ANTIQUE ENGLISH SILVER WITH CHINESE INFLUENCE
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The vast amount of artistic silversmiths' work produced by English craftsmen in early days provokes many interesting questions. The inventories of church goods show that there was scarcely a church which did not possess a wealth of vessels in the precious metals far more than sufficient for its needs, while the wills of private individuals prove that they considered the possession of silver a convenient method of storing their riches. Perhaps the most outstanding example is the great quantity of silver vessels accumulated by Cardinal Wolsey for his own use and to the endowment of the ecclesiastical foundations in which he was interested. They are enumerated at length in ‘Collectanea Curiosa’, a work produced in 1781 by John Gutch.
The first question that arises is where did the silversmith obtain his materials? England could produce next to none of this metal. The silversmith of early days probably obtained his supply from Eastern Europe, while in later days the conquest of Peru and Mexico by Spain provided him with all the silver he needed. In medieval times he had found attraction in such semiprecious materials as crystal, onyx, and agate. Later, when his work was no longer primarily for the church, he had recourse to other substances such as coconuts and ostrich eggs and similar strange objects. Pottery from the Rhineland or from English factories formed a fitting setting for his work; and the growing intercourse with the Levant brought Turkish pottery, which presented new possibilities to the English silversmith. His energies had been switched over from ecclesiastical to domestic work.
So far the silversmith's activities are not difficult to understand. For example, two known pieces of Chinese porcelain from that period and style, have silver-gilt mounts date from the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when there was no direct intercourse between England and China. Other pieces of mounted Chinese porcelain are known, as, for example, a group of bowls formerly at Burghley House, Stamford (illustrated in S. W. Bushell's ‘Chinese Art’, 1909, Vol. II); a bowl of the Ming dynasty with lovely silver mounts of about 1575, sold in the collection of Lord Twaythling. In the same collection there was a second bowl of fifteenth-century Nankin porcelain with sixteenth-century silver-gilt mounts. A manuscript in the Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum entitled ‘An Inventorie of the Personate Estate of ye late King’ [Charles 1] which was sold by Act of Parit includes "one great Porcelain Bason salt in a foot and frame of silver gilt with two
handles." The shape of the piece suggests that it was made for the Persian market. It is possible that pieces may have drifted across Asia by way of Persia and ultimately found their way to England, where their beauty and rarity appealed to the silversmith and suggested the enrichment he was so well qualified to impart.
The East India Company was incorporated by Queen Elizabeth in 1600, and appeared likely to become the connecting link between England and the Far East. But after less than a quarter of a century it was taken over by the Dutch, and in England subsequent internal struggles prevented any movement which would have been advantageous to the silversmith. Nor had the Jesuit mission to the East any effect on trade with England.
But the control of the East Indies by the Dutch had very definite results in Holland. The study of the pottery of Delft is convincing evidence of the influence of Chinese porcelain: in form, color, and ornamentation the Delft pottery shows an undoubted affinity with the work of the Far East. Is it too much to assume that Charles II during his enforced exile in Holland was impressed with what he saw, and that consequently the English silversmiths sought to reproduce the products of the Delft factories in metal?
But a stronger movement which linked England with the Far East was the introduction of tea. The earliest mention of tea, or "tay," as it was then pronounced, appears in the records of the East India Company for 1615, but it was not until after the middle of the century that it was openly advertised. An advertisement in the Mercurius Politicus for 1658 announced, "That excellent and by all Physitians approved China drink called by the Chineans Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee, is sold at the Sultanes head, a Copheehouse in Sweetings Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London." Thomas Garraway opened his coffee house for the selling of tea, and Samuel Pepys records in his diary, September 28, 1660: "I did send for a cup of tea (a China drink) of which I never had drank before."
The two earliest vessels used for the preparation of this and other new drinks are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington. Their form suggests that it was adapted from the Far East. The earliest example bears the London hallmark for 1670. It is engraved with the arms of the East India Company and of George, Lord Berkeley, and bears the inscription:
This Siluer tea-Pott was presented to ye comtte of ye East India Cumpany by ye Right Honoue George Lord Berkeley of Berkeley Castle A member of that Honourable & worthy Society and A true Hearty Louer of them 1670. The second example, probably for coffee rather than tea, bears the arms of the donor and the inscription - The Guilt of Richard Sterne Eq' to ye Honorable East-India-Compa.
It bears the London hallmark for 1681, and is the earliest known example of an English silver coffeepot. But we find no other contemporary works the form of which recalls a Chinese original.
As early as 1669 a type of silver decoration known by the high-sounding appellation chinoiserie had made its appearance, and was popular until the end of the seventeenth century. That it made no great appeal to the silversmith - even though it did to his patrons - is evidenced by the fact that it did not affect the shape of any of his productions, but was merely surface ornamentation, and that of a more or less elementary character. The decoration, executed by chasing or engraving, consisted of scrollwork of tendril form breaking out at intervals into foliage; on this background were depicted human figures in Chinese costume, or birds of Oriental appearance. It lacked symmetry and intention, and bore no relation to the form of the object which it decorated. It presented a strong contrast to the elaborate work of the period which preceded it, and its main recommendation was its novelty.
This chinoiserie is exemplified in several contemporary specimens and was also applied to more important objects. Several complete toilet services are in existence: one belongs to the Earl of Harewood, a second was formerly in the collection of Lord Twaythling, and a third in a country house near Chichester. A group of jars and flasks dating from 1685 to 1696 is or was at Belvoir Castle. A punchbowl was also formerly in the collection of Sir C. J. Jackson, who also owned two teacups and two saucers with chinoiserie decoration.
Two events hastened the departure of this vogue. One was the higher standard of silver, made compulsory in 1697, which encouraged the use of plain panels framed in heavy moldings. The second was the arrival in England of a band of French silversmiths, among them many of the finest French craftsmen, exiled from their country through the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Their work exhibited a delicacy and refinement of style and execution which roused the admiration of the English craftsmen and excited their emulation. Conscious imitation of the Chinese disappeared from silver work. But it lingered on in another department of artistic work, in what is known as Chinese Chippendale furniture. And it flared up again in silver for a short time toward the middle of the eighteenth century, when Chinese figures in high relief were introduced in the midst of riotous rococo ornament. The result, to be sure, was generally garish and vulgar. For example, in an epergne the design would have been complete without the pagoda- like roof with its hanging bells: but the silversmith yielded to the prevalent desire for something Chinese in entire disregard of its incongruity. One must, nevertheless, pay tribute to his superb craftsmanship.
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