This tea set displays all the boldness of the French Art Deco style as interpreted by silver workers living in French Indochina. The three vessels and the tray are all silver with a fineness of 900.
The craftsman would have trained at the French school and followed an extensive training period of six years. Although the workman is unknown, it is obvious that he was highly skilled and able to work in both the traditional Khmer and modern European styles. The shape of the vessels is pure French Art Deco, with the fan shaped knobs and dark hardwood handles demonstrating the oriental influence. The crisp high relief repousse and chased ornamentation in the decorative panels derives from the ancient Khmer tradition, particularly from the stone carvings of 12th century Angkor Wat, and was technically demanding, requiring a very high degree of skill. According to Kong Vireak, this ‘Angkor Style’ was only attempted by those silversmiths who had received formal training at the French academy. There were many other Cambodian silversmiths, but these were village trained and not technically skilful enough to realise this complex work. The traditional Khmer panels are confined in such a way as not to obscure or interfere with the lines of the vessels allowing us to appreciate the strong deco styling alongside the contrasting and intricately rendered Khmer elements.
The term ‘Art Deco’ derives from the title of the influential Paris Exhibition of 1925, Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which was dedicated to the display of modern decorative arts and attended by over 16 million visitors. Following World War 1, France wanted to turn its back on the horrors of the past by re-positioning itself and promoting the country and its capital, Paris, as the natural home of luxury goods, art, fashion and modern taste and a large proportion of the goods exhibited at this exhibition were French. Following the exhibition, the modern, bold angular and curvilinear Art Deco look soon swept across the world but in many countries the interpretation was softer and not so bold as in France and the style was relatively short lived. In France, Art Deco took a firm hold and lasted for a longer period of time than in most other countries, with silversmiths like Puiforcat and jewellers like Cartier embracing its strong clean lines and dramatic sense.
It is likely that this set was made for an ex-patriot European, possibly a French Colonial representative living in Cambodia, who took it back to Europe when he returned, or alternatively, it may have been made for one of the French Colonial Exhibitions. When French silverware was introduced to Cambodia by colonial administrators in the early twentieth century, it fuelled a demand for these new and unfamiliar luxury objects such as cigar boxes, cutlery, tea services, champagne coolers etc. from the Khmer elite and the Royal court, impacting adversely on the livelihood of the Khmer silversmiths who found that the market for the traditional Khmer objects they had always produced, had collapsed.
In an effort to preserve the talents of the silversmiths and re-invigorate the Cambodian artistic heritage, the French, at the instigation of Georges Groslier, founded L’École des Arts Cambodgiens in Phnom Penh in 1920, in part of the National Museum. Now known as the University of Fine Arts, this school had a “Goldsmiths and Founders” department which taught the gold and silver makers’ art. It is believed that silver items from the department were included in the offering of silver items within the Cambodian Pavilion in the 1922 (Marseilles) and 1931(Paris) French Colonial Expositions. These spectacular exhibitions were lavish events, glittering showcases to celebrate success and empire and to provide a showcase for industry. They also provided education and theatre, offering a great day out for the masses. Many international exhibitions were held around the world following the success of Britain’s 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition. This tradition continued into the 20th century and even after World War II, when the Festival of Britain  and the Brussels World Fair  were held, before dying out.
The Cambodian silver industry is known to have a history stretching back to at least the 3rd century AD and the tradition still flourishes, particularly in the area around Udong, the location of the former capital. With little, if any, locally mined silver, objects were usually made by melting down silver coins and silver was fashioned for both domestic and religious purposes. Few written records of silver production exist before the 19th century, when European travellers first published accounts of their travels in the area, with some giving detailed descriptions of the traditional Khmer silver objects they had seen in use there.
In Cambodian society, silver was a symbol of wealth and nobility, associated with power and purity. In the days when Cambodia was controlled by the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), many old, fine and historic silver objects were destroyed, melted down or smuggled out of the country by fleeing refugees. Between 1980 and 1981, when the silver price rose steeply on the international commodity markets, many objects which had been taken out of the country by refugees were melted down. Consequently, little silver made before 1900 still remains in existence.
This tea set and tray is a rare and stylish example of cross-cultural fusion, where the strong bold new style of the western world embraces the ancient artistic traditions of the east.
Provenance: UK art market
Size: Teapot - height: 18 cms, width: 31 cms
Tray - width: 34 cms, length: 48.5 cms
Weight: 3910 grammes (Total Weight)
Kong Vireak Khmer Silverwares, UNESCO and Reyum Publishing 2009, Phnom Penh
Adrien Von Ferscht, Chinese Export Silver 1785 – 1940 : The Definitive Collectors' Guide