Remarkable items of Chinese Export Silver that leave an enduring impression…..

It’s incredibly difficult to say what is the biggest pleasure I get from my research work into Chinese Export Silver, but if I’d have to choose one I’d have to say that I am probably privileged to see so many extraordinary items of silver; pieces that can truly be called master works of silver. I’ve decided to share some of the star items that collectors have kindly shared with me over the past year.

Another constant I seem to experience connected with this unique silver category is the degree of skepticism people often have as to the quality of silver and workmanship; people who often have close connections with the silver world in some way. Hopefully, the following examples will allow people’s doubts to be diminished, if not totally dispelled. Wo vaseHere we have a quite extraordinary vase created by the Shanghai silversmith Luen Wo circa 1895.

Firstly, the vase is deceptively Wo marklarge and heavy, weighing slightly under 1000gm. Secondly, there’s the dramatic, undulating and unusually wide rim – an incredibly difficult act of silversmithing to embark upon, not only for the skill required to physically make it but also to create such a wide rim that enhances the bowl without overpowering it. detail

Finally, there’s the decoration; this vase is covered with classic Chinese motifs that all carry with them auspicious or symbolic meaning individually while gelling into a glorious melange of singular overall design.The mix of floral and foliate motifs gives us prunus blossom on & heron detailbranches, bamboo and chrysanthemum in a mix of high relief work and engraving. Among the intertwined branches and blooms are a resplendent peacock, a heron, flying magpies, butterflies and bees.

The Luen Wo vase weighs 960gm, stands 15cm high and spans 22cm across the rim. The high quality of workmanship speaks for itself and holds it’s own compared to the best of late 19th century western silversmiths.

Staying in the late 19th century, we have a tripled vase épergne on a carved coromandel wood base made by Sing Fat epergneFat of Canton & Hong Kong circa 1895. Each vase is a bugle-shaped extension of a blossoming prunus branch; the vase being intricately reticulated ending in a single 5 petal prunus blossom and retaining its original clear glass liner. sagrada1895 sits firmly in the Art Nouveau, Jugendstil and Secessionist period; in Catalonia this manifested itself as

Modernismo whose most famous proponent was Antonio Gaudi. When I first saw this Sing Fat piece I was struck by its resemblance to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia [pictured left]. Although construction of the spires had not yet begun in 1895, Gaudi had designed the cathedral, created his 3D models and begun construction by the mid-1880’s. Whether this stunning Sing Fat piece was inspired by the Art Nouveau movements in Europe have to remain a point of conjecture, but the quality of workmanship and design are equally breathtaking. Xing spoonSmall objects can also take my breath away and this circa 1900 preserve spoon by Da Xing [Ta Hsing], if it weren’t for the Chinese characters on the terminal, could easily be mistaken for a Secessionist/Jugendstil piece from Germany or Austria. But then we look closer Xing spoon:1 see the design comprises of a mix of lotus and bamboo pure Chinese motifs.The spoon is a small masterpiece that is comparable to contemporary silver items from the Wiener Werkstatte or Christofle and would have been aesthetically pleasing to Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Da Xing was essentially a Canton maker who also retained a manufacturing base in Singapore, one of the centres for Straits Chinese Silver. WE WC fish slice

To take my breath away, we don’t have to stay in the last 5 years of the 19th century. If we were to speak of silver in general, then I’d probably veer toward Georgian silver and the next piece is remarkable in as much as it was made in Canton, yet could easily muster along with the best of late Georgian/William IV English silver.

The maker known only as WE WE WC achieved almost celebrity status by being one of the earliest Chinese Export Silver makers who adopted a so-called “pseudo hallmark”. The jury is still out on whether the Canton makers of this period [1820-1880] unwittingly copied British hallmarks when requested to “faithfully copy” items sea captains and merchants brought to Canton to be copied. WE WC mark

I certainly believe that initially, such makers were oblivious to the relevance of hallmarks, but then the oblivion was a tad too long-lived with this particular makers using the mark for 60 years! It is generally accepted the maker’s mark originally came into existence through a piece made by William Eley, Willian Fearn and William Chawner was brought to Canton to be copied, but this fish slice is as good as, if not better than any comparable late Georgian fish slice made by one of the premier silversmiths as we can see from this piece [below] by William Eley and William Fearn. & Fearn fish sliceApart from all the pieces I’ve presented being 19th century, there’s another common theme that applies to any of these items; they are all comparable to their European counterpart makers and the stylistic periods they relate to. Chinese Export Silver pieces are often of thicker gauge silver and heavier than their western relatives. But Chinese Export Silver pieces from the latter 40 years of the 19th century are all the more richer for the fusion of Chinese motifs on what are essentially western forms.

POSTSCRIPT: Chinese Export Silver is more often than not an opener of Pandora boxes. Since writing this article, it’s now become apparent [thanks to several vigilant and supportive colleagues] that the Luen Wo “vase” is in fact a spittoon/cuspidor. This again has brought my attention to the history of spittoons [and in fact the history and relevance of the custom of spitting] in China that find their roots back in the Tang dynasty. As a result, I’ve decided to feature the “vase” again in two weeks time in an article devoted entirely to spittoons!

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