised the need to collaborate with artists and designers in order to innovate the use of pewter as a material in British manufacturing, making it relevant for today’s market. For the last twenty years they have been working with British pewter designer Keith Tyssen. They also work with interdisciplinary British designer Miranda Watkins. Richard Abdy explains, ‘Pewter does have limitations in terms of colour and practicality, it is very soft, so the key going forward is to develop partnerships with designers who can work around its limitations and help us to find new markets’.
Pewter is still after all, a craft-based industry. Although new technology has been introduced to automate the production of casting in some instances, the process generally remains un-mechanised, except where certain processes such as sheet metal cutting and mould making can be done using a CNC machine. For the industry to survive it needs to retain an interest for contemporary craftsmen and designers, both as a material to use, but also to investigate, adapt, and move forward. There is optimism for this – lifestyle and interiors journalist Emilio Pimental-Reid has described pewter as a ‘material to watch’.
Acknowledging this, the ABPC sponsor an annual pewter design competition ‘Pewter Live’, that encourages student designers from any discipline or degree course in the UK to respond to a live brief that utilizes pewter design in categories of Fashion, Decorative Arts, Interior, Architectural and Furniture. The theme of ‘Pewter Live 2013’ was “Time Passes but Pewter is Timeless’. The panel was chaired by Sebastian Conran, and prizes were presented by Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex, so it was by no means a small affair.
Perhaps then, as Richard Abdy anticipates, the future of the industry is in the hands of the up and coming crafts makers and designers, a partnership which has worked well for the industry for the past two-hundred years. A ‘timeless’ collaboration, it is nevertheless one that needs to continue innovating the pewter industry, for it to survive as a ‘timeless’ material.