A European-styled Sword from the Canton Workshops
From the beginning of the Qing Empire interest in foreign curiosities increased amongst the court and the demand for elaborately decorated luxury goods made in a European style escalated. The style and techniques employed for this lavish sword suggest it was produced in Guangzhou, a city that had considerable access to foreign material goods as it served as a main crossroads for foreign trade. The Guangzhou craftsmen were masters at adopting and adapting Western techniques into their repertoire to create pieces that captured a likeness of the original foreign goods. They were commissioned to create reproductions of Western products by the court who were impressed by the embellishments of the West, particularly in the metal-bodied enamelling techniques and the use of coloured glass-paste stones adorning rococo-styled products such as clocks, watches and mirrors. Therefore, objects crafted in Guangzhou often show a greater similarity to their European models than those made in the Palace Workshops while retaining the Chinese imperial aesthetic. This aesthetic is clearly evident in the present sword; although it closely follows in the style of English ceremonial swords of the 18th century the combination of European decorative motifs and techniques result in an exotic and unique piece firmly rooted in the opulent and eclectic style enjoyed by the Qing court.
Enamelling techniques developed in the West were introduced into China through Jesuit missionaries and tribute items made for the court. The attractive basse-taille technique of this scabbard is an enamelling technique that was introduced into China from Europe towards the end of the 18th century. This technique consists of applying transparent enamels onto a metal body that has been carved with patterns in relief or repousse. While low-fired wares were produced in several locations in China, this scabbard is an example of the spectacular high-fired variety that was only produced in Guangzhou. The combination of basse-taille enamels with inlaid coloured glass is unusual and rarely seen on Chinese weaponry; a unique dagger decorated with basse-taille enamels and inlaid gems on the handle and top of the blade, from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, is published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Treasures of Imperial Court, Hong Kong, 2004, pl. 164. Basse-taille enamels with glass on a gilt ground is seen on European-inspired clocks; see two included in the exhibition Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1987, cat. nos. 82 and 84.
This sword imitates British prototypes that were adorned with elaborate chasing and rococo motifs on the hilt typical of goldsmiths' work produced in the mid-eighteenth century in the German princely states; see an example in the British Museum, London, presented to the numismatist and long-serving Officer of Arms at the College of Arms in London, Stephen Martin Leake (1702-1773), by Adolphus Frederick, 4th Duke of Mecklenburg Strelitz (brother of Queen Charlotte) on the occasion of the Duke's investiture at Strelitz with the Order of the Garter. Such visually commanding British weaponry and badges depicting official motifs of the type adorning this sword are most likely to have been introduced to the court by the Macartney Embassy to China in 1792-94, the first British envoy to visit since 1685.
The motifs adorning this sword exemplify the Chinese interpretation of foreign ornamentation, which include the motto-inscribed garter of the most senior British Order of the Garter, the motto of the Kings of England (Dieu et mon droit), and the British crown. The liberal treatment of these designs, along with the inclusion of the name of an English blade manufacturer on a billowing scroll, is a combination that is not likely to have appeared on such illustrious British swords. The inscription 'Gill's warranted' takes after blades produced by Thomas Gill (1744-1801), a leading blade cutter of Birmingham, England, who sought to rival leading blades manufactured in continental Europe. Gill typically marked the back of his blade with the inscription, 'Tho. Gills, Warranted Never to Fail'. These were believed to have been for a yeomanry contract as many of these swords and scabbards were numbered.
The proliferation of Western styles, subjects and techniques in China is closely linked to one of the most spectacular architectural projects of the 18th and 19th centuries, the expansion of the Old Summer Palace, the Yuanming Yuan. One of these five complexes was the European style palace buildings, which was filled with furnishings and decorative items suitable to their Western-styled surroundings. It is most likely that weapons of a lavishly decorative nature of this type were also created to be appreciated within such surroundings.
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