From the late 18th to the early 20th century, Chinese silver was almost exclusively produced from melted Spanish silver dollars, the only currency accepted for the trading of tea, silk and spices with other nations. China’s plentiful supply of silver bullion meant that workshops produced finely decorated objects at a fraction of the prices demanded in the West. Direct commissions prompted Chinese silversmiths to produce objects in pseudo-European styles (see CCN.424), but by the mid-19th century they began to incorporate East-Asian motifs in their work to cater both to the export and affluent domestic markets.
This silver tea caddy was made by Tu Mao Hsing, a master silversmith operating between 1880 and 1930 from Jiujiāng, the silver-making centre of Southern China. Under his close supervision, his workshop produced pieces of very high quality which merged Victorian forms with traditional Chinese motifs. The caddy’s chased, swirled bands depict plants which are referred to in Chinese art as ‘Four Noble Ones’ or ‘Four Gentlemen’. This refers to four plants which collectively depict the four seasons: The orchid (spring), the bamboo (summer), the chrysanthemum (autumn), and the plum blossom (winter). The caddy’s collet foot, chased with the traditional ruyi motif is a feature regularly found in Tu Mao Hsing’s output.