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Breathtaking works by the royal silversmith to the Maharaos of Kutch for sale at Bonhams
A silver-gilt presentation trophy, also included in the October sale, would have been commissioned for this very purpose. It is said to have been presented to Lady Wynford by the Maharao. It was also, until recently, in the private collection of Wynyard Wilkinson, the renowned colonial silver historian. Photo: Bonhams.
LONDON.- A pear shaped claret jug, with a serpent curled around its handle – going under the hammer at Bonhams Islamic and Indian Art auction on October 2nd - is causing a stir amongst collectors of Indian silver.

Made in the last decade of the nineteenth century it comes from the workshop of Oomersi Mawji, royal silversmith to the Maharaos of Kutch and perhaps the most well-known silversmith of his time. The jug is one of ten stunning silver works estimated to sell for £40,000 to £70,000 in total. Prices range from £1,000 -£1,500 and £15,000 to £20,000.

The base of the jug bears the stamp – ‘O.M. BHUJ’. Profusely decorated with animals and birds amidst elegant scrolling foliage, it has a lion crushing a hare on its lid and a snake being charmed up a branch by a snake-charmer as its handle. It would, almost certainly, have found pride of place on the mantelpiece of a British East India Company official.

This claret jug exemplifies Oomersi Mawji’s best work. With its distinctive snake handle, it belongs to a small group of which a similar example sold for £21,600 in these salerooms at Bonhams in 2009.

Alice Bailey, Head of Bonhams Indian and Islamic Department, comments: "This ewer is a stunning example of O.M. craftsmanship at his best. Another O.M. work of similar top quality was recently acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia and is currently on display. This presents a rare opportunity to collect an outstanding piece by the most celebrated Indian silversmith"

The history of Indian silver before the end of the 18th century is difficult to document because of the traditional Indian attitude towards metalwork – melting down the old to replace with the new. As a result, relatively few pre-19th century pieces have survived. Under the British East India Company, Indian silversmiths continued a tradition that had been established by Europeans in the Presidency towns of Madras and Calcutta. European forms were commissioned to fulfil European requirements – tea services, coffee pots, claret jugs, wine decanters, salt cellars and pepper pots, dishes and salvers.

The Government of India Act in 1858 brought an end to the rule of the Company with all control transferred to the British Crown. This was the beginning of the Raj and also the final period of British influence in India. By the 1860s Indian silversmiths had adopted a new and unique manner of decorating objects for European use. Reflecting a true confluence of styles, the form and function of Raj silver still catered to colonial taste and demand but its exterior surfaces now conspicuously displayed indigenous decorative motifs. Consumer taste seemed to echo the shift in power. At the same time, traditional forms of Indian silver, which had been made for centuries, continued. Princely rulers were still commissioning attar-daans (perfume containers), paan-daans (betel containers), gulab-pash (rosewater sprinklers) and hookahs (water pipes).

Besides personal use, there was a high demand for Raj silver to be presented as gifts and trophies for the British in India. An enormous effort was made by the Maharaos of Kutch to support the silversmiths’ trade and create awareness of their craftsmanship. Kutchi silverware was presented to dignitaries on ceremonial occasions. A silver-gilt presentation trophy, also included in the October sale, would have been commissioned for this very purpose. It is said to have been presented to Lady Wynford by the Maharao. It was also, until recently, in the private collection of Wynyard Wilkinson, the renowned colonial silver historian.

The second half of the 19th century witnessed a high foreign demand for Indian luxury goods. Indian silver was included in several international exhibitions. Europe’s first exposure to Indian art and design was at the Great Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 which included a display of Indian textiles, jewellery, carpets and silver.

The English architect, Owen Jones, was employed as one of the Superintendent of Works for the Great Exhibition. In his hugely influential design sourcebook, ‘The Grammar of Ornament’, Jones wrote, “The Exhibition... was barely opened to the public ere attention was directed to the gorgeous contributions of India.” The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1878 played a significant role in bringing Indian silvermithing and weaponry to a truly international audience.



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