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The Enamel Revival Phenomenon and its Relationship to Chinese Export Silver

by Adrien von Ferscht (04/14/14).

中國出口銀器: 琺瑯的復興現象

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

Highly sophisticated Chinese cloisonné first surfaced during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and that workmanship can be seen in this superb bowl.

The art of cloisonné is often looked upon as a Chinese art and, in some respects, it is a correct assumption. However, cloisonné, as a technique, finds its roots back in the 13-century B.C. Mycenaean era and the Mediterranean—or at least the earliest known examples are to be found there. Since this is a highly sophisticated process of enameling, theories abound as to how and where the mechanics of enamel work and, in particular, encasing it within small enclosed cells (cloisons), evolved.

The technique is known to have surfaced in China in the 13th century A.D.—“known” being tangible examples of cloisonné work in a recognizable Chinese style—but since these examples display a high degree of sophistication and mastery of the art, it must be assumed the technique was being developed and used in China prior to this date.

Firstly, the word “cloisonné” is relatively new and is obviously French; the 13th-century Chinese referred to it as da shi, meaning “muslim,” or qiasi falang ware in books of the time, though no examples are known to exist until the 14th century. The term, however, would indicate truth in the theory that Sassanians were experts, were responsible for developing the basic technique to a highly sophisticated level and exported wares and the technique to Spain, the Balkans and all countries along the Silk Route, including China and India. Sassanians, after all, were responsible for introducing the art of silversmithing to China; an art that appeared in China in the Sung and Tang dynasties.

It is during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that we see relatively large quantities of highly sophisticated Chinese cloisonné. In Chinese cloisonné, blue came to be by far the most predominant color and it is because of this the process became known as jingtai lan (Jingtai blue ware), named after the Emperor Jingtai (1450-57).

Although the technique must have entered and stayed in China in Chang’an, the capital of the Silk Route in the time the Sassanian merchants were dominant fixtures of the trading landscape, it is Beijing that became the historic spiritual home of Chinese cloisonné ware (not to be confused in any way with the much later so-called Canton enamel ware, which was painted on freehand and did not use partitioned cells). Japanese cloisonné shippo did not come into its own until the 19th century, about the same time as Karl Fabergé and Khlebnikov were creating their enamel masterpieces in Imperial Russia (although cloisonné was being made in Russia as early as the 17th century by Lubavin and other court silversmiths, possibly again attributable to Sassanian roots via the Balkans).

The seemingly sudden explosion of Chinese enamel ware during the Ming era is believed to be linked, in part, to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when skilled refugee artisans arrived in China; many of these artisans were of Sassanian stock and, as previously mentioned, Sassanians and enamelware were known in China prior to this event; the fall of Constantinople was quite simply the final catalyst to consolidate it as a Chinese art form; the last piece in the jigsaw, as it were. 

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

This Ming Dynasty turquoise cloisonné stemmed cup demonstrates how refined and sophisticated the art had become in China within a relatively short period.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

Any surviving silver items from the Ming Dynasty tend towards a trend for inlaying silver into bronze, as this Ming vase clearly shows; one has to wonder whether cloisonné was influencing the silversmith’s art at this time.

What is fascinating about the Ming Dynasty in relation to the history of Chinese silver making is that, although it was during this dynasty the Chinese obsession with accruing massive reserves of silver from around the world was at its peak and is seen by many to be the impetus that created the concept of world trade, actual manufacturing of silver wares appears to have declined temporarily. Any surviving silver items tend towards a trend for inlaying silver into bronze.

While cloisonné wares continue to thrive, it meets again with mainstream silver making in the late 18th/early 19th centuries and the advent of Chinese Export Silver. It is the China Trade itself that acts as the catalyst in this instance; ships carrying tea and a variety of luxury cargoes re-create an awareness and eventually a mania for all things “oriental.”

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

This early 19th century silver gilt and silver filigree fan is exquisitely embellished with cloisonné reserves of Chinese buildings within a traditional landscape in vivid blue and teal enameling. This is the level of quality that epitomizes one of the best retail silversmiths of Canton of the period, Cutshing. The whole is completed with an equally exquisite lacquerwork box painted with gold figures within a decorative foliate motif.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

Silver filigree work was very much a part of the early Chinese Export Silver manufacturing period and is often used in tandem with cloisonné work; this unusual travelling lady’s dressing box is a fine example.

