Savoir Faire and ‘L’art De La Table’ – So Typically Chinese!
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This stunning pair of Chinese Export Silver épergnes appeared last month at auction in New York at Bonhams by the master of table art, Wang Hing.
A well-set dining table may be likened to a stage set; it can speak volumes about an occasion, the person who set it and it contains a plethora of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) social messages. In short, it is the scenery that acts as a foil for the guests to perform, often dictating how the guests behave and to what level their behavior for the duration of the meal will be an act.
Silver is the ultimate table accessory. As with all stage sets, a well-dressed table requires a focal point and by the 18th century, entertaining had evolved into a grand art. Literally at the epicenter of this social evolution was an item of silver that made its debut appearance at an English table in 1725 at Whitehall Palace, having first gone through its own evolution across the English Channel at the French Court. Not being an item known for its bashfulness, I have to name it before it steals the show as it inevitably does; enter the epergne.
Three crane birds are to be found standing on the domed upper plinth of undergrowth.
The word is derived from the French word épargne, meaning “saving” or “economy”; the object, like the word, is manufactured in as much as it is a decorative and functional item that did not exist before the 18th century; its predecessors, the <surtout and the later fruitier, seemed to have morphed into a single object and, by almost divine intervention, was given a steroid treatment by overzealous silversmiths to acquire extra height, arms, dishes, hanging baskets and all manner of fripperies. The épergne is a silversmith’s idea of heaven—a vehicle to display shamelessly his sense of theatricality. As for “saving,” the épergne is a multi-functioning object that saves both space on the table and staff to serve from otherwise individual dishes. For the 18th-century gentry, the idea of serving oneself must have been as revolutionary and fun as an electric carving knife at Abigail’s Party in the 1970s! The very idea of an épergne in the context of Chinese culture is about as foreign as one could get.
The 18th century was the absolutely right period for the épergne to enter, stage left, and take full control of the table center, for it could only really be in the rococo style or, at best, neo-classical, with a touch of the devil in it. Later, the Victorians got hold of it and, as with all things Victorian, they went overboard. But little can upstage the average epergne. In fact, one could safely say there is nothing average about an épergne; it is the star of the show. The Parisian and London silversmiths reveled in creating them, but as with many fine Georgian silver masterpieces, the épergne made the treacherous sea voyage to Canton, where the incumbent silversmiths must have thought that the ultimate baozhu (a firecracker to you and I) had arrived.
The whole is standing upon three absolutely delicious and rather impish bat-head feet.
Theatricality and Chinese Export Silver are closely related cousins that can’t bear to be apart and the master of stagecraft of the Canton silversmiths was Wang Hing—an extremely prolific retail silversmith with a sense of style and quality. If Wang Hing existed today, we would be comparing it to Asprey, Tiffany or Odiot. In fact, the French have two wonderful expressions that suitably capture the innate ability and sensibility of Wang Hing and an object such as the épergne to impress; “l’art de la table” and “savoir faire.” For a Chinese silversmith to be able to create an object that is so totally foreign and yet apply such a degree of creative artistry using traditional allegorical Chinese motifs is quite extraordinary.
A stunning pair of Chinese Export Silver épergnes appeared last month at auction in New York at Bonhams by the master of table art, Wang Hing.
They were described as “figural centerpieces,” which one could only say is an understatement, given they are veritable confections that would not look out of place at Royal Ascot Races on Ladies Day. Not one inch of them goes unadorned and as the eye moves down from the top trumpet vase it embarks upon a travelogue of Chinese allegorical decorative motifs; if Brueghel would have been a silversmith, this is what he would have created.
The tiered dishes and trumpet vase are of a heavy repoussé bamboo foliate motif edged with polished faux bamboo banding with the two lower plinth decorated in heavy repoussé foliate and dragon motifs.
Each piece takes the form of a central column of bamboo stems amongst which three crane birds are to be found standing on the domed upper plinth of undergrowth that is surmounted upon three dragon-form standards, they themselves resting upon a tripartite base decorated with dragons and scrolling foliage, the whole standing upon three absolutely delicious and rather impish bat-head feet. The tiered dishes and trumpet vase are of a heavy repoussé bamboo foliate motif edged with polished faux bamboo banding with the two lower plinth decorated in heavy repoussé foliate and dragon motifs.
So much implied allegorical meaning lies in the combination of motifs on each panel of the tripartite base. Bats have come to convey happiness and good luck, but the overriding message from the combination of bats, dragons, clouds and a flaming pearl is good fortune, wealth and prosperity. Cranes among bamboo signify longevity, strength and endurance.
The attention to detail on these pieces is quite phenomenal, but then we have to imagine a large dining table set with fresh linen, silver, crystal glass and silver candelabrum with tall lit candles with these épergnes dripping with fruits and probably lilies tumbling out of the trumpet vase as the final crowning glory. It’s pure theatre; the épergne being the ultimate theatrical prop for the table.
