CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: The Enamel Revival Phenomenon 中國出口銀器: 琺瑯的復興現象

META-MUSEUM: CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: The Enamel Revival Phenomenon 中國出口銀器:琺瑯的復興現象

CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: The Enamel Revival Phenomenon 中國出口銀器: 琺瑯的復興現象

The art of cloisonné is often looked upon as a Chinese art and in some respects it is a correct assumption, however cloisonné, as a technique finds its roots back in the 13 century BCE Mycenaean era and the Mediterranean – or at least the earliest known examples are to be found there. Since this is a highly sophisticated process of enamelling, theories abound as to how and where the mechanics of enamel work and, in particular, encasing it within small enclosed cells [cloisons], evolved.

The technique is known to have surfaced in China in the 13th century CE – “known” being tangible examples of cloisonné work in a recognisable Chinese style, but since these examples display a high degree of sophistication and mastery of the art, it must be assumed the technique was being developed and used in China prior to this date.

Firstly, the word “cloisonné” is relatively new and is obviously French; the 13th century Chinese referred to it as da shi, meaning “muslim” or qiasi falang, ware in books of the time, though no examples are known to exist until the 14th century. The term, however, would indicate truth in the theory that Sassanians were experts, were responsible for developing the basic technique to a highly sophisticated level and exported wares and the technique to Spain, the Balkans and all countries along the Silk Route, including China and India. Sassanians, after all, were responsible for introducing the art of silversmithing to China; an art that appeared in China in the Sung and Tang dynasties.

Ming Dynasty Cloisonne Bowl

It is during the Ming Dynasty [1368-1644] that we see relatively large quantities of highly sophisticated Chinese cloisonné, as can be seen in this superb bowl. In Chinese cloisonné, blue came to be by far the most predominant colour and it is because of this the process became known as jingtai lan [Jingtai blue ware], named after the Emperor Jingtai [1450-57].

Although the technique must have entered and stayed in China in Chang’an, the capital of the Silk Route in the time the Sassanian merchants were dominant fixtures of the trading landscape, it is Beijing that became the historic spiritual home of Chinese cloisonné ware, not to be confused in any way with the much later so-called Canton enamel ware which was painted on freehand and did not use partitioned cells. Japanese cloisonné shippo did not come into its own until the 19th century about the same time as Karl Faberge and Khlebnikov were creating their enamel masterpieces in Imperial Russia, although cloisonné was being made in Russia as early as the 17th century by Lubavin and other Court silversmiths – possibly again attributable to Sassanian roots via the Balkans.

The seemingly sudden explosion of Chinese enamel ware during the Ming era is believed to be linked, in part, to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 when skilled refugee artisans arrived in China; many of these artisans were of Sassanian stock and, as previously mentioned, Sassanians and enamelware were known in China prior to this event; the fall of Constantinople was quite simply the final catalyst to consolidate it as a Chinese art form. – the last piece in the jigsaw.

This Ming Dynasty turquoise cloisonné stemmed cup [below] demonstrates how refined and sophisticated the art had become in China within a relatively short period.

Ming Dynasty Cloisonne Stemmed Cup

Ming Dynasty Silver Inlay Bronze VaseWhat is fascinating about the Ming Dynasty in relation to the history of Chinese silver making is that although it was during this Dynasty the Chinese obsession with accruing massive reserves of silver from around the world was at its peak and is seen by many to be the impetus that created the concept of world trade, actual manufacturing of silver wares appears to have declined temporarily. Any surviving silver items tends towards a trend for inlaying silver into bronze, as this Ming vase [left] clearly shows; one has to wonder whether cloisonné was influencing the silversmith’s art at this time.

While cloisonné wares continue to thrive, they meet again in the late 18th/early 19th centuries with  mainstream silver making and the advent of Chinese Export Silver. It is the China Trade itself that acts as the catalyst in this instance; ships carrying tea and a variety of luxury cargoes re-create an awareness and eventually a mania for all things “oriental”.

This early 19th century silver gilt and silver filigree fan [below] is exquisitely embellished with cloisonné reserves of Chinese buildings within a traditional landscape in vivid blue and teal enamelling. This is the level of quality that epitomises one of the best retail silversmiths of Canton of the period, Cutshing.

Cutshing Cloisonne and Silver Fan Early 19th Century

The whole is completed with an equally exquisite lacquerwork box painted with gold figures within a decorative foliate motif. Silver filigree work was very much a part of the early Chinese Export Silver manufacturing period and is often used in tandem with cloisonné work; this unusual travelling lady’s dressing box [below] is a fine example.