Silver filigree ruyi scepters—ceremonial objects in Chinese Buddhism—reached their artistic zenith as a result of the Qianlong Emperor’s specific request for ruyi scepters to be presented by courtiers on Imperial birthdays and New Year celebrations. Scepters conveyed wishes of longevity which is symbolized by the lingzhi fungus-shaped head that would often depict the Eight Immortals; the meaning of ruyi being “as you wish” or “as one wishes.” Lingzhi literally means “supernatural mushroom” and ancient Chinese philosophers believed that these fungi should be consumed as drugs of immortality.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

Sceptres conveyed wishes of longevity which is symbolized by the lingzhi fungus-shaped head that would often depict the Eight Immortals; the meaning of ruyi being “as you wish” or “as one wishes.” Lingzhi literally means “supernatural mushroom” and ancient Chinese philosophers believed that these fungi should be consumed as drugs of immortality.

Ceremonial ruyi of the 18th and 19th century would often be encrusted with intricate cloisonné decoration in blues and yellows—the Imperial colors. The shaft of this ruyi supports a complicated group of eight immortals in enameled silver, each holding their own tribute whilst standing amongst various flowering plants including prunus, plantain and fingered citron (a.k.a. Buddha’s Hand). Standing figures of Shoulao, the stellar deity of longevity, holding a peach (symbol of immortality) and two scholars, one holding a scepter and one a child, decorate the ruyi head. As with many ceremonial ruyi, it is teeming with allegorical symbolism and in the 18th and 19th century, they would often be encrusted with intricate cloisonné decoration in blues and yellows—the Imperial colors.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

Sceptres conveyed wishes of longevity which is symbolized by the lingzhi fungus-shaped head that would often depict the Eight Immortals; the meaning of ruyi being “as you wish” or “as one wishes.” Lingzhi literally means “supernatural mushroom” and ancient Chinese philosophers believed that these fungi should be consumed as drugs of immortality.

This particular scepter carries the mark of the maker and, as with all Chinese silver of this period, authentic ruyi should carry such a mark. Since cloisonné work is still produced in Beijing, much of it of extremely high quality, it is not uncommon to come across ceremonial ruyi masquerading as 18th/19th-century items; it is one of those unfortunate gray areas of Chinese silver making that can prove to be somewhat of a minefield.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

This particular scepter carries the mark of the maker and, as with all Chinese silver of this period, authentic ruyi should carry such a mark. Since cloisonné work is still produced in Beijing, much of it of extremely high quality, it is not uncommon to come across ceremonial ruyi masquerading as 18th/19th-century items

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

The intricacy of the enamel work is quite phenomenal, given the head is approximately only 10 centimeters wide.

Although by the mid-19th century, most true cloisonné silver items were still being made in Beijing, silversmiths in other silver making centers did create silver items in tandem with cloisonné.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

Silversmiths outside of Beijing did create silver items in tandem with cloisonné, as this lidded canister by the Shanghai maker Jing Fu can attest.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

This Beijing-made canister of the same period by Kai Tai keeps the tradition of small, rather convoluted millefiori-style cloisonné. To the right is the Kai Tai mark.

The mid-19th century is when Chinese silversmiths begin to incorporate cloisonné work with items such as tea pots and complete tea and coffee sets, coinciding with the movement in Chinese Export Silver to adopt a more high Chinese style as opposed to the neo-classical “copies” of Western silver that had been in demand for about 60 years or so. It is this tea ware that has become somewhat of a phenomenon, particularly among Chinese collectors. Unlike the highly intricate work of their ruyi predecessors, silversmiths first of all were not mainly Beijing-based and they were employing the technique of applying enameled shaped panels onto finished silver items.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

This three-piece tea set carries the mark of the Canton and Shanghai retail silversmith Wo Shing and was made circa 1895. Being a retail silversmith, the work of this set is likely to be attributed to two artisan makers—one being a silversmith and the other being an enamel specialist. The phenomenon, however, is not the style or the work, but the values work of this kind command at auction. This particular set is at the relatively lower end of the value scale, have sold for $17,600—nevertheless double or triple the amount a similar set by Wo Shing without enamel decoration would likely achieve.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

At the other end of the value spectrum this particular phenomenon generates is this three-piece tea set of exactly the same period as the Wo Shing set, this time carrying the mark of the retail silversmith Poh Sing, who is often found to collaborate with an enamel master by the name of Huang Jiu Ji who operated in Beijing. Again, the finished silver pieces are applied with enamel work panels, the difference being that Huang Jiu Ji has attained almost cult status among current-day Chinese collectors. While I am often castigated for mentioning values, it has to be said that the figure of $71,750, which was the auction room value of this set, has to have some relevancy.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

The mark of enamel master by the name of Huang Jiu Ji, who operated in Beijing.

