January 31, 2011

Cantonese Baroque Splendor

A local find, this Cantonese enamel ewer was a little battered, but very exciting. I could remember seeing a similar example in the V&A Museum, London, way back in my student days, when I used to spend every spare moment wandering it's labyrinth of treasures.

It is a wonderful piece of Baroque style, shaped like a Roman soldiers helmet, with a scallop shell form to the base. This style was popular in the first few decades of the 18th century, suggesting a very early date for this piece.

Cantonese enamels are a vibrant production from the region of Canton, China. The earliest examples we see date to the reign of Kanxi, in the early 18th century. This ewer would therefore be a very early example of the type: most pieces we see are well into the 19th century, and it is still being created in much the same style today.

The usual pieces are simple cups, or boxes, or dishes. This form is pure European, most probably copied from a Portuguese metal example of the late 17th century. It was intended entirely as an export piece, to be sent back to Europe as a vibrant alternate to porcelain (examples of this shape exist in Chinese Export porcelain also). In Europe, it would have been paired with a shell shaped basin, and was intended to be used in the washing of your hands.

The enamels are stunning in their vibrancy, somehow being brighter in effect than a porcelain example. The brilliant white tin oxide ground on the copper body reflects light with an absolute clarity that porcelain cannot achieve.
As is the nature of enamels, there were numerous losses to this piece: it is after all a thin layer of glass on metal, and very vulnerable to knocks and pressure. Our restorer did a wonderful job bringing this rarity back to life.
Cataloguing it was quite a task, not having access to the V&A to verify my memory, and not being able to find a comparable example in a book.
Then today I had my "Eureka" moment:

In a 1997 King Street Christies sale, titled The China Trade, a very similar example with it's basin was sold..... Look at that estimate. Quite a rarity indeed!
Being able to identify this rarity shows that spending excessive amounts of time in museums such as the Victoria & Albert, South Kensington, is well worth while, for me it was 10 years later that I put my observations to use.

The ewer is part of our 2011 Exhibition currently being prepared for an April opening.