Chinese Export Silver: Discovering the New Master Silversmith of Shanghai
The elegant and traditional idyll of the Shanghai Tea Gardens as it was 20 years before the end of the 19th century. It is widely believed these tea gardens were the inspiration for the “Willow” pattern we know so well in the West.
Having researched Chinese Export Silver for well over three years now, I was quick to realize very early on that anything connected with Chinese history and culture is likely to be complex, to say the least. I have since realized that it is probably the only dependable constant!
Shanghai in 1880 was a very different city to the heady cosmopolitan city that was oft-likened to Paris and Berlin just 40 years hence. In the engraved picture in above, we see the elegant and traditional idyll of the Shanghai Tea Gardens as it was twenty years before the end of the 19th century. It is widely believed these tea gardens were the inspiration for the “Willow” pattern we know so well in the West.
A group of Shanghai merchants taken around 1880. They have obviously prospered from the treaty port status, but we can also sense the other-worldliness of them compared to their Western counterparts.
The Treaty of Nanking, signed in 1842 between the Emperor of China and Queen Victoria, not only ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British but it created five treaty ports, of which Shanghai was one. This was the beginning of Shanghai’s steep upward curve to becoming an international city that did, indeed, rival Paris and Berlin by the 1920s.
But back in 1880, what were to be the last vestiges of traditional China could still be seen in Shanghai. Traditional China was still to be found in abundance, amongst it some extraordinary master silversmiths who could hold their own with the best of the old-school and better-known Cantonese silversmiths. The Treaty of Nanking was also the catalyst that created a marked increase in output of silver making for the Western market, as well as a marked change in the style of that silver.
While the artisan silversmiths were obviously the ones who had honed their individual skills to an extraordinarily high level, within the context of the world of Chinese Export Silver, they were very much governed and carefully controlled in what they could and could not create by the retail silversmiths who commissioned the silver. It is the latter group that we in the West tend to know by name and it is these men we loosely refer to as the “makers”; their silver marks we have come to call “makers’ marks” (what we tend to call the makers’ marks are generally the mark of the retail silversmith, the actual artisan maker’s mark is usually accompanying that mark in Chinese characters).
Luen Wo was probably considered the best and among the most successful retail silversmiths in Shanghai. Although not as prolific as its contemporary equivalent in Canton—Wang Hing—the quality was definitely on par. As with all Chinese retail silversmiths, Luen Wo used a bewildering number of artisan silversmiths, but one who stands out in terms of exceptional quality is one Ning Zhao Ji, whose mark appears alongside the Luen Wo mark reasonably frequently, as we can see below.
One artisan silversmiths who stands out in terms of exceptional quality is one Ning Zhao Ji, whose mark appears above the Luen Wo mark.
Ning Zhao Ji’s work is of exceptional quality. His mark appears alongside several retail silversmiths and, unusually, it appears in conjunction with a Western company mark, Taylor & Company, which would immediately indicate that Ning Zhao Ji was a sought-after silversmith.
Quite recently I was asked to identify a piece of Chinese Export Silver that had found its way to California. It was a piece of Ning Zhao Ji silver made for Taylor & Company in the form of a reticulated tazza that is at the same time simple and extraordinary, even by Chinese Export Silver standards.
Here we have that very tazza and the silver marks as they appear on the base. Dating from circa 1895, it reaches beyond some of the more predictable boundaries that Chinese Export Silver tends to exist within. There’s a general attention to detailing, from the faux bamboo outer rim to the positioning of the crane bird with the thick bamboo stem to the significant the detailing of the exposed root system.
Even though the phoenix is considered the king of the birds in Chinese culture, the crane is the top-ranking bird, symbolic of both social status and longevity—the crane is considered to live for centuries, according to Chinese mythology.
This tazza, simple as it might appear to an innocent observer, is overflowing with auspicious allegorical messages to the cognoscenti of Chinese visual imagery.
This tazza by Ning Zhao Ji. Made in 1895, the attention to detailing, from the faux bamboo outer rim to the positioning of the crane bird with the thick bamboo stem and the detailing of the exposed root system, is gorgeous..
The tazza bears the marks of Ning Zhao Ji and Taylor & Company.
Because the crane is considered the number-one bird, it was used as Imperial China’s highest distinction of court status—its inclusion on the badge of an Imperial official’s robes signified the wearer was of the highest possible rank. Often crane depicted alone, as in this tazza, signifies peerlessness. A lone crane standing upon a rock or a mound represents having attained the highest civil rank and to have achieved it by one’s own efforts.
It is highly likely this tazza contains a rebus that is telling us (or the original recipient) a highly auspicious message. Bamboo, or the Chinese “zhu” is a homophone for “to congratulate.” Bamboo, like the crane, is also symbolic of longevity. So one can safely assume this tazza is congratulating someone on reaching a significant age. The revealed root system of the bamboo is representative of the virtuous qualities of a Confucian gentleman. The thick bamboo stem, because of its hollow center, is indicative of a pure heart.