The enamel work of both sets pictured above is not cloisonné work in the true traditional meaning of the technique, but it is enamel work that is enclosed in a “cloison” that takes the overall form of the motif.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

This close-up from another Huang Jiu Ji piece shows that one whole petal is a cell in its own right and the rest of the flower head in one large cell, as opposed to being made up of several much smaller cells.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

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Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

Two enamel techniques are employed on this vase (left), neither of them being cloisonné. The sea weeds and the traditional meander frieze are engraved into the body of the vase and then filled with enamel. The koi carp and the elongated leaf frond border are hand-painted enamel which is then fired. This baluster vase carries the mark of the Beijing retail silversmith De Tian Li (above).

The issue of whether there is a place or even a relevancy for seemingly inflated values within the history and research of a particular silver category is one that is often posed to me. Values have always been at odds with artistic merit or historical fact, yet whether it is liked or not, there is an invisible umbilical cord linking the two. Many a fine art painting owes its fame to a hammer value in an auction room and one can certainly say the same of Chinese porcelain.

A 500-year-old Ming Dynasty “chicken cup,” less than 8 centimeters in diameter, was sold in Hong Kong for $HK250 million ($32.32 million). This surely has relevance to Ming porcelain and certainly to the 16 remaining known similar cups in the world. It is the first cup of its kind to be repatriated to China.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

This 500-year-old Ming Dynasty “chicken cup,” less than 8 centimeters in diameter, was sold in Hong Kong for $HK250 million ($32.32 million). This surely has relevance to Ming porcelain and certainly to the 16 remaining known similar cups in the world. It is the first cup of its kind to be repatriated to China.

I really can’t see why there should be a different rule for Chinese Export Silver, even if we disagree with what is being paid or the artistic merit. Similar debates have occurred during recent annals of art history; L.S. Lowry is an example; I can well-remember back in the 1980s it was rather infra dig to even be discussing the upward trajectory of Lowry prices, yet now it is expected.

Likewise, if the Chinese collector fraternity sees fit to elevate Guang Jiu Ji to a semi-cult status, who are we to comment—there are many Western silversmiths who have attained similar status. Personally, I believe these isolated phenomena are similar to micro-climates where, for instance, a closely grouped collection of particular plants can create a more temperate atmosphere. Equally, a group of likeminded devotees of a particular silver style or maker or even simply followers of fashion can create a rise in value that exceeds the median value for that silver category. It is simply a matter of recognizing when a phenomenon happens and accepting it for what and why it is.

It is also extremely important that what is euphemistically called “the trade” doesn’t regard it as a bandwagon to take a ride on. The very use of the term “Chinese Export Silver” has become all too easily applied to any silver that looks vaguely “Chinese”—it is misleading and not particularly professional; I would certainly think that the majority of Chinese collectors are far more discerning than they might be given credit for.

Certainly, over the past 12 months, there seems to have been a rash of so-called “19th-century Chinese silver gilt filigree” items appearing at Western auction houses and online auction sites.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

This dome-lidded canister is a perfect example and the first thing to note is that it is not filigree; it is manufactured using machine-made silver gilt mesh. The enamel work has been applied, albeit not unskillfully in this instance. It is not 19th century; it is not Chinese Export Silver; it is not even an antique. The rule of thumb is generally to be found in the mark and in this case it is the word “SILVER” stamped into a rather new looking base.

No 19th-century Chinese silversmith would have used such a stamp and certainly not in isolation of any other mark. Almost all of the items I referred to that fall into the category of this rather annoying phenomenon carry a similar mark or carry the word “CHINA”—sometimes both. Anything carrying these marks will have been made post-1949, when private enterprise became extinct in China and, as with all other manufacturing process, became nationalized and consolidated by the state into government-owned collectives. Any self-respecting 19th-century Chinese retail or manufacturing silversmith would have stamped a true piece of Chinese Export Silver appropriately and would have been proud to do so.

What is particularly annoying and misleading is that similar items regularly appear in auction sales of what are regarded as premier auction houses.

