Silverwork of Burma – Description of the Plates

Joseph Cohen Harry Tilly, Silver 660 Views

T he first four plates are photographs of old bowls collected at the time of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition, and were originally taken for the instruction of modern silversmiths. The most ancient are Nos. 1 and 2 in Plate II which, from the style of work, are judged to date from the eighteenth century and are in low relief but have been carried to a degree of finish required firing twice.

Bowls Nos. 3, 4, and 5, of Plate II are supposed to have been made in the beginning of the nineteenth century and are in higher relief but are very rough having been fired but once, the designs are effective and well worth the consideration of modern silversmiths.

Numbers 6 and 7 are of about the same date and probably represent the best work of the period, for they are of the design used at the ceremony of washing the head of the Sovereign and are ornamented with the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

All the bowls shown on the first plate are put down to the end of the first half of the nineteenth century, say between 1840 and 1850, but No. 5 judging from the greater elaboration in the design and the tendency to confusion, accompanied by more exact workmanship, is probably the most modern.

In Plate I, bowl No 1, the upper main wreath or scroll is of twisted vine tendrils sparsely leaved, treated in the Siamese manner, while the ornament at the base is of conventional lotus leaves divided as in Shan work. In all the bowls in this plate, except in No. 4, single figures are placed in “houses” formed by cusped arches of plain polished silver in high relief with a pendant below the truncated pillar of the arch, while in the spandrel is shown a plain, bold spray of foliage. In No. 3 the just limit of elaboration is reached which in No. 5 is so developed that the leading lines are almost lost. Even where the foliage work is Shan, all the figures in this Plate are in Burmese style.

In No. 2 the upper scroll is of Burmese foliage work and is mean and uninteresting, the base is ornamented with lotus leaf in the Burmese manner, from which spring leaves of “foreign” design, this is the earliest known instance of European influence. The upper scroll of No. 3 is a mixture of Siamese and Shan foliage, and the attempt of a modern master silversmith to reproduce this exquisite design is shown in the lowest figure of Plate V.

The upper wreath of the fourth bowl in Plate I is an example of Burmese foliage in which figures of animals are introduced, the base showing lotus treated in European style. This is the earliest known example of a bowl on which a “Zat” or story is depicted, and the artist has abolished the panels or “houses” and has arranged his figures on a frieze. The story is that the Emperor Paw Ye Thada, Who in order to satisfy his craving for human flesh, sent out gangs of men to seize travellers and bring false cases against them, on which they were thrown into prison and executed, their bodies being taken to the Palace. His people rose and deposed him. Bowl No. 5 is entirely of Burmese design and No. 6, with the exception of the figures, is all Shan work.

In Plate III, is shown a most excellent Shan Bowl with Burmese figures, the design is simple and effective and the subdivision of the surface is in just proportion, the polished lines are in the right places and the degree of relief is regulated according to the importance of each several part. Burmese master-silversmiths should study this bowl very carfully so as to understand the principles which guided the artist who made it, and if they have not quite made up their minds let them compare it with the bowl shown on Plate IV which is badly designed and carelessly made on a single firing.

The work shown in the first four plates was all executed with brass tools and at a time when no great store was set on highly finished execution. With the steel tools now in use it has become possible to give sharp work in high relief and at the same time to meet the demand for exactness. Plate V shows an adaptation of old designs by Maung Yon of Rangoon in 1885, or thereabouts. Maung Shwe Yon also designed and made the pierced bowl given in Plate VI which is the best example of this kind of work ever produced. The foliage is a combination of three kinds of flower work known as tazin ngwe, kalla ban and Kyu det and the skill with which the different styles have been combined to prevent monotony in the general effect is greatly appreciated by Burmese Silversmiths. Round the base of the bowl is an arrangement of leaves of the water cabbage (hmaw). Maing Shwe Yon died in 1889 shortly after he had finished a splendid trophy for the Mess of the Royal Engineers at Chatham.

Joseph CohenSilverwork of Burma – Description of the Plates