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Chinese Export Silver Podstakannik

July 09, 2010

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While I am extremely strict about using only teawares that come from the same culture as the tea I am drinking, I have a soft spot for the misfits, anomalies and enigmas of the world, and also objects that signify an intersection of cultures. The piece of teaware in the accompanying photographs is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of an odd blend of two different tea cultures and artistic traditions.

The style and form of the object are those of a fairly typical Russian podstakannik. A podstakannik (подстаканник) is a metal tea glass holder, used for drinking black tea in Russia and the Ukraine. Examples generally look a lot like the second image in this post, either with the metal filigree often found in Russian metalwork, or cast with images of Russian myths or history. Many of these items made during the Soviet era have emblematic revolutionary symbols: the hammer and sickle, rockets, or images of revolutionary heroes. But this piece was made in China sometime between the middle of the 19th Century and the very early 20th Century, in a style that is clearly Chinese.

The majority of the Chinese metalwork referred to as “export silver,” due to the fact that it was made in China to be sold to people outside of China, had Chinese designs and motifs, which were in vogue in Western European countries and the United States at the time. But they were made in the forms of utilitarian objects that were not at all Chinese, like napkin rings, salt cellars and western-style teaware. Chinese export silver teaware is generally in the British style, in sets of three pieces: teapot, creamer and sugar bowl.

But this particular piece of teaware was obviously not made to appeal to the tastes or tea practices of the British or American silver buyers, which comprised the primary markets for Chinese export silver. I assume that during this same period of history there must have been some demand within Russia for the works of these highly skilled Chinese silversmiths, but this is the only evidence I’ve seen of a piece that is so specifically Russian.

The style fits the description of items from the third period of Chinese export silver, from 1850-1885. But its form, as a traditional Russian tea object does not fit into anything I’ve found on this period of Chinese production. It does have manufacturer’s marks in Chinese on the bottom of it, but I think that they just say that the item is made of silver, and do not bear the manufacturer’s hallmark. I noticed when I photographed the marks that the bottom round piece was cut from sheet silver. Upon closer inspection of the main body I can see that the entire piece is made from sheet silver, with the patterns cut out and ornamental relief hammered into it. None of it is cast silver. The craftsmanship of the piece is quite marvelous.

For more general info, here’s an excerpt from an Antiques Roadshow article on Chinese Export silver:

All Chinese silver was made by hand, with its elaborate designs hammered out by master Chinese craftsmen. The silver depicts flowers, birds, landscapes, dragons and human figures, the patterns that collectors seek out most often. Since Europeans would spend weeks or months aboard ship to travel to China, they would often spend months there. That was long enough to choose a pattern that could be custom-made while they holidayed. “Many of the pieces you see for sale today were made to order,” Stuart says. “It was primarily for foreigners. The elaborate designs of most of the export silver weren’t to the Chinese tastes.”

It should be noted that the podstakannik’s original glass had been lost or broken probably decades before I ever saw the piece. I replaced it with a standard-sized juice glass that I bought for about $2.00 in a thrift store. It fits it perfectly.

Appropriately, the tea pictured with it is Keemun, a tea grown in China and favored in Russia.

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