Tinware objects with lively, bright colors and hand painted with fruit, flowers, birds, and borders were once ubiquitous in the young United States. The base material, sheet iron coated with tin, provided an appealing surface for painted or punched ornament to be applied. At first glance, it may look like amateur artwork, but this exhibition examines the professional and practical roots of a material that is still produced by artists today.
The story of antique tinware may be surprising. Useful household objects were created by tinsmiths for myriad home and work purposes, such as to keep paperwork or tobacco dry and safe, to hold dry or liquid cooking ingredients, or to support a candle for light. Tinware objects that survived were often decorated ones, although, unpainted, shiny white tinware once was even more prevalent. American painted tinware has origins in an industry that emerged in the late 1690s in Britain with artistic influences coming from lands as far away as China and Japan.
During that time of developing sea-born trade, imported lacquerwork and other goods from Asia became very desirable to Europeans consumers who could afford them. Experiments in Wales and England led to “japanned” varnishes and colorants that could be baked directly on to the surface of tinware, creating opaque, dark coatings that resembled more expensive imported lacquerwork. Soon after, the colors and designs prevalent in local decorative arts were added with oil paints to “flower” or enhance tinware’s appeal to new markets in Europe and America. This Western process was generically called “japanning,” and Americans used the term to describe all manner of painted and varnished items.
This pocket-size exhibition highlights the collection of decorated tinware that Henry Francis du Pont acquired from antiques dealers in New England and Pennsylvania, particularly from Ephrata, Lancaster, Carlisle, and York. These beautiful, hand-painted objects feature decorative techniques that have been in use from the early 1700s to today.
On view in the Winterthur Fellows Gallery, second floor.
**Image at top of page: Coffeepots, all bequest of Henry Francis du Pont, 1959.2068;1959.2072; 1965.1673.