META-MUSEUM:THE CONSUMMATE GEORGIAN SILVERSMITH OF CANTON 一位技術高超的喬治時期廣東銀匠

THE CONSUMMATE GEORGIAN SILVERSMITH OF CANTON

                                                                                       一位技術高超的喬治時期廣東銀匠

I write prodigiously about Chinese Export Silver and, if I lived in an ideal world, I would like to think that gradually I am raising the awareness of this highly significant silver category to the height it rightly deserves.

Chinese Export Silver ranks amongst some of the finest silver ever produced. As with all silver categories, there are outstandingly good examples and there are mediocre examples; Chinese Export Silver is no exception to that.

I have written many times about the Georgian silversmiths of Canton and their lesser-known counterparts in Tientsin. I have compared their work to Paul Storr and Paul Revere, so I was incredibly excited last week when images of a late Georgian Chinese Export Silver tea set landed in my inbox; it screamed “quality” and it yelled “special”.

 WE WE WC Service

Here is the set that lit up my world; a 5-piece teaset by the Canton silversmith we know as WE WE WC and the set is both rare and unusual. It is also created by one of the most enigmatic, yet sophisticated makers of early-mid 19th century Canton.

WE WE WC Butter Cooler

It is clear that four pieces make up a traditional teaset; the teapot, the hot water pot, the creamer and the lidded sugar. What struck me first and foremost was the taller lidded bowl. It’s mystery revealed instantly showed me this was a very special piece because this bowl is a silver-lined butter cooler and here we can see it [below] in all its glory.

Of the known silversmiths of what I call “The Early China Trade Period” [1785-1840], the maker who has “celebrity” status is one we simply know as “WE WE WC.” The name of this maker has never been discovered; we will assume it is a “he,” rather than a “they.” He operated in Canton between 1820 and 1880. We can see from his maker’s marks that consistency was not part of his game plan, but the particular peculiarity of this maker and his mark is that it all began when copying a silver piece or pieces from the London-based silversmiths William Eley, William Fearn and William Chawner. Perhaps the “F” for Fearn was mistaken for an “E”. Since much of the early work of this maker is parallel to that of English and Scottish makers, it is probably correct to assume that initially it was British sea merchants who patronised him.

WE WE WC Makers Marks

Many of the Chinese silversmiths of the early manufacturing periods adopted what we have come to call “pseudo-hallmarks”. Personally, I hate this term because it has implications of fraud attached to it; I prefer to think of them as simply an amusing Chinese quirk. Before these marks appeared, many items were created without any marks at all except for some of the early Tientsin makers who had a loose system of Chinese character marks.

As with almost all Chinese Export Silver, it was created using much heavier gauge silver than its American or British counterparts. This particular set weighs 5460gm [175.56 Troy ounces]. It would be .900 silver, since the main source of “raw” silver in China came from melting down silver Trade Dollars, which China was quite simply awash with. So weight was never as relevant to Chinese silversmiths as it would have been to any European or American maker, or indeed buyer.

WE WE WC Tea Pot

Unlike many Chinese Export Silver takes on the Georgian style, there’s nothing Chinese about this set, as we can see from the magnificent tea pot above. All the classic Georgian elements are there including the gadrooning and the acanthus adornment of the spout and handle – even the finial is pure Georgian, whereas the sneaking in of a pagoda-shaped finial were not uncommon.

Early CES Hexagonal Tea Pot

100 years earlier, Chinese silversmiths would have been more likely to create a pure Chinese tea pot as we see here. The maker would not have marked the silver. 100 years earlier the China Trade had not been created and Chinese Export Silver as we know it today hadn’t been thought of. Yet the expertise was there and the quality and standard of workmanship was extremely high and built upon over 1000 years of silver making in China.

It is out of this very history that Chinese Export Silver was born and it because of this we should be recognising it as a very significant silver category.

Alternatively, we have this tea pot [below], also of the mid 18th century but created by adapting an earlier hexagonal 17th century Chinese silver jar [Victoria & Albert Museum, London]

17th:18th century CES Tea Pot

 

 

 

The birth of the China Trade which in turn spawned the surge of silversmiths in Canton, Tientsin, Shanghai and Hong Kong coincided with a surge of affluent “nouveau riches” in the West who craved the trappings of wealth.

Entrepreneurial sea merchants were happy to comply, as were the Chinese Cohong merchants.

Screen Shot 2013-07-01 at 09.52.12

Above, we are able to see the comparison between this Paul Storr tea set and a Paul Storr tea pot made in London at the same period as the WE WE WC set. We see the same gadrooning, the same acanthus decoration and a comparable quality of workmanship.

WE WE WC Tankard

 

The current buoyancy of Chinese Export Silver as an antique silver category is due, in the main, to affluent Chinese “buying back” heritage items. Sadly, this seems for the time being to be confined almost exclusively to items that are in the Chinese style. I say “sadly” because it is the earlier pieces in the Georgian style that are of incredibly high quality; they are also much more rare since fewer silversmiths were operating prior and during the early days of the emergence of the China Trade. This circa 1825 WE WE WC small tankard [right] is of a quality one would expect from the finest or Georgian silversmiths; it was sold two years ago at Christie’s in London for £4000 [$6270].

But we know there are discerning Chinese buyers out there and it is only a matter of time that the true quality pieces are both discovered and appreciated for what they are – world class antique silver. This tankard and all the items featured in this article, including the new-found tea set, are all important pieces and are all museum quality, in fact they are all either in museums or in major private collections.

The tea set I opened the article with is particularly important since it is almost identical to one featured in the Ralph M Chait Galleries 75th Anniversary Catalogue in 1985, compiled by John Devereux Kernan. It makes this set one of the most important Chinese Export Silver items to be discovered for some time. It is available at the highly reputable Hanlin Gallery in Hong Kong for $25,000

But to end this article and to most probably get numerous people drooling, I present to you another WE WE WC gem of the art of silver making. This silver gilt 5 piece tea and coffee set was made the same time as the set I opened with. It is exquisite to an extreme and rare to an extreme. To those searching for the 5th piece – the teapot is sitting on its own

stand. Each of the larger pieces have basket weave bands at the shoulders and running leaf tip rims. The teapot handle rises from an elaborate female mask as the close up detail image shows below. The set sold at Sotheby’s, New York in 2009 for $48,000

WE WE WC Silver Gilt Tea Set

 

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Adrien von Ferscht is a Worthologist expert for Chinese Export Silver

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 Sotheby’s, New York; Christie’s South Kensington,London; Victoria & Albert Museum, London;

Hanlin Gallery, Hong Kong

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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© 2013, Adrien von Ferscht. All rights reserved.

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