Combining Chinese Export Silver with other Metals was Rare, but Beautiful
This bowl, made, circa 1890, by a Canton maker we only know as “C.L.,” incorporates copper in the shell of the crab, a rarity for Chinese Export Silver and an indication that it was commissioned.
It would be perfectly logical to expect Chinese Export Silver to be exactly what it says on the can; silver made for the export market in mind. The art of silversmithing is, after all, a very exacting and particular skill. To discover examples of this quite unique silver category that combine other metals—copper, in particular—is not only a surprise; it is a rarity.
It also beggars the question why would a silversmith working in a country and a city where silver, as a raw material, was available in vast quantities and relatively cheaply, would turn to copper. One can only assume, due to the rarity of actually finding such an animal, that it had to be specially commissioned.
This is all highly plausible, but to then produce an item that is not only of outstanding quality but also is creatively a product of genius is both pleasurable and surprising, all things considered.
Let’s begin our look at the topic with a bowl made, circa 1890, by a Canton maker we only know as “C.L.” (sadly, this is a maker that to date has not been fully identified). It’s a fairly large bowl, measuring 24 centimeters in diameter and weighing a hefty 1,243 grams (a little less than 40 Troy ounces). The bowl displays uniqueness in several guises; the combination of decorative motifs and the techniques the artisan maker has employed all come together to make this simply an outstanding piece.
The use of copper for the crab’s shell and the fact the crab is trying desperately to climb over the rim and into the bowl is both genius and humorous. The bowl interior is parcel gilded, suggesting it was designed to be used for food or a drinkable liquid. The relatively heavy hammer-work finish is unusual for Chinese Export Silver; it would be more usual to see a finely planished finish.
As we move around the bowl, we discover the crab is in a sea-scape of different seaweeds, some of which are accentuated with copper embellishment that are skilfully made to appear as if they are growing from the gravel sea bed, represented here by the concave flared base.
The bowl’s sea-scape of different seaweeds, some of which are accentuated with copper embellishment that are skilfully made to appear as if they are growing from the gravel sea bed, represented here by the concave flared base.
Continuing further around the bowl on our journey through this underworld fantasy, we come across another crustacean sea creature in the form of a large conch shell nestling among a variant of seaweed.
Completing the journey, we discover yet another species of weed that has been enhanced with some fine copperwork.
Continuing further around the bowl on our journey through this underworld fantasy, we come across another crustacean in the form of a large conch shell nestling among a variant of seaweed.
Completing the journey, we discover yet another species of weed that has been enhanced with some fine copperwork. This bowl is a delight to have and to hold and one can palpably feel the delight the maker had at being let loose to express both his skill as a silversmith and to allow his obvious sense of humor shine through.
And lastly, we have the CL mark along with the artisan mark of the actual silversmith who worked the piece, Cheong Lam, which leads me to conjecture whether he was the hitherto enigmatic CL. But there remains one mystery; why all this artistry lavished upon a crustacean? Could this bowl have been for the revered and much sought after dà zhá xiè, a.k.a. “the hairy mitten crab” (大閘蟹), because as a classic Cantonese dish, it often appears as a golden apparition in a bowl. In modern-day China, the name for this crab is also a colloquial term for a loser on the financial or property market because when the crab is prepared for cooking, its claws are tied up, rendering it harmless. That has no connection with this bowl, however! As a species, the crab is somewhat invasive and has somehow managed to become a pest in parts of the River Thames in London and has even infiltrated the subway systems in China.
The CL mark along with the artisan mark of the actual silversmith who worked the piece, Cheong Lam. Could Cheong Lam be the mysterious CL?
Both the crab and the conch shell have significance as Chinese cultural symbols. The conch is one of the Eight Buddhist Symbols (bajixiang 八吉祥) and is originally derived from older Hindu belief where it was considered a symbol of royalty. In Buddhist culture, the conch is seen as being a symbol of the pure and true teachings of the Buddha. It is also perceived as a symbol of Buddha’s voice and is used to call worshippers to prayer. In ancient times, conch shells were considered of high value, particularly white shells. The crab is representative of harmony.
Next, we find our dear friend Wang Hing—the most prolific of all the retail silversmiths operating in the Chinese Export Silver period of the mid-late 19th century—working with copper. One would never dream of ever seeing silver and copper together on a Wang Hing piece, yet here we find a set of six exquisitely unusual bowls that almost certainly were originally made to be outer containers for glass bowls, given the bases are completely open.
Here we see a set of six exquisitely unusual copper bowls by Wang Hing, the most prolific of all the retail silversmiths operating in the Chinese Export Silver period of the mid-late 19th century
As a creative ensemble, the decorative motifs collectively make unusual bedfellows. A flowing, silver-capped lotus rim borders the copper woven basket work that in turn is adorned by applied high-relief chrysanthemum blooms and foliage.
Without knowing what the bowls were originally intended for, it is difficult to deconstruct or even determine if there’s a meaning to the combination of decorative motifs here; is this a rebus or pure decorative happenstance?
The most dominant motif here is the chrysanthemum; the gentleman of flowers according to Chinese culture, by dint of them being not as pretty and coquettish as the prunus or peach. The chrysanthemum is symbolic of intellectual accomplishments and was used in ancient China as a good luck symbol for anyone taking the official examination to become the equivalent of a civil servant, which was considered a rung up the social ladder. It is also associated with autumn, since it begins to flower in the ninth month—the most auspicious day to pick chrysanthemums is the ninth day of the ninth month (also known as the chrysanthemum moon).
