META-MUSEUM: CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: The Art of the Silver Cage 中國出口銀器: 銀籠子的藝術

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Chinese Export Silver produced some extraordinary silversmiths by anyone’s standards; a much-used statement by me and one I am oft criticised about. There is an unwritten  hierarchy of perceived best makers in the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries; sadly, Chinese silversmiths were not even considered eligible to this exclusive virtual club.

Chinese silversmiths thought outside of the box and in doing so created some rather idiosyncratic objects that are not only marvels of the art of silvermaking but also became iconic objects of their day. Ingenuity and humour were the drivers of the quirkiness.

Wang Hing CasketCertain silversmithing skills became synonymous with the Chinese Export Silver makers; filigree work was probably one of the first they excelled at, reticulated silver was another. Classic Chinese motifs particularly lent themselves to pierced silver; Yun Chien or “cloud collar” is used right across the Chinese Export Silver spectrum as we see in this fine reticulated Chinese Export Silver casket by Wang Hing. Dragons chasing the flaming pearl in clouds is the Chinese silversmith’s ultimate dream. It is the perfecting of this art that gave rise to a phenomenon that is peculiar to Chinese Export Silver, although it is to be found in American, English and continental silver of the late 19th century and in the Art Nouveau/Secessionist silver in a milder and less ornate style.

 

This innate ingenuity often caused the Chinese to adopt what we in the West would consider an everyday object, claim it for themselves in a rather fanatical way and then recreate it in a totally other guise to make it unmistakably Chinese. One such object the Chinese Export Silver makers created was born out of the Haig Whisky Dimple bottle.

It probably demonstrates how Westerners take things for granted, because this bottle was actually first produced in 1893 and even pre-dates the birth of the first Coca Cola bottle in 1899, making it probably one of the very first designer packaging designs. The bottle came bound in a brass wire cage that was designed to keep the stopper in and to help protect the glass during shipping. The tricorn shape and the dimple on each side made it incredibly strong. It took a lot of ingenuity, probably helped by the Chinese love of a drink, for the silversmiths to realise the bottle could withstand the intense heat of making a silver cage to replace the original wire mesh, while the stopper became a rather grand silver affair.

Wang Hing Decanter

Wang Hing is generally thought as the silversmith who first attempted this transformation into a whisky decanter. They were made in the ShangHai and Hong Kong workshops and quickly became the next must-have among the affluent foreign communities and Chinese. The workmanship is quite astounding. Made in two halves, the “cage” is dressed onto the bottle and then soldered, but on Wang Hing pieces it is virtually impossible to detect this is anything other than a one-piece silver cloak. This is obviously helped by the swirling reticulated design, but masterful and skillful nevertheless.       TaiPing Decanter

On the left we have a particularly high quality Wang Hing decanter, circa late 19th century. On the right, a smaller Haig Dimple decanter by a little-known maker Tai-Ping.

ShangHai and Hong Kong were both considered at the end of the 19th century quite decadent cities whose European parallels would have been Paris and Berlin. ShangHai in particular spawned many fashions and it was here that the mania for Haig whisky in the Dimple bottle became quite the thing. Wang Hing simply did what he did best, always seized an opportunity to create a luxury object that would sell in the hundreds and thousands, which the Haig decanter did. Other silversmiths copied and this then led to evermore fantastical “caged” creations.

Christies Decanter Collection

Here we see the ultimate socialite’s collection, most of which are Wang Hing pieces. This collection sold at Christie’s, New York in April 2013 for $6875.00 to a Chinese client. One would like to think of this gracing the drinks table in a ShangHai penthouse being drooled over by that city’s glitterati.

Chinese Export Silver caged decanters using a four-compartment bottle became quite common in the early 20th century. Middle below, we have a fine example made by Tack Hing, while below right we have a rather unusual caged decanter by Yu Chang with 4 compartments each labelled – Cointreau; Benedictine; Creme de Menthe and Apricot. Yu Chang also operated in both Hong Kong and ShangHai. On the left a Wang Hing example.

Tack Hing Yu Chang & Wang Hing Decanters

To complete the ultimate cocktail table, we have pictured below a caged bitters bottle by the Hong Kong maker Sammy, spout head being a serpent’s head with a rather ingenious hinged lid as the “mouth”.

Sammy Bitters Bottle

2 x Luen Hing Decanters

And for the ultimate show-off, a pair of Luen Hing Haig decanters[above right]; Luen Hing also being a ShangHai maker.

