Silver wonders from the east

Background

'Filigree, delicate, lacelike ornamental openwork composed of intertwined wire threads of gold or silver, widely used since antiquity for jewelry. The art consists of curling, twisting, or plaiting fine, pliable metal threads and soldering them at their points of contact with each other and, if there is one, with the metal groundwork.' (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition)

Technique

Precious metals - gold and silver - have traditionally evoked power and prestige. Jewellery and other remarkable objects were made from them. They were used for rites, ceremonies and other rituals. Gold and silver showed that you belonged to a certain class of society and that you measured up to the norms and values prevailing there.

Because of their low melting point and elasticity, gold and silver are easily worked. Among the various techniques one has always stood out. In it very pure precious metal is drawn into extremely fine threads. Hundreds of metres of thread can be drawn from just one gram of silver. These threads are then ingeniously interwoven to produce almost transparent objects. This age-old technique is known as filigree (from the Latin filum, thread, and granum, grain).

Production

Filigree was already in vogue and widespread in the ancient world. Examples are known from the second millennium BC from Egypt, Crete and Greece. The Hermitage Amsterdam showed some magnificent examples in the exhibition 'Greek gold' in the spring of 2004. As a result of the many conquests and trade contacts, filigree products are found in numerous other regions and countries, such as the Far East, the Arabian East, Italy and Russia. In the 16th and 17th centuries the technique was used in practically all the countries of Europe and Asia.

Historical events were often an occasion for exchanging views and adopting methods and stylistic details. Thus the Jewish silversmiths took their technique with them when they were expelled from Spain. The same was true of the Huguenots in 17th-century France. They dispersed all over Europe, and combined their own familiar filigree methods with local stylistic forms. The great geographical discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries also played an important part in the creation of a universal style of filigree. Asian contacts in particular, not least through the founding of the Dutch East India Company, were to have a great influence on the further development of the technique of filigree.

Dissemination

The principal centres of filigree, such as Guangzhou (Canton), were to be found in China. This is evident from the large numbers of objects of Chinese origin in the present collections. For Europeans filigree from China was exotic and an example of virtuoso technique. Moreover, the work of a Chinese master was cheaper, so that in the course of the 17th century many objects, such as jewellery, were ordered in the East. These orders were carried out on the basis of drawings or examples provided. Descriptions and partial designs were also sent. Many of the filigree objects in a European style were thus made by artists in the East. Where and when filigree has been made remains a complex matter. The international nature of the formal vocabulary, the absence of marks and the lack of information together explain why many attributions to a particular centre of production are debatable.

On being exported, the valuable objects found their way to the countries that traded with China in the 16th and 17th centuries: Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and England. Production centres also developed in India. Portuguese ships brought a whole stream of export products and exotic goods from there to Europe. These curiosities, ordered by monasteries and royal houses, were exported to Europe via the Coromandel Coast of India (by modern Madras) and the Portuguese colony Goa. Conversely, European ships brought Portuguese filigree to India, where it served as an example for local silversmiths. The furnishings for Portuguese churches, for example, were made in Goa.

In the 17th century the Cantonese market was controlled by English and Dutch traders. They brought exotic wares via several stops on the way to the European courts, where filigree was much in demand. At Versailles, for example, Louis XIV had nearly 900 objects in gold and silver filigree on display. The royal houses of Spain, England and Germany were also eager customers.

Filigree in the Hermitage

The Hermitage in St Petersburg has a large number of works in eastern filigree from the 17th and 18th centuries. At first they lay in the palace storerooms or were used by the rulers of the day. Later (from the first half of the 18th century) they were exhibited in the galleries of the Hermitage. In the 20th century the Hermitage's Oriental Department was established and many filigree pieces found their way to the Oriental Jewellery Storeroom. Far from everything was identified as oriental, however, so the collection was dispersed over various departments within the museum. Thanks to the recent research by the curator of Chinese applied art, Maria Menshikova, a large part of the collection was found, catalogued, and restored. The results of this major study are now presented in the exhibition and the accompanying publication.

