Saturday, October 3, 2009

Silver Desire: A Silverplate Coffeepot by Taunton Silverplate Company

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In 1854 diplomatic relations were established between Japan and the United States and in 1858 trade relations began between the 2 countries which allowed a large number of Japanese goods to enter the United States. The craze for things Japanese by the American public, however, did not really occur until the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia with its spectacular Japanese exhibition. This fascination for Japanese design became

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even more predominant in the 1880’s with the aesthetic style, but it is also important to note that Japanese influence can be seen in American silver flatware as early as 1869. This influence occurred both on the level of style, motifs and techniques of workmanship. A prime example of the early influence of Japan is Gorham’s multi-motif flatware pattern Japanese which was introduced in 1870.

It is also important to note that Japanese influence on American design is often combined with that of China given the cross-pollination of those cultures as well as the ignorance of 19th century Western spectators/consumers to the differences between the 2 cultures.

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For example, the handle motif on a coffee spoon in Gorham’s Japanese pattern displays not only a fan and dragonfly, but also the background has a stippled texture which is evocative of Japanese metalwork. The dragonfly, however, while recalling Japanese subject matter is less naturalistic and more abstract than would be found in Japanese art. This texture continues down the shank of the spoon which has an abstract leaf/floral motif that possibly suggests bamboo.

The Gorham coffee spoon is a very sophisticated example of early Japanese influence on American silver. At the time of its production, it was not very popular and did not sell well, hence, its rarity today. The Taunton Silverplate Company coffeepot is a more popular, more accessible and relatively inexpensive example of Japanese (and Chinese) influence on American silver holloware design.

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The coffeepot displays oriental motifs derived from China and Japan while maintaining a traditional Western shape of a footed pot prevalent in the 1870’s and continuing into the 1880’s. It does not exhibit any stylistic connection to the arts of Japan and China. On the upper body of the pot is a flying tauntoncoffeepot3 crane or heron with a snake in its mouth. Below the flying bird is an open medallion suitable for the engraving of the owner’s initials. Surrounding this medallion are pseudo-Japanese or Chinese characters, a motif also found in Gorham’s Japanese.

tauntoncoffeepot4Finally, on either side of the characters, there is an engraved flower which recalls a peony. The peony is considered to be the national flower of China and it has a long history as one of the main motifs in Chinese decorative arts as well as in literature and poetry. After it was introduced to Japan in the 8th century, the peony became a prominent feature in Japanese decorative arts as well.

The 19th century owner of this Taunton piece would indeed recognize the peony and the pseudo-writing to be reminiscent of the East without a specific understanding of their meaning. It would satisfy their desire to be fashionable and participate in the cultural consumption of the Other in operation at the time.

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This display of the Other is literalized on the finial, handle and spout of the coffeepot. The finial is a bust of an oriental figure wearing a coolie hat and sporting a long braid. This depiction seems more Chinese than Japanese and recalls the finials on Western teapots in the chinoiserie style of the mid-nineteenth century.

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The other 2 figural motifs on the coffeepot wear hats which suggest China as well. All 3 figures exhibit a stereotypical and exaggerated shape to the eyes, an exaggeration which is grounded in Western (supposed) superiority to the Other and the actual practice of imperialism and the academic discipline of Orientalism.

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Despite its conglomeration of motifs and styles, I like this humble silverplate coffeepot. Its quirkiness appeals to me. And, indeed, the bringing together of disparate elements is at times indicative of the aesthetic style of the 1870’s and 1880’s. And although it does not have the sophistication of Gorham’s Japanese pattern, it attests to the way in which elite styles are often distilled into more popular, more inexpensive items for a mass market. The original owner of the coffeepot purchased it in part to participate in the style and fashion of their time, to be a player in the growing consumer culture of capitalism. And for me this coffeepot emanates this original desire, just as I imbue it with my own desire when I use it to serve coffee. It has a literal and figurative patina of history. It is imbued with a moment of the past that is not just the relentless march of capitalism, but I hope the love and desire of its original owner.

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