‘Precious metalwork is such a rare part of the canon of Chinese art, and really only flourished during the Tang dynasty,’ says specialist Olivia Hamilton. ‘These two vessels exhibit some of the finest workmanship you will ever see.’
Originally collected by the renowned Swedish connoisseur Carl Kempe, they are two of the most extraordinary pieces from his famed collection of Chinese gold and silver.
The two silver vessels that Hamilton refers to — an ‘animals’ bowl and a parcel-gilt ‘rhinoceros’ dish — both date from the Tang dynasty, from 618-907. This was a period of expansion and cosmopolitanism in China. The Silk Road, the network of trading routes that connected China through the Middle East to Europe, was, as Hamilton puts it, ‘flourishing’.
It was via the Silk Route that luxury goods such as silks, spices and precious metals flowed between Chang’an (modern Xi’an), the Tang capital, and Persia, India and Europe.
The precious nature of the material and the quality of the work reveals that ‘these have to be, by definition, for very high ranking or imperial clients,’ says Hamilton.
Both were made by hammering out the metal rather than casting, which is unusual for metalwork in China, where the tradition of cast bronze was perfected from as early as the Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1046 BC).
For Hamilton, this is a response by the craftsmen to the material. ‘Silver and gold are very malleable compared to other materials such as bronze, for example,’ she says. ‘It demonstrates the craftsman’s expertise in handling his material.
‘This technique also allows the craftsman to ensure that no scrap of precious metal is wasted in production. No important client would want a finished product weighing less than the amount of raw silver he had paid for.’
While it might be practical, it is also beautiful. The level of craftsmanship is unrivalled in vessels from this period.
Where the workmanship reaches its zenith is in the depiction of the animals. While there is evidence of rhinoceroses in China, there is no certainty that this craftsman had witnessed the creature in real life — and yet certain aspects are well-observed, such as the number of toes on its feet. Where the depiction differs from nature, the animal can be seen as a magical, mythical creature, probably with supernatural powers.
The camel and the elephant that appear on the ‘animals’ bowl are also carefully depicted. Their presence, however, suggests something else about the intention of the bowl.
Just as the silver signals a connection to the world beyond Tang China as well as an appreciation of rare goods, so do the animals. These are all creatures that are associated with voyages from other lands, with places beyond the court. They suggest what Hamilton calls ‘the exotic and the extraordinary’.
As with many luxury items from the ancient world, these bowls ‘speak of cross-cultural connections and show how different cultures were hugely interconnected,’ says Hamilton. These connections were not just found via the Silk Road but also by sea lanes.
Hamilton mentions a rhinoceros dish of rare similarity ‘recovered from a shipwreck off an Indonesian island’. The vessels are gateways to the interconnectedness of different cultures as well as descendants of that ancient country, the past.
Not only do they evoke this ancient time but they are, as Hamilton says, ‘objects you want to hold in your hand and look at up close. It’s a huge privilege to be able to do that, and I think for any collector, particularly of three-dimensional objects, that’s what you want to do. You want to pick it up, feel the weight and marvel at the meticulous detail — you see something different every time.’