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WE WE WC: The Consummate Georgian Silversmith of Canton

by Adrien von Ferscht (06/30/13).

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

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.

The silver-lined butter cooler in all its glory.

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.”

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

It is clear that four pieces make up a traditional tea set; the teapot, the hot water pot, the creamer and the lidded sugar. What struck me first and foremost was the taller lidded bowl. After a little inspection the solution to the mystery revealed itself instantly: this bowl is a silver-lined butter cooler, a very special piece, indeed.

The “celebrity” silversmith of the Early China Trade Period (1785-1840) is simply known as “WE WE WC.” His mark (top) is thought to be based on that of the London-based silversmiths William Eley, William Fearn and William Chawner (bottom). Perhaps the “F” for Fearn was mistaken for an “E.”

Of the known silversmiths of what I call The Early China Trade Period (1785-1840), the maker who has “celebrity” status is one simply known 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 patronized him.

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.

Unlike many Chinese Export Silver takes on the Georgian style, there’s nothing Chinese about this set. 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.

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 5,460gm (175.56 Troy ounces). It would be 0.900 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. 

Unlike many Chinese Export Silver takes on the Georgian style, there’s nothing Chinese about this set. 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 in comparable pieces of the time.

One hundred years earlier, Chinese silversmiths would have been more likely to create a pure Chinese tea pot and the maker would not have marked the silver. One hundred 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, built upon more than 1,000 years of silver making in China.

An example of the extremely high quality and standard of workmanship prior to the invent of Chinese Export Silver built upon more than 1,000 years of silver making in China.

This tea pot, also of the mid-18th century, created by adapting an earlier hexagonal 17th-century Chinese silver jar.

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

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.

A Paul Storr-inspired tea set made by WE WE WC in Canton. Notice the gadrooning and acanthus decoration.

This is an actual Paul Storr tea pot made in London. We see the same gadrooning and the same acanthus decoration.

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 rarer, since fewer silversmiths were operating prior and during the early days of the emergence of the China Trade.

This WE WE WC small tankard, circa 1825, 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 £4,000 ($6,270).

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. The 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 start numerous people drooling, I present to you another WE WE WC gem of the art of silver making. This silver gilt five-piece tea and coffee set was made the same time as the set I opened with. It is exquisite and rare to an extreme. To those searching for the fifth piece, the teapot is sitting on its own stand. Each of the larger pieces has 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.

This silver gilt five-piece tea and coffee set (the fifth piece is the stand the teapot sits on). The teapot handle rises from an elaborate female mask as the close up detail image shows (right). The set sold at Sotheby’s, New York in 2009 for $48,000.


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. Adrien recently released “Catalogue of Chinese Export Makers’ Marks,” the largest reference work for makers’ marks ever published. You can e-mail Adrien at avf@chinese-export-silver.com“> avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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