How and why these canisters suddenly flooded the market will probably remain a mystery but if anything did influence them—other than trying to take a ride on the previously mentioned bandwagon—it can only be the exquisite work of 18th- and 19th-century Chinese masters of the true art of filigree. We have already seen the workmanship of the ceremonial ruyi scepters, whose meshwork base is a painstakingly hand-made silver filigree mesh. The well-respected Canton retail silversmith Cutshing was famous for creating enamel and bejeweled filigree items, much of it to European royal households, the Russian Imperial Court, Arab Sultanates and Maharajah’s palaces.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

This highly elaborate, silk-lined basket is an example of Cutshing that was originally used in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg as a glove box. It is probably late 18th century, as it is believed to have been used by Catherine the Great, who died in 1796.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

The level of workmanship and the techniques employed are completely different from the post-1940 canister that was trying to emulate it. This detail of a Chinese Export Silver filigree and enamel vase of the same period as the Cutshing basket clearly demonstrates two totally unrelated and unconnected items.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

This item was described as being 19th-century and Chinese. The only word that rings true there is “Chinese.” Many of these pseudo-19th century tea canisters don’t even have a solid metal inner container to make it airtight.

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

Again, this is a post-1949 piece of Chinese silver. Nothing more, nothing less. It, too, carried the solitary “SILVER” stamp.

Lastly, I’d like to return to solid form silver incorporating enamel work. The large urn is by Bao Cheng, but not the Bao Cheng most collectors might know in Shanghai and Tientsin, both of whom were not connected. This Bao Cheng is from Beijing as the mark it carries tells us.

There are two enamel techniques used here; the handles have been fashioned as a foliate frond with additional individual elements applied, perhaps even after enameling was applied. The body of the vase has a painted floral composition that has been fired. Dating this piece is not easy but I would put this piece towards the end of the Republic Period, but possibly the Warlord Era (1916-1928).

Adrien von Ferscht, www.chinese-export-silver.com

This large urn employs two enamel techniques used here; the handles have been fashioned as a foliate frond with additional individual elements applied, perhaps even after enameling was applied. The urn is by Bao Cheng, but not the Bao Cheng most collectors might know in Shanghai and Tientsin, both of whom were not connected. This Bao Cheng is from Beijing as the mark it carries tells us.

Such an item would be highly likely to attract a similar interest and level of value as the lower end of the Guang Jiu Ji scale might command. Appreciation of any art form can often be subjective and prevailing rules of the game may be inclined to fly out of the window—a phenomenon which in itself can command levels of criticism that are off the scale.

Enamel work, as a technique, has a scale of expertise of its own and Chinese enamel work is certainly recognized very much as a much-revered Chinese skill. There are certainly parallels between antique Chinese and Russian enamel work, just as there are probably parallels in the subjective appreciation of it and how that can translate into how values might be perceived. There are no bandwagons; there are phenomena that do break the unwritten rules—we can only be aware of them and acknowledge them as and when they happen, but we shouldn’t climb aboard them and encourage the ride to go further by being overly “creative” about identity, age and even provenance.

I have seen post-1949 canisters described as being “part of an important estate collection.” Well, the Duchess of Devonshire probably buys the occasional item at Poundland, which would make her purchase a part of the Chatsworth Estate and, I am sure, Barbara Bush pays the occasional visit to Dollar Tree; a provenance of sorts, but not 19th-century, surely!


References:

• “The Enamels of China & Japan,” Maynard Giles Cosgrove, 1974;
• “Enamel Ware – Collection of the Palace Museum,” Chen Li Hua, 2008;
• “Oriental Cloisonné and Other Enamels,” Arthur & Grace Chu, 1975;
• “The Arts of China,” 4th Edition, Michael Sullivan, University of California Press, 1999;
• “History of Cloisonné Technique,” Woodrow Carpenter;
• “History and Techniques of Enameling Before 1600,” Brenda Tighe;


Thanks: to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills, and Veronica Parry in Manchester, U.K., for inspiring me to write on this subject; to Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions U.K.; Halls Fine Art Auctioneers, UK; Bonhams, Edinburgh; Bonhams, London; S&J Stodel, London, UK; The Vitreous Enamelers’ Society, UK; cultural-china.com; Darshana Daz at Encyclopedia Brittanica; Henry Walters Collection, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; Eloge de l”Art, Alain Truong; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; M S Rau Antiques, New Orleans; 2EZR, Los Angeles; Christie’s, Hong Kong; Skinners Inc., Boston; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass.; Chamberlain Antiques, Amherst, New Hampshire, U.S.A.; Sotheby’s, Hong Kong; The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; The Hermitage
Museum, Amsterdam.

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the Chinese Export Silver archive.


Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research, a Fellow for Arts & Culture at the Asia Scotland Institute 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 avf@chinese-export-silver.com“> avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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