Meta-Museum – LIN CHONG: The Unsung Cantonese Master Georgian Silversmith

LIN CHONG:  The Unsung Cantonese Master Georgian Silversmith

The art of silversmithing has a 2000 year history in China, 1200 years sees the production of highly sophisticated wares that draw influences from empires and cultures that existed along the Silk Route. Until the latter part of the 18th century the work was mainly destined for the Imperial court and upper echelons of society for several hundred years, while more latterly [18th century] almost exclusively for European royalty and aristocratic families as well as Far Eastern potentates and Indian maharajahs.

The level of craftsmanship that produced Chinese Export Silver was therefore not something that had occurred overnight. The craftsmanship was as deeply embedded as silver was in the psyche of the Chinese. It was a highly sophisticated system of small workshops that created, being akin to miniature production lines that were operated by highly skilled artisans who each shared a part in the finished item. The skills were more often than not passed down from generation to generation through families.

By the late 18th/early 19th centuries, the phenomena we know today as Chinese Export Silver was well-entrenched. It happened simply because silver, as a material, was more plentiful in China than anywhere else and the art of silversmithing had been perfected to such a high level. These early Chinese Export Silver makers were capable of creating silver that rivalled the best of their British and continental counterparts; masters such as Paul Storr, Paul de Lamerie. Pierre Germain etc. This capability was quick to be recognised; merchants and sea-captains began to bring silver items as examples to be copied, while the demand for bespoke items increased.

Lin Chong of Canton was a master. The quality of workmanship rivalled that of Paul Storr, yet because of his geographical remoteness to the source of British Georgian silver, it is not uncommon to find a degree of artistic licence in his work that detracts from the rigidity of pure classical Georgian design, manifesting itself as beautifully created eccentricities.

Here we see a superb tea urn created by Lin Chong in 1825. It is intrinsically as classically perfect as we’d expect of Georgian silver until we get the the exquisite serpent that coils itself around one foot or the urn and presents its head as the spigot terminal and bears a classical ivory finial.

Serpents appear in English Georgian silver, but usually as an integral detail of an overall classical motif.

The urn stands 32cm high, 17cm width  and weighs 1640gm [52.73 Troy ounces]. This superb Lin Chong piece is for sale currently at Koopman Rare Art, London.

The Snake Sign, in Chinese art and mythology, is not only a sign of the Chinese zodiac, but it symbolises character traits of intelligence, gracefulness and materialism. The Sign of Snake, in Chinese culture, is not perceived as the demon who seduced Eve into sin, it is rather a creature with sexy, wise, materialistic personalities. 1821 was the nearest Year of the Snake to the year of manufacture of this urn, so it was  not the year that influenced it’s inclusion as part of the decoration

Here [left] we have a Paul Storr tea urn, created 12 years prior to the Lin Chong urn. The four satyr heads are encircled by serpents; Storr has opted for a lion-mask spigot terminal with an ivory finial.

This Storr piece was sold at Sotheby’s, New York for $26,000 in 2004.

Here [right] we see a Paul Revere 1791 tea urn in the classical Georgian style made in Boston, Massachusetts and now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York as a group acquisition including the Annenberg Foundation, Annette de la Renta, Dru Heinz, the Kravis Foundation and various other donors.

As with most of his contemporary Cantonese Chinese Export Silver makers, Lin Chong adopted a so-called pseudo-hallmark as his maker’s mark.

Early Chinese silversmiths began to faithfully copy European and American silver items that merchants and sea captains brought to the Hongs in order to acquire high quality items at an attractive price to take back home. This faithful copying created a peculiarly Chinese phenomenon, as the Chinese silversmiths naively thought the hallmarks were part of the overall Western design. They did this unwittingly – sea captains and merchants would often bring items from the West and request they be used as examples to be faithfully copied. The silversmiths saw the hallmarks – had no idea what their significance was and adapted them by often inserting their own initial instead of the year mark found in British silver. As a result, pseudo hallmarks remained in general use for some 40 – 50 years.

Alas, Lin Chong silver is today very rare, particularly large pieces. As with the Paul Revere urn, both the Storr and Lin Chong urns are of museum quality. All three are fine examples of Georgian silver at its best, yet Revere and Storr are given recognition as masters of their art, while Lin Chong and his Cantonese contemporaries are not given their deserved place in the hierarchy of master silversmiths of the Georgian era.

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