The caging technique was also applied to perfume bottles, but whereas the decanters were obviously utilising a branded commercial bottle, the origin of the perfume bottles is less clear. Usually in green glass and very occasionally in claret glass, the bottles could have been made in China.

Wang Hing Green PerfumeWe have on the left a circa 1900 Wang Hing silver-caged small green glass perfume bottle that achieved just under $750 in a UK auctionWang Hing Green Perfume:2 house in late 2012 against an estimate of $100. Since this is a bottle I can’t readily recognise as being European, it probably indicates it was made in China. Green caged bottles of this shape seem to be the adopted form. This other example from Wang Hing on the right is an identical bottle but a different treatment to the cage work; the only difference being this achieved a $1800 asking price in an online auction platform.

The very same basic green bottle appears yet again in this particularly elegant reticulated cage using an effective chrysanthemum motif [below left]. This is one of the few examples I have seen using a glass stopper rather than a silver finial topped cork as the Wang Hing bottle [below right] has.  But what just these four examples of treatments to what is essentially the same bottle shows the individuality that can be achieved by caging.

Green chrysanthemum bottle

Small Wang Hing Perfume

One can almost feel the sense of humour the Chinese Export Silver makers had when we see these bottles. The combination of the caging technique  and the use of reticulated work transforms a plain everyday glass bottle in an object of great beauty and character.

Wang Hing 1litre bottleEven this very plain clear glass 1 litre size bottle we have on the left has been transformed almost beyond recognition once again by Wang Hing. Cranberry coloured caged glass is far more rare, particularly in caged bottles. Although this is obviously not a bottle, we can see below how effective caging can be over cranberry in the Wang Hing reticulated bowl with liner.

Wang Hing Cranberry Bowl

The two reticulated bowls below are again given a quite stunning treatment with their reticulated silver cages over the Bristol blue glass bowls.

2 x Bristol Blue bowls

 

There has been substantial debate as to the capabilities of the Chinese in the 19th century to produce quality coloured glass that equalled European and American standards. Generally, Chinese Export Silver open salts have either a parcel gilded interior and no liner or they have a somewhat crude clear glass that is bubble-filled – a random bullicante effect. I have never seen high quality blue glass liners in a Chinese Export Silver salt other than those that appear to have been fitted with Bristol blue or Bohemian claret liners. We can see this below: on the left we have a Wee Kee mustard pot with its original Chinese clear glass liner and on the right we have a Wang Hing mustard with a Bristol blue glass liner. The clear glass is irregularly shaped, is filled with bubbles and the rim is not cut and polished as with the Bristol glass.

Blue Glass:Clear Glass Liners

Wang Hing yun chien bottle

One can safely assume this last piece is cage work over a bottle that is not Chinese. Sadly the stopper is missing, but it was most probably a cut glass blue stopper that matched the neck.

Wang Hing, yet again, at his work and incorporating this time the yun chien cloud motif combined with a swirling dragon. The free-flowing design and workmanship is quite a contrast to the more rigid and formal caging one sees in European examples.

I should close by clarifying the use of the word “dimple” for the Haig bottle, since probably most of the American readers will probably be slightly perplexed by this. The Haig Dimple was marketed in America only  as “Pinch” and is almost always referred to as the pinch bottle

 

 

 

Vintage Dimple:Pinch bottles

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GlasgowAdrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research. This article is from his current ongoing research: Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940 – Within the Context of the 1200 History of Silvermaking in China

worthpoint_w_coin_header_logo copyAdrien von Ferscht is the Worthologist expert for Chinese Export Silver

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Adrien von Ferscht’s website is the largest online information resource for Chinese Export Silver: www.chinese-export-silver.com

His Catalogue of Chinese Export Silver Makers’ Marks [1785-1940] is the largest collector’s guide for Chinese Export Silver available, with information on 155 makers and 133 pages of in-depth history. It is updated every 6-8 months and is only available as a download file. The single purchase price acquires the Catalogue plus all subsequent editions free of charge. Adrien also encourages people to share images and ask questions. The Catalogue is available at:

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

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Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his dedicated translation skills

Thanks to: Bonhams London; Christie’s London; Silverman Antiques; I Franks, London; Pasarel, Israel; Andrew Smith & Son, Winchester, UK; Daniel Bexfield, London; Diageo

Article Header: A drawing depicting the British Consul Sir Harry Parkes bidding adieu to the Cohong  Mandarins in Canton in 1857 [c/o The Illustrated London News 1857]

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the www.chinese-export-silver.com archive which is managed by Christopher Hunter at www.eleven38photography.co.uk

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