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American Decorative Arts
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Maker: John Obrisset, British, active 1705–28
Subject: Elihu Yale, British, 1649–1721


ca. 1710–20

Silver and tortoiseshell

9/16 × 3 1/4 × 2 9/16 in. (1.4 × 8.3 × 6.5 cm)
Gift of Ezra Stiles
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 renown for his cameolike portraits of members of London society carved 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. The box made its way to the colonies where Ezra Stiles discovered it for sale in a Connecticut shop. He gave it to the University in 1788 during his tenure as the seventh president of Yale. 
Made in England
On view
18th century
Containers - Metals

Possibly Elihu Yale, London; purchased by Ezra Stiles, New Haven, Conn., by 1788; gift to Yale University, New Haven, Conn., 1788


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.

Gerald W. R. Ward, “Yale Memorabilia,” Antiques 6, no. 117 (June 1980): 1313, fig. 4, 4a.

“News and Comment,” Yale Alumni Weekly (Jan. 28, 1927): 490.

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.

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.

Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, “The Decoration of the Sterling Memorial Library,” The Yale Library Gazette 5, no. 4 (April 1931): 93.

Gay Walker, Bonawit, Stained Glass at Yale: G. Owen Bonawit’s Work at Yale University and Elsewhere (Wilsonville, Ore.: Wildwood Press, 2000), 12.

E. Alfred Jones, “The Silver Snuff Box of Elihu Yale,” International Studio 99 (August 1931): 18, ill.

Hiram Bingham III, Elihu Yale: Governor, Collector and Benefactor (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1938), 45, 54.

Romita Ray, “Elihu Yale at Yale,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2012): 60–61, fig. 9.

Diana Scarisbrick and Benjamin Zucker, Elihu Yale: Merchant, Collector and Patron (London: Thames and Hudson, 2014), 94, fig. 44.

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.

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 such records is ongoing.