When Sun Shone on Canton for 95 Years: From Georgian to High Chinese Style

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This superb and highly unusual classic form cider jug, produced circa early 19th century in the late 18th-century high Georgian style, is just one example of Sun Shing’s masterworks. Known as “The Winslow Jug,” this piece simply oozes history as it once would have oozed cider.

I’ve been aware of some debate recently over referenced manufacturing periods for some of the Chinese Export Silver makers. I couldn’t agree more that some of the established dating requires review, especially given that far more information has become and is still becoming available since cataloguing first began in the 1960s.

As my research continues, it is clear to me how little was known about Chinese Export Silver as a silver category and how the makers were nothing more than enigmatic names we tended to bandy about, often referring to individual makers as “he.” We now know there was no “he,” since virtually all the makers’ names were fictitious titles that fronted retail silversmiths or workshops. We also know that many of the early makers produced truly extraordinary quality silver, much of it in the classic Georgian style and much of it able to rival it. One such maker was Sun Shing of Canton, a maker who we are aware of beginning production in 1790, but could easily have been producing silver prior to this under another guise; it is almost impossible such exceptional work could have sprung from nowhere, let alone obscurity.

Original estimates in the 1960s of Sun Shing’s manufacturing life were circa 1790-1830. This could have been because Crosby Forbes’ work was focused only on Chinese Export Silver in America and most of the silver studied was centered in the Massachusetts area where much of the earliest Chinese Export Silver landed and remained. We now know that Sun Shing had two formats of maker’s mark; one took the form of the so-called pseudo-hallmark, while the other took the form of Latin initials in tandem with a Chinese chopmark. The use of the latter style of mark would already date it mid-19th century at its earliest and study of Sun Shing items bearing the chopmark indicate styles that are redolent of the late 19th century. For this reason, in the forthcoming third edition of my catalog of maker’s marks, the entry for Sun Shing has been revised to circa 1790-1885.

The first example of Sun Shing’s work I’d like to show is a superb and highly unusual classic form cider jug produced circa early 19th century in the late 18th-century high Georgian style (above). Known as “The Winslow Jug,” this piece simply oozes history as it once would have oozed cider.

Shing’s “The Winslow Jug” was based on the English classical motifs that hark back to this fine chocolate pot by Edward Winslow himself.

This Chinese rose mandarin porcelain covered cider jug is more or less a parallel piece to the Sun Shing jug. Apart from the foo dog finial, there are several elements to the porcelain jug that if we didn’t know better might have served as templates for the silver jug—the spout probably the most noticeably similar.

The jug itself has connections with both Canton and silvermaking in its own right, since the Winslow family not only had Edward Winslow among its 17th/18th century forebears—a renowned silversmith and contemporary of Paul Revere—but it also had the two Isaac Winslows among its ranks in the 19th century, who were Boston merchants trading with Canton.

The jug, from the inscriptions around its middle frieze panel, appears to have recorded notable family events or unions over several generations.

Here we have a Chinese Export Silver nutmeg grater (left) by Sun Shing in the classic vase form. Again, decorated with motifs we would expect to find on Georgian silver, it has to be said this piece also has some colonial attributes, in particular the finial. Just eight centimeters tall, this exceptional piece was sold at auction in 2005 for $8,400 at Christie’s, New York. Bearing one of Sun Shing’s signature “pseudo-hallmark” maker’s marks (above), the nutmeg grater is catalog-dated circa 1800, making it one of his earlier pieces.

Obviously this is a specially commissioned piece; no other silver cider jug is known to have come out of China, but what is intriguing is the use of English classical motifs that hark back to this fine chocolate pot by Edward Winslow himself. So here we have a notable Boston merchant family that traces its roots back to the Mayflower who obviously retained an appreciation of good silver. The Sun Shing jug was brought to Massachusetts Bay by a Captain Shreve, who we know had what can be described as a “cosy” business relationship with the most powerful of the Hong merchants in Canton: Howqua. Shreve is recorded as being a regular purchaser and shipper of silks, silver and porcelain. The Winslows and the Shreves were both originally Quaker families.

Although silver cider jugs were certainly a rarity in Canton, Chinese porcelain cider jugs abounded in plenty. While Chinese silver and porcelain have always been parallel over the 1,200-year history of both, the Sun Shing jug must have come into being by Captain Shreve bringing some English or Colonial American silver as examples—again a very common occurrence. The Massachusetts Bay area in the 19th century was full of wealthy families and being able to buy high-quality silverwares in Canton and bringing them back to an discerning and affluent public could only have been lucrative, to say the least.

