Snuffbox Maker: John Obrisset (British, active 1705–28)

ca. 1710–20

American Decorative Arts

On view, 1st floor, American Decorative Arts before 1900

This snuffbox depicts Elihu Yale, a prosperous merchant, governor of the East India Company, and namesake of Yale University. The portrait was crafted by the British artisan John Obrisset, who achieved brief renowned for his cameolike portraits of members of London society molded into tortoiseshell. The shell plaque was set into the lid of a silver box that held snuff, a powdered tobacco that was popular in fashionable circles. The early history of this snuffbox is unknown, but it was most likely commissioned by Elihu Yale, as similar boxes are known to have been commissioned by their subjects. Yale's descendants presented the box in 1755 to a member of the Yale family living in Wallingford, Connecticut. Ezra Stiles, seventh president of Yale, acquired the box in 1788 and gave it to the University "as a Memorial of its principal Benefactor."


Silver and tortoiseshell


9/16 × 3 1/4 × 2 9/16 in. (1.4 × 8.3 × 6.5 cm)

Credit Line

Gift of Ezra Stiles

Accession Number



18th century


Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of records is ongoing.



Probably commissioned by Elihu Yale (1649–1721), London. Caleb Cook (1741–1821), Wallingford, Conn., by 1788 [see note 1]; sold to Ezra Stiles (1727–1795), New Haven, Conn., May 1, 1788; given to Yale College, New Haven, Conn., 1832

Note 1: On May 1, 1788, Ezra Stiles recorded in his diary: "This day I bought of Caleb Cook Esq. of Wallingford an antique silver Snuff Box of the East India Governor Yale. The Turtle shell was neatly & elegantly charged with the Governors Head in alto Relievo, and his Coat of Arms. I gave fourty shillgs for it; and do now deposit it in the archives of Yale as a Memorial of its principal Benefactor.... In 1755 Major Elihu Hall of Wallgfd bro't from Englnd this Snuff Box presented by some of the Governors family to Mr. Yale of Wallingfd." [Franklin Bowditch Dexter, editor, The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, D.D., LL.D., Volume III (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1901): 315-16.] Elihu Hall (1714–1784) graduated from Yale in 1731 and was the King's Attorney for Connecticut. It is still uncertain which member of the Yale family received the box.
  • Esther Chadwick, Meredith Gamer, and Cyra Levenson, Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Center for British Art, 2014), 11–12, ill
  • Diana Scarisbrick and Benjamin Zucker, Elihu Yale: Merchant, Collector and Patron (London: Thames and Hudson, 2014), 94, fig. 44
  • Romita Ray, "Elihu Yale at Yale," in "Elihu Yale," special issue, Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2012), 60–61, fig. 9
  • Gay Walker, Stained Glass in Yale's Sterling Memorial Library: A Guide to the Decorative Glass of G. Owen Bonawit (Wilsonville, Ore.: Wildwood Press, 2006), 18, 98
  • Gay Walker, Bonawit, Stained Glass at Yale: G. Owen Bonawit's Work at Yale University and Elsewhere (Wilsonville, Ore.: Wildwood Press, 2000), 12
  • Gerald W. R. Ward, "Yale Memorabilia," Antiques 6, no. 117 (June 1980), 1313, fig. 4, 4a
  • Kathryn C. Buhler and Graham Hood, American Silver in the Yale University Art Gallery, 2 vols. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1970), vol. 1, pp. 317–18, no. 545, ill
  • Hiram Bingham III, Elihu Yale: Governor, Collector and Benefactor (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1938), 45, 54
  • E. Alfred Jones, "The Silver Snuff Box of Elihu Yale," International Studio 99 (August 1931), 18, ill
  • Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, "The Decoration of the Sterling Memorial Library," The Yale Library Gazette 5, no. 4 (April 1931), 93
  • George Dudley Seymour, "The Snuff Box of St. Eli: A Little Known Portrait of Yale's Great Early Benefactor and Patron Saint," Yale Alumni Weekly (Jan. 28, 1927), 492–93, ill
  • "News and Comment," Yale Alumni Weekly (Jan. 28, 1927), 490
Object copyright
Additional information

Object/Work type



"J.OB.F" in relief on tortoise shell, below bust of Yale

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