META-MUSEUM:SAVOIR FAIRE & “L’ART DE LA TABLE” – SO TYPICALLY CHINESE! 餐桌上的專業與藝術 – 典型的中國風格

Chinese Export Silver Article 26 Header - Savoir Faire & L'art de la Table - So Typically Chinese!

A well-set dining table may be likened to a stage set; it can speak volumes about an occasion, the person who set it and it contains a plethora of subtle [and sometimes not so subtle] social messages – in short, it is the scenery that acts as a foil for the guests to perform, often dictating how the guests behave and to what level their behaviour for the duration of the meal will be an act.

Silver is the ultimate table accessory. As with all stage sets, a well-dressed table requires a focal point and by the 18th century entertaining had evolved into a grand art. Literally at the epicentre of this social evolution was an item of silver that made its debut appearance at an English table in 1725 at Whitehall Palace, having first gone through its own evolution across the English Channel at the French Court. Not being an item known for its bashfulness I have to name it before it steals the show as it inevitably does; enter the épergne.

The word is derived from the French word épargne, meaning “saving” or “economy”; the object, like the word, is manufactured in as much as it is a decorative and functional item that did not exist before the 18th century; its predecessors, the surtout and the later fruitier seemed to have morphed into a single object and, by almost divine intervention, was given steroid treatment by over zealous silversmiths to acquire extra height, arms, dishes, hanging baskets and all manner of fripperies. The épergne is a silversmith’s idea of heaven – a vehicle to display shamelessly his sense of theatricality. As for “saving”, the épergne is a multi-functioning object that saves both space on the table and staff to serve from otherwise individual dishes. For the 18th century gentry, the idea of serving oneself must have been as revolutionary and fun as an electric carving knife at Abigail’s Party in the 1970’s! The very idea of an épergne in the context of Chinese culture is about as foreign as one could get.

The 18th century was the absolutely right period for the épergne to enter stage left and take full control of the table centre, for it could only really be in the rococo style or at best neo-classical with a touch of the devil in it. Later, the Victorians got hold of it and, as with all things Victorian, went overboard, but little can upstage the average épergne, in fact one could safely say there is nothing average about an épergne; it is the star of the show. The Parisian and London silversmiths reveled in creating them, but as with many fine Georgian silver masterpieces, the épergne made the treacherous sea voyage to Canton where the incumbent silversmiths must have though that the ultimate baozhu [fire cracker to you and I] had arrived.

Theatricality and Chinese Export Silver are closely related cousins that can’t bear to be apart and the master of stagecraft of the Canton silversmiths was Wang Hing – an extremely prolific retail silversmith with a sense of style and quality. If Wang Hing existed today, we would be comparing it to Asprey, Tiffany or Odiot, in fact the French have two wonderful expressions that suitably capture the innate ability and sensibility of Wang Hing and an object such as the épergne to impress; “l’art de la table” and “savoir faire”. For a Chinese silversmith to be able to create an object that is so totally foreign and yet apply such a degree of creative artistry using traditional allegorical Chinese motifs is quite extraordinary.

A stunning pair of Chinese Export Silver épergnes appeared last month at auction in New York at Bonhams by the master of table art, Wang Hing.

Chinese Export Silver pair of Wang Hing epergnes

They were described as “figural centrepieces”, which one could only say is an understatement, given they are veritable confections that would not look out of place at Royal Ascot Races on Ladies Day! Not one inch of them goes unadorned and as the eye moves down from the top trumpet vase it embarks upon a travelogue of Chinese allegorical decorative motifs; if Brueghel would have been a silversmith, this is what he would have created.

Chinese Export Silver Wang Hing epergne detail

Each piece takes the form of a central column of bamboo stems amongst which three crane birds are to be found standing on the domed upper plinth of undergrowth that is surmounted upon three dragon-form standards, they themselves resting upon a tripartite base decorated with dragons and scrolling foliage, the whole standing upon three absolutely delicious and rather impish bat-head feet as can be seen in the detailing below. The tiered dishes and trumpet vase are of a heavy repoussé bamboo foliate motif edged  with polished faux bamboo banding with the two lower plinth decorated in heavy repoussé foliate and dragon motifs.

Chinese Export Silver Wang Hing epergne base detail

So much implied allegorical meaning lies in the combination of motifs on each panel of the tripartite base. Bats have come to convey happiness and good luck, but the overriding message from the combination of bats, dragons, clouds and a flaming pearl is good fortune, wealth and prosperity. Cranes among bamboo signify longevity, strength and endurance.

