META-MUSEUM:CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: When Sun Shone on Canton for 95 Years! 中國出口銀器: 陽光普照著廣州城的那九十五年.

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CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: When Sun Shone on Canton for 95 Years! 中國出口銀器: 陽光普照著廣州城的那九十五年.

I’ve been aware of some debate recently over referenced manufacturing periods for some of the Chinese Export Silver makers. I couldn’t agree more that some of the established dating requires review especially given that far more information has become and is still becoming available since cataloguing first began in the 1960’s.

As my research continues, it is clear to me how little was known about Chinese Export Silver as a silver category and how the makers were nothing more than enigmatic names we tended to bandy about, often referring to individual makers as “he”. We now know there was no “he”, since virtually all the makers’ names were fictitious titles that fronted retail silversmiths or workshops. We also know that many of the early makers produced truly extraordinary quality silver, much of it in the classic Georgian style and much of it able to rival it. One such maker was Sun Shing of Canton, a maker who we are aware of beginning production in 1790 but could easily have been producing silver prior to this under another guise; it is almost impossible such exceptional work could have sprung from nowhere, let alone obscurity.

Original estimates in the 1960’s of Sun Shing’s manufacturing life were circa 1790-1830. This could have been because Crosby Forbes’ work was focused only on Chinese Export Silver in America and most of the silver studied was centered in the Massachusetts area where much of the earliest Chinese Export Silver landed and remained. We now know that Sun Shing had two formats of maker’s mark; one took the form of the so-called pseudo- hallmark, while the other took the form of Latin initials in tandem with a Chinese chopmark. The use of the latter style of mark would already date it mid-19th century at its earliest and study of Sun Shing items bearing the chopmark indicate styles that are redolent of the late

19th century. For this reason, in the forthcoming 3rd edition of my catalogue of maker’s marks, the entry for Sun Shing has been revised to circa 1790-1885.

Early 19th century Chinese Export Silver lidded cider jug by Sun Shing

Here we have a superb and highly unusual classic form cider jug produced circa early 19th century in the late 18th century high Georgian style by Sun Shing. Known as “The Winslow Jug, this piece simply oozes history as it once would have oozed cider.

The jug itself has connections with both Canton and silvermaking in its own right since the Winslow family not only had Edward Winslow among its 17th/18th century forebears – a renowned silversmith and contemporary of Paul Revere, but it also had the two Isaac Winslows among its ranks in the 19th century – Boston merchants trading with Canton.

The jug, from the inscriptions around its middle frieze panel, appears to have recorded notable family events or unions over several generations.

Edward Winslow 18th Century Chocolate Pot

 

 

 

 

 

Obviously this is a specially commissioned piece; no other silver cider jug is known to have come out of China, but what is intriguing is the use of English classical motifs that hark back to this fine chocolate pot by Edward Winslow himself.

So here we have a notable Boston merchant family that has its roots back to the Mayflower who obviously retained an appreciation of good silver. The Sun Shing jug was brought to Massachusetts Bay by a Captain Shreve who we know had what can be described as a cosy business relationship with the most powerful of the Hong merchants in Canton, Howqua. Shreve is recorded as being a regular purchaser and shipper of silks, silver and porcelain. The Winslows and the Shreves were both originally Quaker families.

Early 19th century Rose Mandarin Chinese porcelain cider jug

Although silver cider jugs were certainly a rarity in Canton, Chinese porcelain cider jugs abounded in plenty. This Chinese rose mandarin porcelain covered cider jug is more or less a parallel piece to the Sun Shing jug. Apart from the foo dog finial, there are several elements to the porcelain jug that if we didn’t know better might have served as templates for the silver jug – the spout probably the most noticeably similar. While Chinese silver and porcelain have always been parallel over the 1200 year history of both, the Sun Shing jug must have come into being by Captain Shreve bringing some English or Colonial American silver as examples – again a very common occurrence. The Massachusetts Bay area in the 19th century was full of wealthy families and being able to buy high quality silverwares in Canton and bringing them back to an affluent discerning public could only have been lucrative, to say the least.

Circa 1800 Chinese Export Silver nutmeg grater by Sun Shing

Here we have a classic vasiform Chinese Export Silver nutmeg grater by Sun Shing. Again, decorated with motifs we would expect to find on Georgian silver, it has to be said this piece also has some colonial attributes, in particular the finial. Just 8cm tall, this exceptional piece was sold at auction in 2005 for $8400 at Christie’s, New York. It was catalogue dated circa 1800, so one of Sun Shing’s earlier pieces. It also bears the signature “pseudo-hallmark” maker’s mark.

Circa 1800 maker's mark of Chinese Export Silver maker Sun Shing

The Georgian silversmiths probably were the best makers of teapots. The classical Georgian forms and decorative motifs were a perfect marriage with silver and this was mirrored in the fashionable clamour for both tea and silver by the rich, famous and infamous of New England. Silver has always been a measure of affluence, especially by the aspiring nouveaux riches. Yet again we see a substantial amount of early Chinese Export Silver landing in Boston; highest quality acquired for a fraction of the cost of comparable contemporary American colonial silver. Boston silversmiths could not have been amused.

