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12 November 2013

A Collection of Silver-Gilt Mounted Porcelains


The glorious Howzer Cup, a masterpiece of craftsmanship, consists of a Chinese brush pot, ca. 1630-50, mounted in England, ca. 1660-70, probably by the Swiss goldsmith Wolfgang Howzer. I especially love the hounds on the lid and handles. Image courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Today, with the help of the venerable V & A Museum Collection, I have assembled for you a collection of beautiful Chinese and Japanese porcelains, all featuring silver gilt mounts. Just imagine how exotic these porcelains would have seemed to 16th century Europeans. Asian porcelain pieces decorated with underglaze blue began to arrive in England in the 1560s, amid great speculation as to the nature of the mysterious material. Some people speculated that it was a precious stone, or perhaps made from crushed sea shells. Understandably, the owners of such high-status objects went to great trouble to enhance the value of their porcelains even more by commissioning elaborate silver-gilt mounts for them. I suppose when we take great care in framing an important painting, we continue this tradition in some small way. 
A Japanese Imari cup, mounted in France ca. 1720. This is the watercolor illustration I did for September, from our 2013 desk calendar. From the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection.

Asian porcelains were also enormously popular in France. When Siamese ambassadors visited Versailles in 1686, King Louis XVI himself received the delegation, and fueled a fever for all things Asian, bringing porcelains like the Japanese Imari piece above to the height of fashion. 
A Chinese ewer, ca. 1560-86 with later English silver-gilt mounts.
Image courtesy the V & A Museum.

Asian porcelain was so sought after in Europe, that objects of lesser quality, like the one above, were treated to the same gilt-mounting treatment as finer pieces. Porcelains like this ewer were made in large quantities in the southern city of Jingdezhen for local use and export alike. In 1557, according to the V & A, the Portuguese began to deal in porcelain in Macau, and although the vast majority of pieces went to Lisbon, the English pirates did what they could to increase the flow of these objects to England. The ewer may be rustic, but it still has a certain charm, don't you think?




The Trenchard bowl, Chinese porcelain
painted in underglaze blue, with English silver-gilt mounts.
Image courtesy the V & A Museum.


The Trenchard bowl, shown above, was featured in our 2011 calendar, and has an interesting history. From the V & A: "By tradition this bowl was a gift from Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy (1478-1506) and his wife Joanna 'the Mad' to Sir Thomas Trenchard of Wolverton, Dorset, in gratitude for his hospitality after their ship was wrecked off Weymouth in 1506. In fact, we can tell from the date of the mounts and of the porcelain that it reached England much later, during Elizabeth I's reign (1558-1603), probably as part of a load of porcelain seized from a Spanish ship." 

A Chinese porcelain cup, ca. 1573-85, with later English mounts, marked 1585.
Image courtesy the V & A Museum.


Having trained as a metalsmith, I'm amazed by the ingenious buckle-like mechanisms used to attach these fanciful metal armatures to the delicate porcelains. Like the exotic natural crystals, coconut shells and sea shells that were similarly "enhanced", these pieces of porcelain would certainly have made impressive additions to cabinets of curiosities. Wouldn't it have been wonderful to have been there to see them?! 

6 comments:

  1. Hello Erika, It is interesting how such elaborate mounts celebrate the importance and rarity of these exotic imports, while at the same time Westernizing them and making them more familiar. I wonder what the original makers would have thought of some of these creations, such as a teacup turned into a chalice.

    As you point out, Europeans have a special penchant for enhancing and re-purposing interesting objects. To go from the sublime to the ridiculous, the habit of turning every available object, from more porcelains to old musical instruments, into lamps is a more up-to-date example of this urge.
    --Jim

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  2. Hello hello Jim,

    Thanks for your message--I've just been over to your blog-- so glad you're back. I think your point about Westernizing these objects is well observed: all of the elaborate mounts and handles really would have made the objects more familiar, even "useful" to their Western owners. Just consider the Asian tea cup/bowl, purposely made with no handles so the user could detect the temperature of the tea, and the later European tea cup, with it's elaborate and dainty handles meant to elevate the ceremony of taking tea... Fascinating differences in priorities! I think your example of the elaborately fashioned lamps is so interesting too.... One must never try too hard, wouldn't you agree?!

    Warm regards,
    Erika

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  3. Hello, Erika,

    I have enjoyed studying this whole collection, and I would choose the Trenchard bowl as my favorite, perhaps because I could so easily place it in antiquity. I agree with you and Jim that the teacup refashioned as a goblet is the more interesting story, and I can imagine that the makers of the teacup would shake their heads, thoroughly perplexed. Or perhaps they would have started making goblets! A beautiful posting!

    Best wishes,

    Mark

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    1. Hello Mark,
      Thank you for your message. I love that Trenchard bowl too, with those stunning figurative handles-- beautiful! You bring up a very interesting concept: taking the exported porcelains back to their makers with the mounts would have been a fascinating exercise.... Whatever their opinion of the mounts, I'm sure the porcelain makers would have been influenced in some way by seeing the Western interpretation of their works. It would be interesting to know if any of these pieces made it back to their places of origin.... I'll have to befriend an Asian art scholar and ask!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  4. Dear Erika, What lovely objects these are. Of all the museums in the world the Victoria and Albert Museum is my favorite, mostly because it has such a fine collection of Maiolica, an art form close to my heart.
    Your hand painted cup with bluebells is a charming combination, so well painted and perfect for a September offering. ox, Gina

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    1. Hello Gina!
      Thank you for your comment-- I adore the V&A as well. It's one of my all-time favorite places on the planet. I think I could spend all day everyday there and never get bored.... Wonderful! I'm glad you enjoyed seeing that illustration-- it was such fun to do.

      Warm regards,
      Erika

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