Chinese Export Silver 19th Century Lady's Travelling Dressing Box

Silver filigree ruyi sceptres, ceremonial objects in Chinese Buddhism, reached their artistic zenith as a result of the Qianlong Emperor’s specific request for ruyi sceptres to be presented by courtiers on Imperial birthdays and New Year celebrations. Sceptres conveyed wishes of longevity which is symbolised by the lingzhi fungus-shaped head that would often depict the Eight Immortals [below]; the meaning of ruyi being “as you wish” or “as one wishes”. Lingzhi literally means “supernatural mushroom” and ancient Chinese philosophers believed that these fungi should be consumed as drugs of immortality.

Chinese Silver Filigree Ruyi Sceptre Head

Ceremonial ruyi of the 18th and 19th century would often be encrusted with intricate cloisonné decoration in blues and yellows – the Imperial colours. The shaft of this ruyi supports a complicated group of eight immortals in enamelled silver, each holding their own tribute whilst standing amongst various flowering plants including prunus, plantain and fingered citron [aka Buddha’s Hand]. Standing figures of Shoulao, the stellar deity of longevity, holding a peach  [symbol of immortality] and two scholars, one holding a sceptre and one a child, decorate the ruyi head. As with many ceremonial ruyi, it is teeming with allegorical symbolism.

Chinese Silver Filigree Ruyi with Standing Figures

This particular sceptre [below] carries the mark of the maker and, as with all Chinese silver of this period, authentic ruyi should carry such a mark. Since cloisonné work is still produced in Beijing, much of it of extremely high quality, it is not uncommon to come across ceremonial ruyi masquerading as 18th/19th century items; it is one of those unfortunate grey areas of Chinese silver making that can prove to be somewhat of a minefield.

Chinese Export Silver Filigree Ruyi Sceptre by Bao Xin

This circa late 18th/early 19th century ruyi sceptre was made by Bao Xin, a Beijing silversmith who specialised in cloisonné work for the Imperial Court. The intricacy of the enamel work is quite phenomenal, given the head is approximately only 10cm wide.

Bao Xin Ruyi Sceptre Detailing

Bao Xin Chinese Export Silver Ruyi Sceptre

Jing Fu Silver Mark. Chinese Export Silver maker

Although by the mid 19th century most true cloisonné silver items were still being made in Beijing, silversmiths in other silver making centres did create silver items in tandem with cloisonné; this lidded canister below] by the Shanghai maker Jing Fu is not only a good example but it also high quality work. As should be the case, the canister carries the Jing Fu mark [right]. What must remain a mystery is whether the cloisonné work was carried out in Shanghai or in Beijing; there is a distinct difference in style, albeit it looks to traditional Chinese decorative motifs for its inspiration.

Chinese Export Silver and Cloisonne Canister by Jing Fu

Whereas this Beijing-made canister [below] of the same period by Kai Tai keeps the tradition of small, rather convoluted millefiori-style cloisonné.

Kai Tai Cloisonne Canister

The mid 19th century is when Chinese silversmiths begin to incorporate cloisonné work with items such as tea pots and complete tea and coffee sets, coinciding with the movement in Chinese Export Silver to adopt a more high Chinese style as opposed to the neo-classical “copies” of Western silver that had been in demand for about 60 years or so. It is this tea ware that has become somewhat of a phenomenon, particularly among Chinese collectors. Unlike the highly intricate work of their ruyi predecessors, silversmiths first of all were not mainly Beijing-based and they were employing the technique of applying enamelled shaped panels onto finished silver items.

Chinese Export Silver Wo Shing Cloisonne and Silver Tea Set

This three-piece tea set [above] carries the mark of the Canton and Shanghai retail silversmith Wo Shing and was made circa 1895. Being a retail silversmith, the work of this set is likely to be attributed to two artisan makers – one being a silversmith and the other being an enamel specialist. The phenomenon, however, is not the style or the work but the values work of this kind command at auction, this particular set having a figure at the lower end of the scale at £10,600 [$17,600] – nevertheless double or treble the amount a similar set by Wo Shing without enamel decoration would likely achieve.

Huang Jiu Ji Chinese Export Silver tea set for Poh Sing

At the other end of the value spectrum this  particular phenomenon generates is this three-piece tea set [above] of exactly the same period as the Wo Shing set, this time carrying the mark of the retail silversmith Poh Sing who is often found to collaborate with an enamel master by the name of Huang Jiu Ji [see mark below right] who operated in Beijing. Again, the finished silver pieces are applied with enamel work panels, the difference beingPoh Sing and Huang Jiu Ji Silver Mark that Huang Jiu Ji has attained almost cult status among current-day Chinese collectors. While I am often castigated for mentioning values, it has to be said that the figure of £43,250 [$71,750], which was the auction room value of this set, has to have some relevancy.

