Canton Georgian Gems in Massachusetts: A Boston Connection to Chinese Export Silver

在馬薩諸塞州的廣東喬治亞風瑰寶

A neo-classical Chinese Export Silver teapot by the enigmatic silversmith we know as WE WE WC, circa 1820 Canton silversmith. Such a piece is capable of holding its own against any of its comparable Western contemporaries.

How can one get excited over a silver teapot? No, this isn’t a riddle; it’s a reality! For me, it’s happening more and more frequently as the flow of images being sent to me from around the world of extraordinary examples of Chinese Export Silver increasingly hit my desktop.

Late last week a piece of Canton history fell into my inbox: a superb example of a George III silver teapot made by one of Canton’s finest silversmiths that is dripping in China Trade history. It is a neo-classical Chinese Export Silver teapot by the enigmatic Canton silversmith we know as WE WE WC, circa 1820, who mastered the art of Georgian silver, rivaling the best silversmiths in London and Boston.

But this tea pot isn’t simply a fine example of WE WE WC silver; it comes laden with provenance that is inextricably linked to both Canton and Boston in the early 19th century. The teapot has been in the Forbes family since it was created 193 years ago in the back streets of Old Canton. And if that’s not enough, it had been on long-term loan for many years to the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts; the spiritual home of the China Trade in America.

The Forbes family has had a close connection with Chinese Export Silver since it came into being. Thomas Tunno Forbes was the first family member to become actively involved with the Canton trade, having been sent to China by his uncles, James and Thomas Handasyd Perkins. A working relationship was formed with Houqua, the most powerful of all the Hong merchants in Canton. All the spade work Forbes created in those early days was done in the name of Perkins & Co. and was done working hand-in-glove with his fellow compatriot agent John P Cushing. As with all things connected with the China trade, the relationship Forbes and Cushing had with Houqua was complex and highly convoluted. We now know that the retail silversmith Cutshing was a form of partnership between Houqua and Cushing with the sole intention of optimizing the sale of the high-quality yet relatively inexpensive silver made in Canton back in Boston.

Compare WE WE WC’s work against this teapot made by Bateman of London the very same year.

Researching the papers of Russell & Co and Perkins & Co. (a volume of papers that exists literally in tonnage0, I am beginning to see signs that WE WE WC was another purpose-made partnership that involved Houqua, Forbes and Perkins & Co. Russell & Co. eventually took over Perkins & Co. in 1830.

Mystery abounds when it comes to most of the Chinese Export Silver makers, but if there were an award offer for the top mystery maker, WE WE WC would win, hands down. We have no idea what the initials mean or even if they mean anything at all. We don’t know if it was purely through happenstance that the maker’s mark used by WE WE WC was a tongue-in-cheek “copy” of the London mark for Eley, Fearn and Chawner. In the fervor that gripped early Chinese Export Silver to adopt so-called pseudo-hallmarks, the WE WE WC mark doubly stands out; whereas many of the makers inserted the letter “K” where an English hallmark would have a letter denoting the year of manufacture, WE WE WC used the letter “P.” My ongoing research is showing increasing signs this quite probably stood for Perkins.

In the fervor that gripped early Chinese Export Silver to adopt so-called pseudo-hallmarks, the WE WE WC mark doubly stands out; whereas many of the makers inserted the letter “K” where an English hallmark would have a letter denoting the year of manufacture, WE WE WC used the letter “P.” My ongoing research is showing increasing signs this quite probably stood for Perkins.

What I haven’t yet revealed is why an image of the teapot landed in my inbox. This piece of important history is appearing in auction this very month! Having such an access that could lead to an acquisition of history in the shape of a museum-quality item of silver is an all too rare opportunity, but it also highlights the fact that Chinese Export Silver is a relatively unknown and much misunderstood silver category. Equally, the phenomenon we know as “The China Trade” is equally cloudy and misunderstood. Both are important areas of collective Chinese cultural history that both the West and China only recently discovered that its learning curve steep and there is still a long way left to climb.

Although The China Trade has implications of Western domination and exploitation for the Chinese that could present uncomfortable facts, the outpouring of superb objets d’art that were the physical product of the trade is something China needs to be proud of; the product—in this case—should overshadow the cause.

Another Forbes family heirloom appears in the same auction in the shape of this superb Lee Ching standing cup that was presented to James Murray Forbes, a partner in the firm Russell & Co. The cup is known to have been presented by Oliver Hazard Perry II, the American consul in Canton, on his departure from China after his term of duty ended in 1867. This, therefore, dates the cup as being towards the end of Lee Ching’s period of manufacture.

This Forbes family heirloom—a superb standing cup made by Lee Ching—was presented to James Murray Forbes, a partner in the firm Russell & Co.

