Obadiah Rich (1809–1888)
Object Place: Boston, Massachusetts, United States
19.5 x 15.6 x 27.1 cm (7 11/16 x 6 1/8 x 10 11/16 in.)
Medium or Technique
Not On View
The raised and inverted pear-style teapot has a center point on bottom. A plain oval foot with vertical step is soldered in place, and a second step rises to the vessel. The S-scroll spout is affixed over strainer holes. The tall, hollow, C-shaped handle with curved thumbgrip and two wooden insulators terminates at its shoulder in leafy decoration; the lower section conforms to the shape of the teapot, ending in a rounded tip. The slightly convex lid, with bezel and applied rim, has a small five-part hinge and ridged hingeplate that sets into the applied, molded edge of teapot. The cast and chased finial in the form of a Chinese figure is bolted to the lid.
Lively bright-cut engraving of floral decoration appears on handle and spout. Two large oval reserves on body, to each side of handle, provide a focus of interest. One is engraved with initials; the opposite side displays a central floral design. Rococo scrolls filled with diaper patterns or fish-scale decoration surround the ovals; a large scallop shell appears below, extending to foot. Broken scroll band of floral decoration appears along shoulder, between oval reserves.
The gifted Boston artist Obadiah Rich was one of the most accomplished silversmiths of his day before blindness abruptly ended his career while he was in his prime. Evidence of the esteem in which he was held was noted in the Boston Evening Transcript of July 3, 1840, which observed that Rich was “well known to our citizens as the best silver plate worker — taking the elegant and ornamental, with the useful and substantial — that we have in Boston. It would be hard for New York or Philadelphia to indicate his superior.” The judges who praised Rich’s work shown in an 1844 exhibition at the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association noted that his “elegant specimens of Ornamental Silver Ware [were] in style and finish equal in all respects to the same class of English manufacture; and in every way highly creditable to this celebrated manufacturer.”
Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, of New Brunswick parentage, Rich was apprenticed to silversmith Moses Morse (w. 1815 – 1830) of Boston. Rich would have completed his apprenticeship about 1830, and that same year he opened his shop at 69 Washington Street.
Apparently it was not long before the silversmith was recognized for his skills. He may have been engaged to produce silver for retail in the firm of Jones, Lows & Ball of Boston, for in 1835 he and his partner, Samuel L. Ward, exhibited a monumental two-handled vase honoring Daniel Webster. The commission demonstrated that Rich was conversant with the international taste for such antiquities as the monumental Warwick vase, which had created a sensation when it was excavated at Hadrian’s Villa in 1771. It further proved his talent for executing challenging forms and repoussé decoration on a large scale. During the next decade Rich appears to have worked alone, producing other important works that placed him at the forefront of Boston’s silversmithing craft. These included a half-size version of the Warwick vase, with more delicate chasing at the rim and flowers scattered on the body of the vessel, and the Britannia Cup, given by the citizens of Boston to shipowner Samuel Cunard (1787 – 1865) for establishing the first transatlantic mail steamship to sail from Liverpool to Boston.
Rich also produced a varied body of domestic silver that possesses an originality and fine craftsmanship equal to his major commissions. In addition to sugar bowls, pitchers, and teapots, he fashioned inkwells with cast greyhounds, covered vessels based upon porcelain prototypes, and shaving mugs with French precedents.
Rich may have been among the first silversmiths of his generation to revisit the colonial style. Martha Gandy Fales has demonstrated that while proportions and stylistic changes mark his silver as the product of the nineteenth century, Rich clearly based much of his work, either intentionally or unconsciously, upon New England forms of the pre-Revolutionary era.
Rich’s reliance on colonial prototypes is evident in the ample sauceboats (cat. no. 226) that emulate mid-eighteenth-century examples. This oversized teapot, with its abundance of flat-chased engraving, is but a robust cousin of the Rococo examples made eighty years earlier by Paul Revere and his contemporaries. The plain foot of Rich’s teapot that, at first glance, suggests modern taste may indeed have been drawn from a colonial example. By contrast, Rich’s cast finial of a seated Chinese figure is indicative of the nineteenth century’s fascination with such ancient cultures as Egypt and Greece. The finial was used on at least one other teapot. Another in the Art Institute of Chicago bears a cartouche chased with the scene of a palm tree and a bamboo structure; a water carrier labors in the foreground. All three were probably intended as a symbol for the East, the source of tea.
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.
"E.W.A." engraved in gothic script within oval reserve on body to right of handle.
"O. RICH" stamped incuse and "BOSTON" in raised letters within a rectangle appear on bottom of vessel above and below center point.
Original owner unknown. It has been suggested that the engraved initials, which also appear on a box or tea caddy by Rich in the collection of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, are those of Emily Warren Appleton.6 Purchased in 1996 from Argentum, The Leopard’s Head, San Francisco, California.
Gift in honor of Jonathan Fairbanks on the occasion of the silver anniversary of the Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture by his current staff