These bowls were almost certainly were originally made to be outer containers for glass bowls, given the bases are completely open.
The Chinese have been cultivating chrysanthemums for more than 3,000 years and are deemed a virtuous occupation for a retired person.
The blooms are believed to resemble the sun and, because of this close connection and yang forces, chrysanthemum tea and wine are still believed to be both life-sustaining and beneficial to one’s health. There has been a long tradition of superstition that the bloom’s clean scent prolonged life. It became regarded as the flower of immortality and was admired for the way it knew how to die with dignity and grace.
The Wang Hing mark on the bottom of one of the copper bowls.
The lotus is a symbol that has its roots in Buddhism; as with Buddhism, it symbolizes harmony and purity as well as summer, longevity, nobility, elegance and curative powers. But whereas many flower combinations have an auspicious meaning within Chinese culture, I know of no relevance to chrysanthemum and lotus together, so I would be happy to say these bowls are simply a decorative coincidence, albeit the use of chrysanthemum as decoration on plates and bowls in China is historically very commonplace.
With the advent of Chinese Export Silver in the late 18th century, China was literally awash with silver and there was no logical reason to combine silver with any other metal. In fact, Chinese Export Silver has consistently been made of thicker and heavier gauge silver than any of its Western counterparts; such was availability of it and the relative low cost. But the combining of metals is, historically, a very Chinese trait and one that finds it root influences to the West, in Persia and Sassania. In general, we find silver and silver gilt combination work aplenty during the Tang Dynasty.
The Chinese have been combining metals for generations, as we can see in this six-lobed segmented, lidded box, circa 750 A.D.
This bronze- and inlaid-silver Tang Dynasty horse is a much rarer example of combining metals, yet it clearly employs a combination firmly embedded in Tang culture.
Certainly, we don’t see silver combinations after the Sung Dynasty, but the Chinese did acquire a taste for what they perceived as “exotic” combination in their love of ”singsongs,” a love that grew to obsessive levels. Singsongs was the colloquial team for automaton clocks and musical boxes that originally came from English clockmakers; the more outlandish the better. They were pure rococo confections.
The James Cox automaton pictured above was commissioned by the English East India Company in 1766 for presentation to the Emperor of China. Mandarins and a flying dragon-like the creature perched atop the bouquet of flowers on the top of the double-tiered parasol represent European stereotypes of Chinese culture in the Qianlong era (1736–95); the Chinese apparently considered them to represent a curious European taste. The case is gold with diamonds and paste jewels set in silver with hanging pearls. The balance wheel and cock is silver set with paste jewels; the dial is white enamel. A bell hidden beneath the lower tier of the parasol sounds the hours and the entire mechanism is propelled by a spring and fusee device housed above the two central wheels; the attendant is dragged along behind. Two more birds were originally fixed on spiral springs attached to the front end of the chariot, and they must have fluttered when the automaton was set in motion.
The more outlandish, the better: This singsong is from James Cox, circa 1766. Cox was considered the king of singsong makers.
Were these confections, often bordering on the bizarre, somehow resurrected in the 19th century as the copper and silver objects we’ve seen previously? We shall probably never know. But the combination of humor and skill are certainly very similar and, if the Chinese Export Silver pieces were specifically made for the West, then it was a case of turning the tables.
Or was it a mental recollection of 17th-century Chinese silver filigree worked with gold that became a must-have of European royal houses, including Catherine the Great, who had a particular obsession with this Chinese silver-work?
Shi Sou bronze-ware inlaid with silver was popular in both the Ming and Qing Dynasties and this, too, could have left a mental footprint in the sub-consciousness of Chinese silversmiths that lay latent until it might spark inspiration to contrast metal with metal.
This late Ming vase is a fine example of Shi Sou technique; Shi-sou was a late Ming Dynasty monk who perfected the art of fine silver wire inlay and from him would raise a whole school of work in the same style and technique.
So were Wang Hing and CL influenced by the Shi-Sou school, Chinese silver filigree work or the flashy gewgaws the 18th-century “singsong” brought to China that seemed to appeal to the Imperial court and all its dedicated followers of fashion? Debatable, but possible would be my answer. It was all inspired by the desire for something different.
“Give, you gods, Give to your boy, your Caesar, The rattle of a globe to play withal, This gewgaw world, and put him cheaply off: I’ll not be pleased with less than Cleopatra”
— John Dryden, “Anthony. All for Love (or The World Well Lost)”, Act 2, Scene 1
“It is a thing which every sensible American should learn from every sensible Englishman, that glare and glitter, gimcracks and gewgaws, are not indispensable to domestic solacement”
— Herman Melville, “The Confidence-Man,” 1857
Thanks: to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; to Wax Antiques, London and a Private Collector, U.S.A., for use of images; to The Hermitage Museum, Amsterdam; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Palace Museum, Forbidden City, Beijing; Museum Speelklok, Utrecht; Kunsthandel Inez Stodel, Amsterdam; and Bonhams, London.
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 works with museums and universities around the world. He is a consultant for Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions and 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 email@example.com.
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