“Master Silversmiths (c 1880–1910)”: excerpt from “Burmese Silver Art”

Offering Bowl, c. 1880; 
Maung Shwe Yon, Lower Burma, Patacara Therigatha Offering Bowl, c. 1880; Maung Shwe Yon, Lower Burma, Patacara Therigatha

Maung Shwe Yon was a highly acclaimed 19th-century master silversmith from Rangoon. Harry L Tilly, the aforementioned British expert on Burmese art, was effusive in his praise for Maung Shwe Yon. He described one of his pierced bowls as ‘the best example of this kind of work ever produced’ in his 1902 monograph, The Silverwork of Burma. The Patacara offering bowl (above) dated c. 1880 is a sublime example of his exceptional mastery of form, composition and the rare ability to imbue human faces with the suggestion of personality and emotion. The bowl is inscribed on the underside with the silversmith’s initials, ‘M.S.Y.’, and a seated deer motif inside a 16-point star—the unofficial trademark of Maung Shwe Yon.


Burmese Silver Art: Masterpieces Illuminating Buddhist, Hindu and Mythological Stories of Purpose and Wisdom, David C Owens (Marshall Cavendish, July 2020)
Burmese Silver Art: Masterpieces Illuminating Buddhist, Hindu and Mythological Stories of Purpose and Wisdom, David C Owens (Marshall Cavendish, July 2020)
Excerpted with permission from Burmese Silver Art: Masterpieces Illuminating Buddhist, Hindu and Mythological Stories of Purpose and Wisdom by David C Owens

Tilly records that Maung Shwe Yon died in 1889 shortly after finishing a magnificent trophy for the headquarters’ mess of the Corps of Royal Engineers in Chatham, England. This one-metre-high trophy commemorated the active service of the Royal Engineers in Burma from 1885 to 1887. It was presented to the Corps by Major General Sir H. Prendergast, the commander-in-chief of British forces during the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885).

Maung Shwe Yon’s three sons—Maung Shwe Bin, Maung Thu Hlaing and Maung Yin Maung—were all accomplished silversmiths. After the death of their father in 1889 they formed a commercial enterprise named MSY Bros on Godwin Road, Rangoon. This prestigious enterprise, also known as Mg Shwe Yon Bros after about 1899, was famous for exceptional-quality work, and it consequently served the political, military and business elites of Rangoon. Surviving work by the company includes presentation, trophy and collectible silverwork.

Left: Offering Bowl, 1896; MSY Bros, Lower Burma, Canda-Kinnara Jataka: ‘Presented to the officers, 74th Fd. By. Royal Artillery, by Major G.P. Owen, R.A. Jany 1891-Decr 1896’; Right: Offering Bowl, 1899, Mg Shwe Yon Bros, Lower Burma, Ramayana, ‘To Mr. and Mrs. Robert Simpson on October 4th 1899. With hearty good wishes from Captain Sinclair M.P. Lord Pentland Secretary for Scotland’
Left: Offering Bowl, 1896; MSY Bros, Lower Burma, Canda-Kinnara Jataka: ‘Presented to the officers, 74th Fd. By. Royal Artillery, by Major G.P. Owen, R.A. Jany 1891-Decr 1896’; Right: Offering Bowl, 1899, Mg Shwe Yon Bros, Lower Burma, Ramayana, ‘To Mr. and Mrs. Robert Simpson on October 4th 1899. With hearty good wishes from Captain Sinclair M.P. Lord Pentland Secretary for Scotland’

The offering bowls (above) are examples of the company’s finest presentation work. The rims of both bowls are inscribed with the names of the eminent donors and recipients. Robert Simpson was a celebrated maker of golf clubs and the club professional at Carnoustie, Scotland. The Simpson’s Carnoustie business continues to this day. Captain Sinclair M.P., Lord Pentland, Secretary for Scotland, was the donor. The exceptionally high-relief repoussé figures  create tensile forces that have weakened the strength and integrity of the silver over a long period, resulting in small tears and perforations in the bowl. This is not uncommon on old Burmese silverwork.

Maung Yin Maung is lauded as the finest Burmese silversmith of the early 20th century. He was imaginative, prolific and gifted with superb artistic and technical skills. H.L. Tilly praised his work more than any other master silversmith. His 1904 monograph features 13 photographic plates of the best contemporary Burmese silverwork, of which five illustrate the work of Maung Yin Maung. A significant number of high-quality pieces by Maung Yin Maung survive today because they were originally taken to Britain during the colonial period and held in private family collections. In recent years, a number of these pieces have been offered for sale by London art galleries and auction houses.

Maung Yin Maung marketing documents, c. 1905, Photo: Gilles de Flogny, France
Maung Yin Maung marketing documents, c. 1905, Photo: Gilles de Flogny, France

Maung Yin Maung was also an astute businessman. Above are professional-quality pamphlets used to advertise and illustrate his work in English. The language of the advertisement is representative of a bygone and more polite age: ‘The terms are as moderate as they can be consistently with the high and artistic quality of the workmanship. Mofussil orders will be attended to carefully and promptly.’

Silverwork for sale by Maung Yin Maung, c. 1905 Photo: Gilles de Flogny, France
Silverwork for sale by Maung Yin Maung, c. 1905 Photo: Gilles de Flogny, France

A wide range of traditional Burmese artefacts are sketched on the busy illustration of Maung Yin Maung’s work (Fig. 3.33). It is not recorded if he worked alone or with the support of other silversmiths and apprentices. Evidence suggests that Maung Yin Maung did produce anonymous work. Silverwork inscribed with the Mg Shwe Yon Bros company name is commonly unsigned by the silversmith.

 

Portrait of Maung Yin Maung, c. 1904; From H.L. Tilly (1904)
Portrait of Maung Yin Maung, c. 1904; From H.L. Tilly (1904)

Left is a fine old photographic image of Maung Yin Maung. It is a detail from a group photograph of eight Burmese master silversmiths taken by the German photographer P. Klein and was first published in Tilly’s 1904 monograph, Modern Burmese Silverwork. Maung Yin Maung appears as an artist in the prime of his life and career. He is proudly wearing a medal that may be the Gold Medal won for his silver table centrepiece at the 1903 Indian Art Exhibition in Delhi.

The offering bowl below left is a glorious example of aesthetic Burmese silver art. Its form is elegant and wonderfully proportioned, the composition of the different decorative elements is harmonious and, above all, the artistry and fidelity of the repoussé and chasing work are peerless. Each of the six attractively framed vignettes portrays a narrative episode from the early life of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, from his conception to his first meditation. This exceptional-quality bowl has been attributed to the master silversmith Maung Yin Maung based on the workmanship quality, signature decorative style and remarkably close resemblance to a signed bowl by the silversmith that was exhibited at the 1911 Indian and Colonial Exhibition (below right). Both bowls feature a distinctive kala face motif between the vignettes and near-identical ornamentation in the style of twisted silver fillet bands wrapping around the kala face and arching over the narrative scene.

Left: Offering Bowl (S43), c. 1905, Maung Yin Maung (attributed); Right: Offering bowl by Maung Yin Maung, c. 1911, Photo: Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers England
Left: Offering Bowl, c. 1905, Maung Yin Maung (attributed), Lower Burma, Early life of the Buddha; Right: Offering bowl by Maung Yin Maung, c. 1911, Photo: Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers England
Left: Centrepiece Betel Box (S149), c. 1905, Maung Yin Maung (attributed), Lower Burma, Sama Jataka; Right: Centrepiece betel box by Maung Yin Maung, 1904, From H.L. