A Magnificent Chinese ‘Imperial Tribute’ Dress Sword of European Design
Guangzhou (Canton), Circa 1795
Total Length 98.5 cm (2 ft 3 ¾ in.)
Total Width of Handle 11.5 cm (4 ½ in.)
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The tapering partly-blued steel blade with engraved gold foil Chinese and Western-style motifs including prunus sprays, a crown, a military trophy, Britannia, and the coat of arms of the British Monarchy including the mottos Honni Soit Qui Mal Y Pense and Dieu et Mon Droit, with a spurious maker’s signature Gill’s warranted, the hilt composed of a lobed gilt-bronze guard, grip, scrolling quillons, C-shaped handle and pommel decorated overall with chased gadrooning and bellflowers and polychrome paste ornament, the sheath richly decorated with gold foil ornaments of musical trophies on a royal blue basse taille enamel ground the three gilt bronze mounts chased with foliate scrolls and inset with rich multicoloured paste ornament.
This exceptional piece is one of the rarest of all Chinese art objects derived from a Western model. The Qing Dynasty court had always been open to European influences in the decorative arts, initially in furniture and ceramic design and later in metalwork including watches, snuff boxes, and most importantly elaborate cases for clocks and automata influenced by models imported in large quantities from England in the second half of the eighteenth century. To date, however, this is the only recorded example of a dress-sword manufactured in China based entirely on elements of European design. It is typical of the finest products of the Canton workshops manufactured for presentation to the imperial court in Beijing. Similar ornament and decorative techniques can be found on a number of the European style clocks made in Canton as tribute to the Qianlong emperor. Two examples employing a combination of enamels, glass jewels and gilt bronze are in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Tributes from the Guangdong to the Qing Court, exhibition catalogue, Chinese University of Hong Kong (April 1987), nos.82, and 84, and a further clock, also from the Palace Museum with a blue enamel ground and applied gold leaf foliate sprays similar to those on the scabbard is illustrated in Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800, exhibition catalogue, London, Victoria & Albert Museum (2004), p.302 fig.23.5. The only related piece of Chinese-produced weaponry is a dagger made for the Imperial Court still in the Palace Museum and similarly decorated with basse taille enamels and inlaid gems, illustrated in The Complete Collection of the Treasures of the Palace Museum. Treasures of the Imperial Court (Hong Kong 2004), pl.164.
By the middle of the 18th century the European sword had become less important as a defensive weapon and more of a costume accessory, denoting the status and wealth of its bearer. As such the manufacture of ceremonial court or ‘dress’ swords was increasingly entrusted to goldsmiths and jewelers, who decorated the hilts and scabbards with gilding, precious stones and fine enameling. There can be little doubt that the Chinese artisans who produced this sword were in possession of precisely such a sword of English manufacture with a Gill’s warranted blade. Thomas Gill was established in Birmingham by 1772 but the signature ‘Gill’s Warranted’ appears to have been first used in 1788 in response to a survey by the British Board of ordnance, which had questioned the quality of British swords. A blued and gilt dress-sword blade by Gill is clearly the primary source for the decoration of the present blade and given the overall style of the sword it is reasonable to suppose that the present piece was made between the late 1780’s and mid -1790’s.
Intriguingly, it was Gill who in 1792 supplied the dress sword carried by George, Earl Macartney (1737-1806) during his celebrated Embassy to China in 1792-4 (the first official diplomatic visit from an English crown representative to the Chinese Court). This unusual piece (now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London), consciously designed in a Chinese manner with a gilt metal hilt simulating lacquer, chased with oriental-style scrolls and bound with plaited silk cord in the Chinese fashion, has a steel blade etched with European and Asian motifs and symbols of commerce, and is engraved with Gill’s standard signature.
The rich late-rococo decoration on the handle, guard and grip of the present sword is close in design to that on the hilt of an English dress-sword thought to have belonged to Admiral Charles Middleton, 1st Baron Barham and made in about 1757 (London, Victoria & Albert Museum). In gilt bronze and coloured glass, typical of the Canton workshops, instead of the silver gilt, diamonds emeralds and rubies of the V & A sword, the treatment of the guard with husks set in gadroons and the spiral ornament on the grip are very similar.
The brilliant high-fired basse-taille enamel decoration of the scabbard, in combination with the gilt bronze and paste decoration, is another feature of the finest Cantonese work. This particular enameling technique, introduced into China from Europe towards the end of the 18th century, was typically used on tribute items presented to the imperial court. It consists of preparing a textured silvered ground designed to show through the translucent enamel, the reflected light lending the enamel a particular brilliance. It is used here in imitation of the decoration of English dress-sword scabbards produced from the 1770’s onwards, particularly by James Cox, whose work in other fields was assiduously copied in Canton in the late 18th century.
All the decorative elements in the sword betray a typically Chinese re-interpretation of their European source. The scrolling foliage ornament on the scabbard mounts pays lip service to European precedent but is also closely related to traditional Chinese scrollwork found in all media from the 16th century onwards. These gilt-bronze mounts are similar to the foliate scroll mounts on the sheath of a Qianlong sword made for the Emperor and now in the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795, exhibition catalogue, London, Royal Academy of Arts 2005, no.70 p.168). The gilt scrollwork on the blade and trophies on the scabbard show an idiomatic Chinese interpretation of European motifs. The leaf-gilt musical trophies are composed of hybrid Chinese-European instruments. The Gill signature, the royal motto (Dieu et Mon Droit) and the motto of the Order of the Garter (Honni Soit Qui Mal y Pense) all indicate an engraver ill-at-ease with Roman script.
Canton had always been the principal Chinese centre of European trade since the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, a status affirmed by the Kangxi Emperor and codified by an Imperial Decree in 1760 that restricted the six European East India Companies to trading exclusively in Canton with designated local Hong merchants. Foreigners were only allowed to reside in Canton during the trading season and were limited to a harbour zone outside the city walls known as the ‘Thirteen Factories’, and it was here that Chinese-run workshops were set up producing furniture, porcelain, metalwork and ivory objects based on or directly copying imported Western examples. Such goods were manufactured both for domestic consumption, as the Hong merchants were increasingly intrigued by European design for their own interiors and to sell to wealthy Chinese, as well as for export not only to the West but also to Europeans living in Southeast Asia, India, Ceylon and the Dutch East Indies (see Encounters, p.222-34 and p.256-261). The sumptuous quality of this particular sword indicates that it was produced in one of the workshops that specialized in furnishing tribute pieces for the imperial court.
Both the Qianlong Emperor and his grandfather the Kangxi Emperor were keen collectors of swords, which were manufactured in large quantities in the Palace workshops for use as gifts or ceremonial regalia. The Qianlong Emperor also possessed a keen interest in exotic European decorative arts that culminated in one of China’s most important 18th-century architectural projects, the expansion of the old Summer Palace and Gardens (Yuanming yuan) outside Beijing, to include a European-style palace and gardens complete with folies based on designs by the Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist. Completed by 1783, the complex combined Western and Chinese architectural elements and incorporated interiors with Rococo ornamentation, European-inspired furniture and Beauvais tapestries presented by the Jesuit missionaries.
Unfortunately the palace was looted and burned by French and English troops during the Opium War in 1860, and the exact content of its interiors can never be known. Many of the European-style Chinese treasures now in western museums and private collections come from this source.