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Joseph Kneeland, The John Vassal Tankard (c.1729)

For Artwork in Focus we explore individual artworks, critiquing their style and discussing their socio-political context. Today we look at The John Vassal Tankard (c. 1729) by Joseph Kneeland.

About the Work

Title : The John Vassal Tankard
Artist : Joseph Kneeland
Year : c. 1729
Medium : Silver
Dimensions : 17.2 x 11.9 cm (6 3/4 x 4 11/16 in.)
Location : Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The John Vassal Tankard

A tankard is a drink ware object used to hold liquids. It resembles a tall cylinder with a single handle and a lid. The Vassal Tankards housed at the Harvard Art Museum was a gift.

Harvard University’s laws from the mid 17th century stated :

“Every Fellow Comoner shall bring a peice of Silver plate to the Colledge to the value (at the least) of three poundes with his Name ingraven thereupon, which hee may have the use of whilest hee shall abide in the Colledge and shall leave it to the propriety of the Colledge when hee departs from it.”

The John Vassal Tankard, brought by John Vassal, was one of such objects the college demanded its students to bring. This silver tankard is what elevated Vassal to the status of a Fellow-Commoner. The privileges of a fellow commoner included sitting at the tutor’s table and being respectfully addressed as Mister.

As required by the rules, this tankard has the name “Vassal” engraved upon it. It was left to the college once John Vassard graduated.

Other Details

Joseph Kneeland’s The John Vassal Tankard  is housed in the Harvard Art Museums in Room 2340, European and American Art, 17th–19th century. It is part of the museum’s collection of the The Silver Cabinet: Art and Ritual


To learn more about iconic artworks and their socio-political context, visit Artwork in Focus.

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