The silversmithing firm of Pavel Ovchinnikov was the first in Russia to specialise in the production of domestic tea and tablewares decorated with high quality enamels. Such objects were produced in a wide array of designs, and this silver-gilt and enamel tea caddy demonstrates the taste for Chinoiserie style. Each side is decorated with figures in traditional Chinese costume bearing parasols, flowers, fans and scales, standing on engraved grounds below winged dragons. Russian designers began borrowing from East-Asian imagery a century after their European counterparts, largely due to the taste of the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great (1729-1796). Keen to emulate European artistocratic fashion, she even commissioned a ‘Chinese Village’ within the grounds of the Russian Imperial residence Tsarskoe Selo, which would influence Russian designers, architects and silversmiths throughout the 19th century.
Like most enamelled wares by Ovchinnikov, several enamelling techniques are combined to decorate this caddy. The scenes were hand-painted with enamel pastes and then decorated with en plein enamelling. This difficult technique was achieved by coating large areas of the metal surface in transparent enamel which, if successfully fired, would create a glassy, smooth finish. The technique was often used on highly decorative French silver snuff boxes of the 18th century, and later by the Russian jeweller Fabergé. The borders are decorated with champlevé enamelling, whereby certain areas of the metal surface are carved out to create recesses, which are then filled with glass powder and fused to the metal after firing. This process would have been repeated several times to create the foliage, fretwork and beads surrounding the caddy’s Chinoiserie scenes.