Huang Jiu Ji enamel detaling

The enamel work of both sets is not cloisonné work in the true traditional meaning of the technique, but it is enamel work that is enclosed in a “cloison” that takes the overall form of the motif. As the detail illustration shows [left] from another Huang Jiu Ji piece, just one petal is a cell in its own right and the rest of the flower head in one large cell.

Chinese Export Silver De Tian Li Silver and Enamel Vase

Also related to this relatively recent buying phenomenon is another style of combining enamel work with Chinese silver work. This baluster vase carries the mark of the Beijing retail silversmith De Tian Li.

De Tian Li Beijing Chinese Export Silver Mark

Two enamel techniques are employed on this vase, neither of them being cloisonné. The sea weeds and the traditional meander frieze are engraved into the body of the vase and then filled with enamel. The Koi carp and the elongated leaf frond border are hand painted enamel which is then fired.

The issue of whether there is a place or even a relevancy for seemingly inflated values within the history and research of a particular silver category is one that is often posed to me. Values have always been at odds with artistic merit or historical fact, yet whether it is liked or not there is an invisible umbilical cord linking the two. Many a fine art painting owes its fame to a hammer value in an auction room and one can certainly say the same of Chinese porcelain.

Ming Dynasty Chicken Wine Cup

This 500 year old Ming Dynasty “chicken cup”, less than 8cm in diameter, was sold in Hong Kong for $HK250 million [£19.3 million/$32.32 million]. This surely has relevance to Ming porcelain and certainly to the 16 remaining known similar cups in the world. It is the first cup of its kind to be “re-patriated” to China.

I really can’t see why there should be a different rule for Chinese Export Silver, even if we disagree with what is being paid or the artistic merit.  Similar debates have occurred during recent annals of art history; L S Lowry is an example – I can well-remember back in the 1980’s it was rather infra dig to be even discussing the upward trajectory of Lowry prices, yet now it is expected.

Likewise, if the Chinese collector fraternity see fit to elevate Guang Jiu Ji to a semi-cult status, who are we to comment – there are many Western silversmiths who have attained similar status. Personally I believe these isolated phenomena are similar to micro-climates where, for instance, a closely grouped collection of particular plants can create a more temperate atmosphere. Equally, a group of like-minded devotees of a particular silver style or maker or even simply followers of fashion can create a rise in value that exceeds the median value for that silver category. It is simply a matter of recognising when a phenomenon happens and accepting it for what and why it is.

It is also extremely important what is euphemistically called “the trade” doesn’t regard it as a bandwagon to take a ride on. The very use of the term “Chinese Export Silver” has become all too easily applied to any silver that looks vaguely “Chinese”; it is misleading and it is not particularly professional and I would certainly think that the majority of Chinese collectors are far more discerning than they might be given credit for.

Certainly in the past 12 months there seems to have been a rash of so-called “19th century Chinese silver gilt filigree” items appearing at Western auction houses and online auction sites.

Chinese Silver Gilt Canister Post 1949

The dome-lidded canister [above] is a perfect example and the first thing to note is that it is not filigree; it is manufactured using machine-made silver gilt mesh. The enamel work has been applied, albeit not unskilfully in this instance. It is not 19th century; it is not Chinese Export Silver; it is not even an antique. The rule of thumb is generally to be found in the mark and in this case it is the word SILVER stamped into a rather new looking base. No 19th century Chinese silversmith would have used such a stamp and certainly not in isolation of any other mark. Almost all of the items I referred to that fall into the category of this rather annoying phenomenon carry a similar mark or carry the word CHINA – sometimes both. Anything carrying these marks will have been made post-1949 when private enterprise became extinct in China and, as with all other manufacturing process, became nationalised and consolidated by the state into government owned collectives. Any self-respecting 19th century Chinese retail or manufacturing silversmith would have stamped a true piece of Chinese Export Silver appropriately and would have been proud to do so.

What is particularly annoying and misleading is that similar items regularly appear in auction sales of what are regarded as premier auction houses.

How and why these canisters suddenly flooded the market will probably remain a mystery but if anything did influence them other than trying to take a ride on the previously mentioned bandwagon, it can only be the exquisite work of 18th and 19th century Chinese masters of the true art of filigree. We have already seen the workmanship of the ceremonial ruyi sceptres whose meshwork base is a painstakingly hand-made silver filigree mesh. The well-respected Canton retail silversmith Cutshing was famous for creating enamel and bejewelled filigree items, much of it to European royal households, the Russian Imperial Court, Arab Sultanates and Maharajah’s palaces.

Chinese Export Silver Cutshing Filigree Basket Late 18th Century

This highly elaborate silk lined basket is an example of Cutshing that was originally used in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg as a glove box. It is probably late 18th century as it is believed to have been used by Catherine the Great who died in 1796.

The level of workmanship and the techniques employed are completely different from the post-1940 canister that is trying to emulate it. This detail of a Chinese Export Silver filigree and enamel vase [below] of the same period as the Cutshing basket clearly demonstrates two totally unrelated and unconnected items.