Details of the presentation ceremony and the cup itself are contained in J. Murray Forbes’ “Recollections and Events from the Threshold of Eighty Five,” Boston, 1930. The cup is also illustrated and discussed in detail in Forbes, Kernan & Wilkins’ “Chinese Export Silver 1785-1885.” James Murray Forbes was the son of Robert Bennet Forbes, the foremost of all the Forbes family China traders.

Given Chinese Export Silver goblets are relatively common, this cup—although it resembles a typical goblet design, it stands much higher than a goblet at 22 centimeters, making it a presentation cup rather than a goblet—has both American and Chinese historical relevance. The cup was also on loan for a time to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

This cup that was designed to be specific to the person receiving it, and we can see that the standing cup portrays bamboo roots among rocks. This allegorical combination of bamboo (humility) and rocks (steadfastness) represents the virtuous qualities of a Confucian gentleman.

In particular, because of the size of this cup, the typically Chinese style of having the bamboo culmes actually growing out of the rocks in the base of the cup, with the root system on show, is a wonderful demonstration of the creative minds of the Chinese silversmiths. Symbolism and allegory are synonymous with Chinese art. Combine this with bamboo, one of the plants most linked with China, and you get potential for strong messaging: The bamboo signifies strength and dignity, as well as humility and a pure heart. But here we have a cup that was designed to be specific to the person receiving it and we can see from the three examples of goblets (below) that unlike them, the standing cup portrays bamboo roots among rocks. This allegorical combination of bamboo (humility) and rocks (steadfastness) represents the virtuous qualities of a Confucian gentleman. The receiver of the cup was a powerful merchant of the China Trade; the cup is clearly meant to be the ultimate compliment as he departs the shores of China.

The roots of bamboo and the use of a trio of bamboo culmes to support a goblet cup is peculiar to Chinese Export Silver, as we can see from the further examples of goblets. From left to right are goblets made by Chi Cheong, Wang Hing and Lee Ching. Versions of these goblets supported on bamboo abound. Bamboo, because it grows in thickets close to the parent plant, is a symbol of filial piety. Many of these goblets were made as an alternative to the more traditional christening mug or tankard.

Seeing these two historic pieces made me realize how so many American merchants from a relatively small area in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were active in Canton in the 19th century. Although the British China Trade was larger than the American, the former was monopolized by the British East India Company and the newly formed partnership of Scottish merchants Jardine & Matheson. There was no American monopoly as such, but there was a predominance of Quaker merchants. The vast fortunes made in Canton in a relatively short period of time became the funding stream for a great wave of railroad and factory building in America in the 19th century that would not have happened had it not been for the China Trade. The most powerful Hong merchant, Houqua, made vast investment in America too.

In the Chinese language, within the context of Chinese art, the word for bamboo is zhú and it has a homophone in the word for “wish” or “congratulate,” zhù, rendering such a goblet congratulatory.

These two very different pieces—the tea pot and the goblet—share a commonality, both being keystone pieces of a shared history, The China Trade. Two in a single sale is something of a rarity in itself, but one hopes that the history will be as appreciated as the quality of the art of the Chinese Export Silver makers.

A rather wonderful collection of 10 muffineers—shakers for sugar or other condiments—and casters are all by the same maker, C.J. Company (a.k.a. The China Jewelry Company) of ShangHai, made circa 1885.

On a rather bizarre end note ,and on a completely different tangent, details of another auction lot reached my inbox recently that I felt duty bound to share, and a lot that also shares a common theme of bamboo. This rather wonderful collection of 10 muffineers—shakers for sugar or other condiments—and casters are all by the same maker, C.J. Company (a.k.a. The China Jewelry Company) of ShangHai, made circa 1885. They are obviously all one family, and the fact they managed to stay together for 123 years is nigh miraculous. Apart from the magnificence of them as a family group, one is left thinking their original home must have been substantial to say the least—or is one left thinking “why 10 muffineers?” Is this what one calls a “plethora of muffineers?”

Allegory plays a part in this set, too. The combination of bamboo, prunus and pine form a well-known motif in Chinese art known as “The Three Friends of Winter,” a term that finds its roots back in the 13th century in “The Record of the Five-Cloud Plum Cottage” from “The Clear Mountain Collection” by Lin Jingxi:

“For his residence, earth was piled to form a hill and a hundred plum trees, which along with lofty pines and tall bamboo comprise the friends of winter, were planted”

The pine, prunus and bamboo are the most resilient of trees, since they don’t wither and shed as winter approaches. They became symbols that encouraged people to persevere in adversity, providing inspiration through consolation and determination.

Perhaps this is how 10 muffineers survived the years, as en famille!

As Confucius said:

“The progress of the superior man is upwards; the progress of the mean man is downwards.”

or, on a completely different planet, as Mae West was once heard to say:

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough”


Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; Thanks to: Grogan & Company – Auctioneers, Dedham, Massachusetts; Marc Matz, USA

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


Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research and also works with museums and universities around the world. His ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. His “Catalogue of Chinese Export 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 six to eight 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 at avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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