William Cowell, Sr. (American, 1682 or 1683–1736)

Object Place: Boston, Massachusetts


20.5 x 24.5 cm (8 1/16 x 9 5/8 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique


Not On View




Silver hollowware

The tapered cylindrical form has a drawn molded base and lip, scored twice below the lip. Its flat stepped lid has a broad rim, scored twice, and crenate decoration near handle and at the later, applied spout. A cast dolphin-and-grotesque thumbpiece descends to a five-part hinge with wigglework straps on the seamed handle. A prominent rattail drop appears below the upper join of handle, with a flat shield terminus and a crescent-shaped air vent below. The broadly engraved cartouche of stylized foliage appears on the body, opposite the handle.

William Cowell Sr. may have apprenticed with John Allen (1671/72 – 1760), whose father held the mortgage to Cowell’s family home, or with John Edwards (about 1671 – 1746), Allen’s partner and brother-in-law. His apprenticeship complete by 1704, Cowell fashioned this tankard soon after for the Brattle Street Church, to which he and Allen belonged.
Along with this tankard, Cowell produced, in the years following his apprenticeship, a nutmeg grater engraved with a carnation (MMA), a gadrooned cup with one handle (MFA), a plain dram cup (Historic Deerfield), and one beaker engraved with text for the Congregational Church of Windham, Connecticut. Excepting the nutmeg grater, none demonstrates his ability to engrave the sophisticated design on this tankard.
The stylized mantling of angels and floral elements is similar to that found on seven pieces of communion plate made by four Boston silversmiths and members of the congregation. Although separated by as many as twenty-eight years, the engravings follow the one first used by John Noyes in 1704. In addition to the Cowell tankard made in 1705, two tankards by John Edwards dated 1728, a tankard by Andrew Tyler from 1732, and one communion cup by Edwards dated 1732 all bear similar designs.
Close examination of the Noyes and Cowell tankards reveals a nearly identical engraving style that extends beyond lettering to the treatment of the curly-haired angel, its slender outstretched wings extending behind the mantling, and its pointed body. Later tankards and cups depict an angel having smooth hair parted in the center and combed into a “flip” (upturned ends), shorter articulated wings, and a rounded body. The Noyes and Cowell tankards also share similarities in the mantling, particularly in the engraving of berries and scrolls flanking the inscription. Fine cross-hatching at the base of the berries’ spherical forms lends volume, and the closely spaced, vertical lines under the large scrolls give the illusion of depth. Later engravings treat these two features more broadly, with a resulting loss of subtlety.
The Noyes and Cowell tankards are of similar height and share physical characteristics that include a crenate lid, long rattail joining at the upper handle, mask and dolphin thumbpiece, and shield-shaped terminus, suggesting that they were intended to be a pair. Perhaps young Cowell was chosen to make the tankard at the urging of his former masters, Edwards and Allen, with the engraving completed by Noyes.

This text has been adapted from “Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000,” edited by Jeannine Falino and Gerald W.R. Ward, published in 2008 by the MFA. Complete references can be found in that publication.


On body, opposite handle, is engraved "This belongs to / the Church in / Brattle-street / 1705" in script within a stylized foliate cartouche. On base in later script is engraved "This Flagon / was given by the Proprietors of / The Brattle Street Church, / Boston / to / The Reverend Samuel Kirkland Lothrop, D.D. / and to / All Saints Church Dorchester, Boston. / by his daughter / Mary Lothrop Peabody, / All Saints' Day, / 1901."


Marked "W C" within an ellipse to left of handle and on lid near thumbpiece.


The tankard was made by Cowell for the Brattle Street Church in 1705, although the source of funds for its purchase remains unknown. Along with approximately nineteen other pieces of church silver, the tankard was to be sold at an auction held by the Brattle Street Church in 1839. When no buyer materialized, the congregation voted to give the tankard to the church minister, Reverend Samuel Kirkland Lothrop (d. 1886). By descent to his daughter, Mary Lothrop Peabody (1837-1910), who on All Saints' Day, 1901, made it a gift to the Parish of All Saints, Ashmont (Dorchester). Placed on loan to the Museum from 1912 to 1921 and 1933 to 1998. Purchased from the church in April 1998.
OSAC, p. 70-1; Avery, Clearwater, p. 42, cat. 25. See catalogue no. ___ for further information on silver owned by the Church at Brattle Street.

Credit Line

Museum purchase with funds donated by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph P. Pellegrino; the estate of Rosamond Sears, by exchange; the estate of Ada Belle Winthrop-King, by exchange and the Marion E. Davis Fund