The main part of the collection comes from China, India and Indonesia. The 17th-century Chinese pieces are fairly large and their forms go back to traditional Chinese objects. The ornamentation is characteristic of Chinese culture: peonies, lotus flowers and plum blossom. There are also many works from India, and particularly Goa (see above). These often have a European form because they were made to order, for example for the Catholic Church. The objects from Batavia, modern Jakarta, in Indonesia are often hard to distinguish from Chinese work.

Unique toilet sets

One of the highlights in the exhibition and in the Hermitage collection is Catherine the Great's two large toilet sets. The Chinese set (1740-1750) consists of 32 components, and the Indian set (1740-1750, Dekkan, Karimnagar) of 19. These are unique ensembles, because over time comparable sets from other European courts have been sold, melted down or lost. Only one other toilet set of a similar size is known: that of Burghley House in Lincolnshire in England.

In Western Europe mirrors and toilet sets were one means of showing your distinction and that you belonged to the right circles. They were usually made of silver and used by both women and men. The difference lay in the composition of the different elements. Toilet sets were often given as wedding presents or formed part of the trousseau. The most important part was the mirror, supplemented by 15 or 50 pieces. The owners could also buy new silver objects as they wished. The set would be arranged in a room close to the bedroom and the mirror would be adorned with expensive lace. The owners would complete their morning toilet in front of the mirror and grant an audience to their closest companions. Despite the opposition of the Orthodox Church, which banned the use of mirrors, the earliest toilet sets appeared in Russia in the 17th century. The most famous example is the gold toilet set, with a tea and coffee service, that belonged to the niece of Peter the Great, Anna Ivanovna, and can now be admired in the Hermitage's treasury.

The Netherlands-Russia: the writing box of Stadholder William III

The Hermitage's filigree collection includes a curious object: the writing box of Stadholder William III. He was the member of the House of Orange who married the English princess Mary Stuart and became King of England after the Glorious

Revolution in 1688. On the lid is William III's coat of arms. Around the arms is the motto of the Order of the Garter: Honi soit qui mal y pense. This box was probably made in Goa or Jakarta. But how did this unusual piece end up in the Hermitage's collection? The box turns up in the collection of Frederick I of Prussia, the son-in-law of King George I and direct descendant of Mary Stuart of Scotland. It is known that part of the legacy of William III and Mary Stuart went to Prussia. This explains how Frederick I came into the possession of his father-in-law's box. In 1717 Peter the Great visited Frederick I's famous palace at Potsdam. During that visit he was given the Amber Room (a copy of which can now be seen in the palace of Tsarskoe Selo). Peter was a great admirer of Stadholder-King William III and he probably saw his hero's writing box during his visit and 'asked' Frederick to give him that too.

Filigree in the 19th century

Large toilet sets went out of fashion, but filigree objects remained popular well into the 19th century. Bigger firms and shops were set up to cater specially for the European market. For the first time the initials of the masters appeared on the objects, in the Latin alphabet but sometimes in Chinese characters too. Paper labels with the name of the maker were attached to cases for visiting cards. The silversmith was no longer a nameless craftsman. The exhibition includes unusual 19th-century examples such as bracelets, fans and so-called porte-bouquets (in which real plants were put to ornament ladies' clothing).

In conclusion

The collection of silver filigree from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in the Hermitage is wide-ranging and unique, but has so far received little scholarly attention. This publication and exhibition will contribute to further study of the many issues surrounding this collection and to the attribution of many similar objects in other museum collections. At the Hermitage a classification into groups based on form, style, ornament and origin has been arrived at which can be used with a high degree of confidence. Catherine the Great's toilet sets, the showpieces of the collection, have literally become models. Thanks to them, other Chinese and Indian objects from the 17th and 18th centuries can be attributed fairly exactly.

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Closed on 25 December 2014 and 27 April 2015

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The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

Photo Janiek Dam

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