This tazza is particularly remarkable, not only for its quality and the story its combined decorative treatment can tell, but also for the fact it was made for Taylor & Co. This was a company that in its own way was remarkable; it also allows us to realize how much history and back story a piece of Chinese Export Silver is capable of carrying.
The tazza by Ning Zhao Ji from the side and back.
Taylor and Company was created in Tientsin in 1896 as a seemingly unlikely partnership between a Philadelphia man by the name of F. W. Sutterlee and an Austrian Jew by the name of Louis Spitzer, who was a British citizen. The two men could be best described as entrepreneurial rogues; Sutterlee was manager of Kern,Sutterlee & Co. in Philadelphia, who, in January 1896, after the failure of the firm, sold the same large stock of wool thrice over by means of forged warehouse certificates, then fled with the proceeds to Tientsin! Our Mr. Spitzer, who had been in trouble with the British police for being in possession of goods known to be stolen, likewise fled to Tientsin. It is unclear if the two sets of malpractice were connected, but the two nevertheless created the firm Taylor & Co. in Tientsin, along with them was a third man named Baker, alias Parker, alias Taylor, who had been the warehouse clerk whose forgery of the certificates enabled Sutterlee to effect his swindle.
The two expert swindlers were subsequently joined by a another “expert,” a man called Leonard Etzel, who was actually the brother of Spitzer—Etzel went to Hong Kong and Manila and engaged in the rather lucrative trade of selling arms to the Philippine insurgents after the outbreak of war between Spain and the United States in collusion with the American Consul in Singapore. This convoluted story is the stuff of movies, but very much the reality of how Taylor & Co. were to do business over the next 30 years and thrive as only a movie script could dictate!
So, on the surface, Taylor & Co. had set itself up as the Western equivalent of a compradore—agents who negotiated on behalf of foreign firms doing business in the East. Within the context of the China Trade, compradores could become very powerful and immensely wealthy people: in the late 19th century, Robert Hotung was chief compradore for Jardine, Matheson & Co. and was believed to be the wealthiest man in Hong Kong by the time he was 35.
And the silver? It was probably a pet love of one of the rogues and it was sold at retail silversmiths in Singapore, Hong Kong and America. I know of no other silver category that can carry such a story, and this is not an isolated instance. What this says about Ning Zhao Ji is best left as a matter of conjecture, but it certainly shows signs of being a convoluted situation that might appeal to a fertile Chinese business mind. We can see that Taylor & Co. had established themselves in Shanghai, too; the home of Ning Zhao Ji.
Here we have a typical and somewhat traditional late 19th-century Chinese Export Silver bowl; typical in terms of the style but it does have exceptional qualities that other makers of similar bowls might lack. The fine hammer work of the planished ground is particularly good and the crispness of the repoussé chrysanthemum bloom and foliate motif make it stand out from the crowd.
This close-up image of the bowl gives a particularly clear view of the planished finish. Interestingly, this is another example of Ning Zhao Ji’s work for Taylor & Co.
As for the founders of Taylor & Co., they were obviously very skilled at passing strategic plain envelopes under tables as they managed to procure incredibly substantial contracts, including entire railroads, orders for warships for the Chinese and even acted as agents for some of the largest British and American banks and insurance companies in the East. In a Consular Report of the United States Consul General in Tientsin in 1897, there appears this line of text: “Messrs. Taylor & Co. have recently established themselves in Shanghai and Tientsin and their partners at this port have already gained a reputation for business integrity and sagacity.” It seems that Taylor & Co. had a way of winning the confidences of Consul Generals!
The mark on the bowl is that of Ning Zhao Ji and Taylor & Co.
The chrysanthemum is a member of the grouping of plants known as the Four Gentleman (sìjūnzì), Four Princely Plants and the Four Plants of Virtue. The chrysanthemum in combination—with the prunus, orchid and bamboo, as is the case on the combined decorative motifs of this bowl—represent the four seasons of the year.
Chinese culture is almost obsessed with order and hierarchy and this results in an equal fascination bordering on the obsessive with numbers, with even numbers being considered yīn, the feminine, as written in the “Book of Changes” (Yi Jing). The four seasons is one of the most represented numeric combinations in Chinese art and any grouping of four is considered to be ideal for a balanced depiction.
The tradition of “four” was so powerful and strong in China that even Maoist China acknowledged its importance in its treatise the “Four Olds” (sìjìū)—old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. They also instilled the importance of the “Four Kinds of Elements”—landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries and bad elements.
