Silver Desire will be a recurring feature on The Great Within. In these posts, I will share pieces from my own silver collection. Over the last several years, I have become an avid collector of late 19th century sterling silver and silverplate flatware as well as holloware. Particularly, I am interested in pieces (and this is no surprise) which show the influence of Japanese and Chinese art in form as well as content. But, I am also drawn to English Edwardian silver and to more classical flatware forms especially those which have a shell motif.
Pictured here is a humble sterling teaspoon in a pattern called Celestial by the New York City silver company, Wood & Hughes. This multi-motif pattern was introduced in 1870. As a multi-motif pattern, each utensil has a different yet complementary design on the handle of the spoon.
The Celestial teaspoon handle depicts a robed Asian figure standing on a balcony of an architectural structure with a vaguely Eastern aesthetic. The building with its curved and crenellated roof suggests a pagoda. Behind the figure stands a column which is perhaps part of an open arcade, another feature sometimes seen in Chinese architecture.
The male figure with his top knot and wide sleeved robe extends his right arm in a gesture of welcome. Or perhaps his gesture is meant to indicate the plant and tree which stand on another balcony on the left side of the spoon handle. The tree is reminiscent of pine trees in Chinese landscape painting.
The most intriguing detail of this intricate and beautiful spoon is the triangular area below the balconies as the handle of the spoon tapers into the shaft. The texture of the silver suggests at first water or more likely a depiction of clouds as if the architecture within the spoon is not grounded but floating in the sky.
This rendering of clouds is further emphasized by the pattern name Celestial which means heaven, divinity, ethereal, otherworldly. In addition, the pattern name almost certainly refers to The Celestial Empire, an old name for China. The Emperor of China was known as The Son of Heaven.
All of these connotations of the Orient adhere to the spoon. The spoon’s fantastical Chinese architecture suspended above the clouds and its depiction of the Other implies something not of this world or at least not of the original buyer’s world of the late 19th century. Perhaps this spoon excited the purchaser’s imagination about the East, about The Celestial Empire, about the Other. The buyer sought to bring this animation to their dining table, to their dining experience and to their life.
Yet, my love of this spoon goes beyond just fantasies about a mythical Orient. It is also about nostalgia, a connection to the past. Someone designed this spoon. Someone made it. Someone bought this spoon. Someone loved it.
With this teaspoon, someone wanted to be fashionable or wanted to show off their distinctive taste to their friends and the world. Someone cared for it, polished it, used it to stir cream and sugar into their tea until their death. It was passed on to children or it was sold or it languished in a drawer until a silver dealer found it and made it available for me to buy.
Underlined by its aesthetic design, the satisfyingly mellow glow of its silver and the subtle traces of use and polish, this simple spoon has the patina of history. It has survived. It embodies all the feelings, thoughts, joys and disappointments of those who designed it, created it, stirred it and loved it.
When I admire this spoon, when I use this spoon, when I see it displayed on my sideboard, I am reminded of quote by Susan Sontag. She states: “Fewer and fewer Americans possess objects that have patina, old furniture, grandparents’ pots and pans, the used things, warm with generations of human touch, essential to the human landscape. Instead, we have paper phantoms, transistorized landscapes. A featherweight portable museum.”
This humble teaspoon adorns my “landscape”. It connects me to the past. Beyond its beauty or because of it, it stands against the disposable nature of modern life and the continual effacement of the body by technology. Its physical concreteness and emotional evocation give me great pleasure. It’s just fabulous.