Chinese Export Silver Late 18th Century Filigree Vase Detailing

Post 1949 Chinese Silver Filigree and Enamel Canister

The item [left] was described as being 19th century and Chinese. The only word that rings true there is “Chinese”; again this is a post 1949 piece of Chinese silver – nothing more, nothing less. It, too, carried the solitary SILVER stamp [below]

Chinese Silver Mark Post 1949

Many of these pseudo-19th century tea canisters don’t even have a solid metal inner container to make it airtight.

Bao Cheng 20th Century Chinese Export Silver and Enamel Vase

Lastly, I’d like to return to solid form silver incorporating enamel work. The large urn [right] is by Bao Cheng, but not the Bao Cheng most collectors might know in Shanghai and Tientsin, both of whom were not connected. This Bao Cheng is from Beijing as the mark it carries tells us.

There are two enamel techniques used here; the handles have been fashioned as a foliate frond with additional individual elements applied, perhaps even after enamelling was applied. The body of the vase has a painted floral composition that has been fired.

Dating this piece is not easy but I would put this piece towards the from end of the Republic Period but possibly the Warlord Era [1916-1928].

Such an item would be highly likely to attract a similar interest and level of value as the lower end of the Guang Jiu Ji scale might command. Appreciation of any art form can often be subjective and prevailing rules of the game may be inclined to fly out of the window – a phenomenon which in itself can command levels of criticism that are off the scale.

Enamel work as a technique, has a scale of expertise of its own and Chinese enamel work is certainly recognised very much as a much-revered Chinese skill. There are certainly parallels between antique Chinese and Russian enamel work, just as there are probably parallels in the subjective appreciation of it and how that can translate into how values might be perceived.  There are no bandwagons; there are phenomena that do break the unwritten rules – we can only be aware of them and acknowledge them as and when they happen, but we shouldn’t climb aboard them and encourage the ride to go further by being overly “creative” about identity, age and even provenance. I have seen post-1949 canisters described as being “part of an important estate collection”. Well, the Duchess of Devonshire probably buys the occasional item at Poundland, which would make her purchase a part of the Chatsworth Estate and I am sure Barbara Bush pays the occasional visit to Dollar Tree;  a provenance of sorts, but not 19th century, surely!

Grey Space Bar

Adrien von Ferscht at University of Glasgow

Button_academiaEdu3

btn-linkedin

http://chinese-export-silver.com

Grey Space Bar

Adrien von Ferscht at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions

Adrien von Ferscht at WorthPoint

Asia Scotland Institute

Grey Space Bar

Chinese Export Silver Makers Marks

http://chinese-export-silver.com/catalogue-of-makers-marks/

Grey Space Bar

References:

The Enamels of China & Japan, Maynard Giles Cosgrove, 1974

Enamel Ware – Collection of the Palace Museum, Chen Li Hua, 2008

Oriental Cloisonné and Other Enamels. Arthur & Grace Chu, 1975

The Arts of China 4th Edition, Michael Sullivan, University of California Press, 1999

History of Cloisonné Technique, Woodrow Carpenter

History and Techniques of Enamelling Before 1600, Brenda Tighe

 

Acknowledgements:

Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills

Veronica Parry in Manchester, UK for inspiring me to write on this subject. 

Title illustration: Qianlong Cloisonné Guardian Lion, Albany Institute of History & Art

Ming “chicken cup” illustration: Associated Press

 

Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions; Halls Fine Art Auctioneers, UK; Bonhams, Edinburgh; Bonhams, London; S&J Stodel, London, UK; The Vitreous Enamelers’ Society, UK; cultural-china.com; Darshana Daz at Encyclopaedia Brittanica; Henry Walters Collection, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; Eloge de l”Art, Alain Truong; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; M S Rau Antiques, New Orleans; 2EZR, Los Angeles; Christie’s, Hong Kong; Skinners Inc, Boston; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass.; Chamberlain Antiques, Amherst, New Hampshire, USA; Sotheby’s, Hong Kong; The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; The Hermitage Museum, Amsterdam

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the www.chinese-export-silver.com archive

Grey Space Bar

Comments
One Response to “META-MUSEUM: CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: The Enamel Revival Phenomenon 中國出口銀器:琺瑯的復興現象”
  1. Peter Combs says:

    A a PS, Attached is a link to an nearly identical Scepter a good friend of mine sold recently on EBAY….

    I thought perhaps you might want to goa ciopy down the imnages for your own archives…

    http://goo.gl/Ba4LL5

    Sincerely, Peter Combs
    plcombs

Leave A Comment

© 2012-2017 chinese export silver All Rights Reserved -- Copyright notice by Blog Copyright