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?!