Early 19th century Chinese Export Silver teapot by Sun Shing

This early 19th century Chinese Export Silver teapot by Sun Shing compares very favourably with the circa 1800 Paul Revere teapot below, in fact the Sun Shing piece is more true historically to the neo- classical shapes and motifs of the Georgians than the Revere pot.

Circa 1800 Paul Revere Tea Pot

So we have a Canton master of the Georgian in Sun Shing who at some point in time mid-19th century takes a right turn and becomes the eponymous Chinese silversmith. The pseudo-hallmark maker’s mark disappears, the neo-classicism is gone and the high Chinese style arrives with an almighty bang.

Circa 1880 Chinese Export Silver dragon tankard by Sun Shing

Here we have Sun Shing in full Chinese mode – a circa 1880 tankard with an exquisitely detailed dragon handle clutching a canister tankard literally smothered in an array of Chinese allegorical motifs. Dragon tankards are a Chinese Export Silver speciality; nobody did them better. They became fashionable in the West as christening mugs and since most of them carry a central cartouche, they were a popular alternative to trophy cups amongst the many Western clubs and institutions that abounded in the treaty ports, especially Hong Kong and ShangHai.

It seems a million miles away from this circa 1800 Sun Shing classic barrel tankard we see right. This brilliance Circa 1800 Sun Shing Chinese Export Silver Tankardfor classicism and the sudden change of style and maker’s mark causes me to theorise that the “House of Sun Shing” changed ownership and strategy mid 19th century. There is also a distinct similarity to the quality and detailed workmanship of the Sun Shing dragons to those of Tu Mao Xing – the king of silver dragon making in China!

Makers mark of Chinese Export Silver maker Sun Shing

The transformed Sun Shing maker’s mark is the final step of abandoning the classics for what was probably considered more commercial manufacturing. The classic Georgian style was a lucrative market but nevertheless somewhat niche and confining, but the quality still remained in the “new look” Sun Shing objects.

Sun Shing Presentation Tankard

The tankard we have on the left is probably one of the last tankards Sun Sing made in the classic style. The inscription is dated 1853 and was presented to the Chief Officer of the HMS Kent by an immigrant to mark the maiden voyage of the Kent from England to Port Philip in Australia. It is particularly interesting that the donor, Thomas Howard Fellows, chose to give a piece of Chinese Export Silver. Fellows was on his way with his family to settle in Melbourne, not unusual in itself but perhaps not a coincidence that Melbourne had a substantial Chinese community in the early 19th century and at least two successful retail businessmen returned independently to China to open businesses which soon became the largest department stores in China – Wing On and Sincere & Co; both produced Chinese Export Silver in their own workshops under their own makers’ marks. Wing On and Sincere exist today and Fellows became fifth judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria.

Throughout Sun Shing’s “reign”, quality wasn’t the only constant. Sun Shing was known as a superb flatware manufacturer; cutlery was produced that could rival the best tables in London and Boston.

Late 18th century/early 19th century Chinese Export Silver fiddle pattern spoon

This fiddle pattern spoon is typical of the fine silver tableware Sun Shing was renowned for.

Circa 1810 Chinese Export Silver mother of pearl dessert set by Sun Shing

This mother of pearl dessert set is dated circa 1810 and carries the signature Sun Shing pseudo hallmark. Were it not for the marks, this would defy many people to believe it wasn’t the product of a top English or Colonial American silversmith.

Mid 19th century Chinese Export Silver child's cutlery set by Sun Shing

The quality is still firmly in existence in this Sun Shing mid 19th century child’s cutlery set which has begun to turn from classic design to incorporate the Chinese faux bamboo effect handles.

Late 19th century Chinese export Silver miniature sedan by Sun Shing

But then we move on to late 19th century and Sun Shing has moved into the realms of full-blown commercialism by creating this novelty miniature silver sedan – high quality nevertheless as far as Chinese Export Silver miniatures go.

So in the space of just under a century, we discover the two faces of Sun Shing; the master Georgian silversmith on old Canton and the master Chinese silversmith of late the 19th century burgeoning Canton. While it was always the case that the owners of the retail silversmiths governed the house-style of the silver produced under their makers’ marks, the capability to produce both the style and the quality had to be an inherent part of the manufacturing equation. Sun Shing silver was a constant of high quality, no matter the style, as we see from this tea set in the high Chinese style circa 1880. While it is definitely Chinese, it still somehow retains a classic and refined quality to it.

Circa 1880 Chinese Export Silver teaset by Sun Shing

But last of all, we can see Sun Shing in full Chinese mode with this exquisite belt buckle; Sun Shing has at last gone full circle!

Late 19th century Chinese Export Silver belt buckle by Sun Shing

 “Perfect is the virtue which is according to the Constant Mean! Rare for a long time has been its practice among the people.” – Confucius: The Analects [500BC]

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Glasgow

Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research

 

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Adrien 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 translation skills

To: Christie’s, New York; Christie’s, South Kensington; Spencer Marks Ltd, Southampton, Massachusetts; Michael Pashby Antiques, Park Avenue, New York; Bonham’s, London; Robert Barresi at Supershrink; Nigel Williams Silver, Petworth, UK; Skinner Auctioneers; Museum Victoria, Melbourne, Australia; Gebelein, East Arlington, Vermont; Metropolitan Museum, New York.

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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