This early 19th century Chinese Export Silver teapot by Sun Shing (top) compares very favorably with the circa 1800 Paul Revere teapot (below). In fact, the Sun Shing piece is more true historically to the neo-classical shapes and motifs of the Georgians than the Revere pot.

The Paul Revere teapot.

The Georgian silversmiths probably were the best makers of teapots. The classical Georgian forms and decorative motifs were a perfect marriage with silver and this was mirrored in the fashionable clamour for both tea and silver by the rich, famous and infamous of New England. Silver has always been a measure of affluence, especially by the aspiring nouveaux riches. Yet, again, we see a substantial amount of early Chinese Export Silver landing in Boston; of the highest quality, it could be acquired for a fraction of the cost of comparable contemporary American colonial silver. Boston silversmiths could not have been amused.

So we have a Canton master of the Georgian in Sun Shing, who, at some point in time mid-19th century, takes a right turn and becomes the eponymous Chinese silversmith. The pseudo-hallmark maker’s mark disappears, the neo-classicism is gone and the high Chinese style arrives with an almighty bang.

The transformed Sun Shing maker’s mark is the final step of abandoning the classics for what was probably considered more commercial manufacturing.

Here we have Sun Shing in full Chinese mode—a circa 1880 tankard with an exquisitely detailed dragon handle clutching a canister tankard literally smothered in an array of Chinese allegorical motifs. Dragon tankards are a Chinese Export Silver specialty; nobody did them better. They became fashionable in the West as christening mugs and, since most of them carry a central cartouche, they were a popular alternative to trophy cups amongst the many Western clubs and institutions that abounded in the treaty ports, especially Hong Kong and ShangHai.

The transformed Sun Shing maker’s mark is the final step of abandoning the classics for what was probably considered more commercial manufacturing.

The tankard we have on the right is probably one of the last tankards Sun Sing made in the classic style. The inscription is dated 1853 and was presented to the Chief Officer of the HMS Kent by an immigrant to mark the maiden voyage of the Kent from England to Port Philip in Australia. It is particularly interesting that the donor, Thomas Howard Fellows, chose to give a piece of Chinese Export Silver.

This brilliance for classicism and the sudden change of style and maker’s mark causes me to theorize that the “House of Sun Shing” changed ownership and strategy the mid-19th century. There is also a distinct similarity to the quality and detailed workmanship of the Sun Shing dragons to those of Tu Mao Xing—the king of silver dragon making in China! 

The classic Georgian style was a lucrative market but nevertheless somewhat niche and confining, but the quality still remained in the “new look” Sun Shing objects.

Throughout Sun Shing’s “reign,” quality wasn’t the only constant. Sun Shing was known as a superb flatware manufacturer, and produced cutlery could rival the best tables in London and Boston.

This fiddle pattern spoon is typical of the fine silver tableware Sun Shing was renowned for.

This mother of pearl dessert set is dated circa 1810 and carries the signature Sun Shing pseudo hallmark. Were it not for the marks, this would defy many people to believe it wasn’t the product of a top English or Colonial American silversmith.

The quality is still firmly in existence in this Sun Shing mid-19th-century child’s cutlery set which has begun to turn from classic design to incorporate the Chinese faux bamboo effect handles.

Sun Shing silver was a constant of high quality, no matter the style, as we see from this tea set in the high Chinese style circa 1880. While it is definitely Chinese, it still somehow retains a classic and refined quality to it.

Finally, we can see Sun Shing in total Chinese mode with this exquisite belt buckle; Sun Shing has at last gone full circle!

So in the space of just under a century, we discover the two faces of Sun Shing; the master Georgian silversmith of old Canton and the master Chinese silversmith of late the 19th century burgeoning Canton. While it was always the case that the owners of the retail silversmiths governed the house-style of the silver produced under their makers’ marks, the capability to produce both the style and the quality had to be an inherent part of the manufacturing equation. Without highly skilled artisan silversmiths, the name of Sun Shing would be nothing.

“Perfect is the virtue which is according to the Constant Mean! Rare for a long time has been its practice among the people.”

— Confucius: The Analects (500BC)

Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; and to Christie’s, New York; Christie’s, South Kensington; Spencer Marks Ltd, Southampton, Massachusetts; Michael Pashby Antiques, Park Avenue, New York; Bonham’s, London; Robert Barresi at Supershrink; Nigel Williams Silver, Petworth, UK; Skinner Auctioneers; Museum Victoria, Melbourne, Australia; Gebelein, East Arlington, Vermont; Metropolitan Museum, New York.

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 avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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