Boyd & Company were particularly active on Formosa, the former name of today’s Taiwan, where it is recorded as trading in opium and sugar. Boyd & Company were connected with several of the more suspicious trades connected with the China Trade period. Apart from opium, the most odious must have been what was known as “the Coolie trade,” in which thousands of laborers were shipped to California and Australia, as they were deemed to have “possessed the best temperament to work long hard hours without complaint.” We know that thousands of Chinese laborers were employed on the building of the Central Pacific Railroad because of their hard working reputation. Which brings is back to our friends, Taylor & Co. Did their sudden high-profile involvement in the railroad business have anything to do with Boyd & Co., given their shared penchant for dubious transactions?
Another superlative example of Ning Zhao Ji’s work is this fine goblet, dated for 1884. This is a large goblet made as a presentation trophy for a bowling tournament held in Amoy (Xiamen), another treaty port, in 1884. But as Chinese silver goblets go, this displays a huge attention to detail and the silversmith’s love of his art, having successfully created a fusion between Chinese traditional allegorical motifs and the high Victorian style. The chased dragon artfully entwined around the acanthus stem, the second dragon emerging from the clouds on the base and the copious work of the goblet cup are a testament to Ning Zhao Ji’s mastery, not only of his art but also of his creative mind.
Here is another example of Ning Zhao Ji’s “art of the goblet.” This cup was awarded to Thomas Harkness for bowling in 1884 in Takao (in the South West of Taiwan, known as Kaohsiung today).
Here we have another example of Ning Zhao Ji’s work for Luen Wo in this rather dramatic photograph frame that surfaced in Leipzig, of all places. One could almost be forgiven for thinking this exuberant design might have been opium-induced, but, yet again, we are presented with an allegorical combination—prunus and bamboo, together is known as the “double happiness of bamboo and plum (zhú méi shuāngxĭ). So, here we have a frame designed specifically for a marriage photograph. While this frame does suit the gentleman in the picture, it was certainly not originally destined to be for him, even though his flamboyance is well-matched by the frame!
And, yet again, in collaboration with Luen Wo, we have this simple but fine rose bowl, which is rendered particularly unusual by the fretwork treatment to the base frieze. Normally, one would expect the work to be either plain or at most inclined outwards towards the bottom, as with the previously illustrated bowl for Taylor & Co.
Lastly, we have this utterly superb large bowl created by Ning Zhao Ji for Luen Wo in the late 19th century. All the signature work we have seen previously is here, with the addition of the exceptionally skilful tooling of the areas of the design that represent water. Although governed strictly by the terms of commission briefs, one can see this silversmith’s sense of theatricality and creativity will always shine through. His work is made for the Occident, yet it remains quintessentially Chinese and loses none of the subtle sub-plots of allegorical meaning. Ning Zhao Ji successfully walks the tightrope between east and west without losing his balance.
There was once, in 18th-century England, a landscape gardener who created what we now consider to be the most quintessential English landscapes, albeit it in a totally fabricated idealistic way—carefully staged sets of a non-existent idyll. His landscapes were so brilliantly conceived that his obituary read:
“Such, however, was the effect of his genius that when he was the happiest man, he will be least remembered; so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken.”
Sir Horace Walpole—a.k.a. the Earl of Orford—wrote of this landscaping genius’ passing to Lady Ossory:
“Your dryads must go into black gloves, Madam, their father-in-law, Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead!”
The man we are talking about is Capability Brown—his given name being Lancelot Brown. The word “capability” is one that admirably suits our Ning Zhao Ji. What fun it would be to have Mr. Ning and Mr. Brown as dinner guests, with possibly Messrs. Spitzer and Sutterlee to add some extra spice!
“The Master said, To persons of more than middling capability, you can talk of higher matters. To persons of less than middling capability, you cannot talk of such matters.”
— The Analects of Confucius
• Jardine, Matheson Archive, University of Cambridge Library, U.K.;
• Aviva plc Historical Archive for General Accident Insurance, China;
• The Takao Club Archive, Taiwan;
• The Correspondence of G.E.Morrison, 1895-1912, Cambridge University Press;
• United States Consular Reports, 1898; Leland Stanford Junior University Library
• The China Directory, 1862;
• The Edinburgh Gazette, December 2nd, 1918;
• “The Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie 1911-1937,” Marie Claire Bergère, Cambridge University Press;
• The Turning Point in China’s Compradore System, 1912-1925;
• The Letters of Horace Walpole: Earl of Orford, Walpole, Horace (1861). Bohn’s English Gentleman’s Library.
Thanks: Danny Cheng, for his translation skills.
Acknowledgments: Jeffrey Herman at Jeffrey Herman Silver Restoration & Conservation, Rhode Island and to Trevor Downes at www.925-1000.com for their help with research into Taylor & Co.; Getty Images; Christie’s, South Kensington, London; Barbara Darracq, California, Pushkin Antiques, London; Danny Cheng, Hong Kong
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 new 250-page Third Edition of the “Collector’s Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940,” is the largest information reference resource for this unique silver category. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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