A Chinese Export Silver and rosewood (huanghuali) serving tray with silver inlaid boating scene. The tray is complete with its original folding stand, also of rosewood (huanghuali). The stand has turned supports and elegant bombe shaped legs with oval spacers containing a decorative carved twist of bamboo. (Photos of the stand will be uploaded shortly).
Usually described as a butler’s tray, these trays were often used to hold drinks, bottles and glasses. Either people could serve themselves directly from the table or, if required, the fully equipped tray could be easily removed from its stand and carried around by a servant to the assembled company, allowing people to pour their own drinks whilst seated and to mix the drinks themselves to their preferred strength. Another advantage of a butler’s tray and stand is that when it is not required it can be quickly and easily folded up, moved elsewhere or stored.
The silver picture has been skilfully and artistically inlaid into the surface of the tray and it is framed by an inlaid silver rectangular border with canted corners. The scene appears to take place at dusk; the birds are flying off into the distance to roost for the night and the crescent moon is partially obscured by cloud. The surface of the water is calm with the merest ripple of waves. Two junks, one with a single mast and the other with two masts are shown in the foreground and may be about to start the night’s fishing.
To the left of the scene, a pagoda with flying eaves is perched on a rocky outcrop. This probably depicts the celebrated anchorage, off Pagoda Island in the Min River, at Mawei, about 12 miles east of Foochow (Fuzhou), above where the Min river narrows to the north-east. The Chinese merchants of Foochow assembled tea from the tea gardens of the interior in order to trade with the Europeans. "Though (this area was) considered the cradle of Chinese seafaring it was only frequented by Western shipping as China began to open up in the 1840s, and became famous from 1866 with the first of the great annual tea races to London. Sixteen clippers loaded there that year, sailing in late May and early June on the 16,000 mile voyage: 99 days later, the 'Taeping' reached Gravesend first, followed by the 'Ariel' and the 'Serica'. The octagonal Luoxing (Falling Star) Pagoda was built of granite under the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279)." (The National Maritime Museum).
The four corners of the tray are also capped with silver and there is a sturdy but elegant upswept silver handle to either end. The tray is signed by the maker with Chinese characters and the the stamp S.M.
The retailer S.M. is known to have been based in Canton in the late 19th century. They specialised in high quality, artistic silverware and are known to have supplied the avant garde, Liberty & Co of London, in the last few years of the 19th century. S.M. are the only Chinese firm known to have supplied Liberty with silverware. Silver objects have been found which carry both the Liberty & Co silver stamp and the S.M. stamp, while others only carry one of the stamps. Some items supplied by S.M. are featured in Liberty's catalogues of the 1890s. Although this tray does not bear the Liberty stamp, it is entirely probable that it was purchased in the furnishings department of this fashionable London store.
Provenance: UK art market
Size of tray only: Height: 7 cms (to top of handles). Maximum width 85 cms including handles (61.5 cms excluding handles), Depth 37 cms
Size of stand only: Height: 31 cms, width of top 31.5cms, depth of top 22 cms
Combined: Maximum height: 38 cms (to top of handles)
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Collection number PAJ2079, Painting by James Henry Butt
Adrien Von Ferscht, Chinese Export Silver 1785 - 1940, The Definitive Collectors' Guide
The Maritime Heritage Project