I’ve found myself reporting more and more frequently on the upward climb of values being achieved at auction for Chinese Export Silver. I have to confess, it’s always the item that inspires me to write and not the value, but having said that, I am a firm believer that a high value does not diminish or overshadow the artistry and craftsmanship of an object. It’s simply another fact of life and it’s not something to be whispered about in corners or flaunted outrageously. This year, the dramatic values being hammered down in auction houses for Chinese Export Silver is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored but it’s not just the values I notice, there’s a palpable rise in the amount of important pieces appearing now. This particular pair ticks several boxes; they are important, they are extraordinary and they are overtly decorated in the high Chinese style. They are also Wang Hing. We should not be surprised to know they achieved $33,125 at Bonhams last month.
Here we have a confection of different magnitude and maker, which in style can best be described as Chinese Victorian neo-classical (below).
This epergne, made by retail silversmith Hoaching in1870 was used as a somewhat incongruously as a horseracing trophy.
Hoaching is the retail silversmith and the year it was made is 1870 (an interesting Chinese Export Silver maker, in as much as we know that Hoaching pieces are all of the highest quality and all are highly decorated pieces). Until very recently it was thought that Hoaching only existed for 20 years. During my general research on Chinese Export Silver, I recently discovered documentary evidence of the existence of Hoaching in Old China Street on Shameen Island in Canton as early as 1825. It also had a reputation of being the best purveyor of carved ivory in Canton at that time. There were two sons who subsequently opened a second shop on Physic Street on Honam Island opposite Shameen on the Pearl River.
Also an épergne, what makes this piece unusual is that it was used as a somewhat incongruous horseracing trophy; it bears the inscription:
HANKOW SPRING MEETING 1870
WON BY MR WILLIAMS
A further inscription on the base tells us that “USURY” ridden by R.W.W. won the race and the trophy.
My research into Chinese Export Silver often takes me on a tangential journey of social history, as does this épergne. Horseracing began in China in 1864 at both Hankow (Wuhan) and Kiukang (Jiujang), having been introduced by the British; the Chinese Imperial government allowing attendant gambling under the guise of a “lottery.” Unlike other Chinese cities, where clubs were created to service each foreign nationality, often to the exclusion of the Chinese, Hankow Club was international and remained so for its entire existence; the Hankow Race Club was a loosely formulated affiliation with the main club. Hankow, as one of the concession ports, only came into being in 1860 but it grew rapidly to be a thriving international city renowned for its clubs and cabarets.
The Hankow Race Club grandstand in 1868.
The épergne is superbly decorated with a variety of motifs. On a tripartite base, the combination of traditional prunus blossom and foliage, paneled scenes of auspicious characters on the baluster stem combine with vine garlands and grape bunches on the two petticoat collars and base. The six detachable vine-entwined swagged arms support circular dishes; the six arms emanating from under an imposing large central circular dish supported on a classical urn—albeit the overall object has subtle eastern undertones. Weighing 4,351 grams and standing 51centimeters high, it was last seen at auction in 2005 at Christie’s in New York where it changed ownership at $12,500. Achieving a value of that magnitude eight years ago, and with the provenance it has, today it undoubtedly has a much high potential value.
It never ceases to surprise me how high quality antique silver appears to have acquired a bashfulness when it comes to mentioning high values. One would not be thinking twice to mention $142 million for the Francis Bacon “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” and mentioning that does not diminish or derogate its artistic merits. Although value and artistry have to inevitably meet, they are very separate dynamics on very different plains, but worth is not an obscenity and I am sure it’s a phenomenon we are going to see much more of in relation to Chinese Export Silver.
An épergne by Sing Fat. It is comparatively modest yet remains just as creatively ingenious and skillfully executed.
In the world that épergnes inhabit and the tables they live on, this example by Sing Fat (above) is comparatively modest yet remains just as creatively ingenious and skillfully executed. Most probably originally one of a pair, it would enhance any table. The three reticulated conical vases emerging from the naturalistic prunus branches that rest on the carved rosewood stand are a masterful expression of a traditional Chinese art motif in silver, the lobed prunus blossom vase bobèches being the final touch of genius.
The épergne had just under a 200-year heyday, yet there was always a predictability about them until they entered the workshops of the Chinese Export Silver makers, where they became instilled with humor, allegory and a general flaunting of the unwritten neo-classical rules that kept their European silver cousins firmly towing the line. These are the magic touches all Chinese Export Silver possesses—a feast for the eyes.
“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”
? Oscar Wilde; “A Woman of No Importance”
Acknowledgments to Bonham’s, New York; Christie’s, New York; Museum of Beijing.
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 email@example.com.
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