London auctioneers Chiswick Auctions conducted a white glove sale of a collection of Indian and Burmese silver recently, with the sale of the Stewart Collection of silver of the Raj period, the first of its kind, generating a £130,690 hammer total.
Silver of this type was admired across the world at the turn of the 20th century but it is only in recent decades that its reputation for exceptional design and craftsmanship has been revived with the publication of key reference works. This collection, inspired by items inherited from grandparents who were based in India and Ceylon in the early 1900s, was guided by Wynyard Wilkinson’s seminal book Indian Silver 1858-1947 that was published in 1999.
Topping the sale at an extraordinary £33,750, against an estimate of £800-£1200, was a three-piece tea service by Peter Orr and Sons – the greatest of the Madras makers.
As pictured in Wynyard Wilkinson’s Indian Silver 1858-1947, the design for this bachelor’s tea service, marked P Orr and Son Madras Silver, appears in a sales catalogue of c.1880. The bodies are embossed with the Jagannath procession at Puri with the handles formed as coiled serpents. The teapot features a cast and chased spout formed as the head of a mythical bird and the lid surmounted by a finial of Vishnu. In short, it combines a classic English form with the best of Indian ornament. However, it is evidence of the rising interest in the best colonial era silver that the same tea service had sold at Bonhams in September 2016 for £2500.
Another rare three-piece tea set was made in Lucknow c.1890 in the so-called ‘Sikh Vignette’ pattern. Embossed with multiple portrait busts of Sikh royals or military heroes, the teapot is applied with a caparisoned elephant finial. It sold for £4,250.
An early 20th century tea service made in Bombay c.1910 decorated with rows of animal cartouches, characteristically of this region the teapot had a curved spout and handle formed as elephant heads, sold for £2,125.
The contents of the sale covered all the major silversmithing centres of British India from prolific cites such as Lucknow to the little-known Trichinopoly. Chiswick Auctions’ specialist John Rogers described it as the most comprehensive collection of its type offered in recent memory. “As the only silver department to have a dedicated approach to non-European silver, presenting the Stewart collection with such success was a proud moment. I know of no other collection of Indian silver with such a holistic and thorough approach to ornamentation and design.”
Of all the silversmiths working in British India, one name stands out – Oomersi Mawji of Bhuj. “Working the silver with ingenious skill and patience, Oomersi Mawji and his sons raised the quality of decoration on Cutch silver to an art form” notes Wynyard Wilkinson.
An Oomersi Mawji baluster form teapot in the Stewart collection was expected to sell for £3,000-£5,000 and brought £9,375. Made around 1880, the whole surface is chased with a detailed design of plants and animals with a Black Francolin bird head forming the spout, a lizard the handle and a scorpion the finial.
John Rogers was delighted to subsequently welcome Oomersi Mawji’s great-great granddaughters to the saleroom to show them the piece and discuss the family’s great silversmithing legacy.
The Cutch region was the best known of India’s many regional silversmithing centres in the 19th century and is passionately collected today whether by Mawji or not, fine work such as an unmarked late 19th century rose water sprinkler (gulab pash) sold for £3,000 and a large unmarked claret jug with typical deep chased decoration of foliate scrolls and rosettes and a finial cast as a caparisoned elephant sold for £10,625.
Estimated at £800 – £1,200 another claret jug or ewer sold for £5,000. Adopting a classical form with a handle formed as a cobra and a snake charmer finial, it has a band of Swami pattern decoration incorporating scenes of nine Hindu deities riding their chosen beasts. Although it is stamped Bhicajee & Co, Bombay, Silver for the retailer that was on Apollo Bunder (now known as Wellington Pier), the work was characteristic of Bangalore.
Many of the forms created by Indian silversmiths mirrored those that were popular in Britain at the time although some were new or adapted for life in the subcontinent. These include milk and butter coolers that countered against the intense heat and covered vessels which kept flies at bay.
From the Kashmir region was a scarce mid to late 19th century butter dish on stand – a classic English form here modelled after a Kashmiri lacquered papier mâché turban box. It was estimated at £500-£800 but sold at £3,000.
The seller’s favourite lot was an early 20th century Karachi table casket by Soosania estimated at £600-£800 and sold at £1,250. Raised on lion paw feet, the lid is chased with a scene of a church with spire (probably Saint Andrew’s Church, Karachi) with two biplanes circling above. The two aircraft are curved much like birds in flight, a charming naivety that suggests the silversmith was unfamiliar with the new concept of powered flight.
Shortly after the sale, John Rogers received an email from one of the many bidders who had registered for the sale. “I just wanted to say congratulations on your sell-out sale of the Stewart Collection – it was a wonderful sale and must set a new benchmark. I am delighted to have secured a couple of lots, which I will add to those inherited from a family who spent over a hundred years in the Raj. It is just such a joy to see this type of silverwork celebrated by the market.”