Chinese Export Silver Wang Hing epergne upper detailing

Chinese Export Silver Wang Hing epergne dragon detail

I’ve found myself reporting more and more frequently on the upward climb of values being achieved at auction for Chinese Export Silver. I have to confess, it’s always the item that inspires me to write and not the value, but having said that, I am a firm believer that a high value does not diminish or overshadow the artistry and craftsmanship of an object. It’s simply another fact of life and it’s not something to be whispered about in corners or flaunted outrageously. This year the dramatic values being hammered down in auction houses for Chinese Export Silver is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored but it’s not just the values I notice, there’s a palpable rise in the amount of important pieces appearing now. This particular pair tick several boxes; they are important, they are extraordinary and they are overtly decorated in the high Chinese style. They are also Wang Hing. We should not be surprised to know they achieved $33,125 at Bonhams last month.

Here we have a confection of different magnitude and maker, which in style can best be described as Chinese Victorian neo-classical.

Chinese Export Silver Hoaching epergne

Hoaching is the retail silversmith and the year it was made is 1870; an interesting Chinese Export Silver maker in as much as we know that Hoaching pieces are all of the highest quality and all are highly decorated pieces. Until very recently it was thought that Hoaching only existed for 20 years. During my general research on Chinese Export Silver, I recently discovered documentary evidence of the existence of Hoaching in Old China Street on Shameen Island in Canton as early as 1825 and also had a reputation of being the best purveyor of carved ivory in Canton at that time. There were two sons who subsequently opened a second shop on Physic Street on Honam Island opposite Shameen on the Pearl River.

Obviously also an épergne, what makes this piece [above] unusual is that it was used as a somewhat incongruous  horse racing trophy; it bears the inscription:

HANKOW SPRING MEETING 1870

CHAMPION STAKES

WON BY MR WILLIAMS

A further inscription on the base tells us that “USURY” ridden by R.W.W. won the race and the trophy.

 

My research into Chinese Export Silver often takes me on a tangental journey of social history as does this épergne. Horse racing began in China in 1864 at both Hankow [Wuhan] and Kiukang [Jiujang], having been introduced by the British; the Chinese Imperial government allowing attendant gambling under the guise of a “lottery”. Unlike other Chinese cities where clubs were created to service each foreign nationality, often to the exclusion of the Chinese. Hankow Club was international and remained so for its entire existence; the Hankow Race Club was a loosely formulated affiliation with the main club. Hankow,  as one of the concession ports, only came into being in 1860 but it grew rapidly to be a thriving international city renowned for its clubs and cabarets.

Hankow Race Club Grandstand 1868

The épergne is superbly decorated with a variety of motifs. On a tripartite base, the combination of traditional prunus blossom and foliage, paneled scenes of auspicious characters on the baluster stem combine with vine garlands and grape bunches on the two petticoat collars and base. The six detachable vine-entwined swagged arms support circular dishes; the six arms emanating from under an imposing large central circular dish supported on a classical urn – albeit the overall object has subtle eastern undertones. Weighing 4351gm and standing 51cm high, it was last seen at auction in 2005 at Christie’s in New York where it changed ownership at $12,500. Achieving a value of that magnitude eight years ago and with the provenance it has, today it undoubtedly has a much high potential value.

It never ceases to surprise me how high quality antique silver appears to have acquired a bashfulness when it comes to mentioning high values. One would not be thinking twice to mention $142million for the Francis Bacon “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” and mentioning  that does not diminish or derogate its artistic merits. Although value and artistry have to inevitably meet, they are very separate dynamics on very different plains, but worth is not an obscenity and I am sure it’s a phenomenon we are going to see much more of in relation to Chinese Export Silver.

Chinese Export Silver Sing Fat epergne

In the world that épergnes inhabit and the tables they live on, this example by Sing Fat is comparatively modest yet remains just as creatively ingenious and skillfully executed. Most probably originally one of a pair, it would enhance any table. The three reticulated conical vases emerging from the naturalistic prunus branches that rest on the carved rosewood stand are a masterful expression of a traditional Chinese art motif in silver, the lobed prunus blossom vase bobèches being the final touch of genius.

The épergne had just under a two hundred year heyday, yet there was always a predictability about them until they entered the workshops of the Chinese Export Silver makers when they became instilled with humour, allegory and a general flaunting of the unwritten neo-classical rules that kept their European silver cousins firmly towing the line. These are the magic touches all Chinese Export Silver possesses – a feast for the eyes.

“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”

― Oscar Wilde; A Woman of No Importance

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Adrien von Ferscht is the only academic carrying out in-depth research into Chinese Export Silver in the context of The China Trade and the 1200 year history of Chinese silver making. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research, he the Expert for Chinese Export Silver for Auctionata and now consults for Heritage Auctions for this unique silver category and he is a Worthologist at WorthPoint.

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

His new 250-page 3rd Edition “Collectors’ Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940” is the largest information reference resource for this unique silver category is available at: http://chinese-export-silver.com/catalogue-of-makers-marks/

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Thanks to Danny Cheng for his translation skills. 

Acknowledgments: Bonham’s, New York; Christie’s, New York; Museum of Beijing

© 2013, Adrien von Ferscht. All rights reserved.

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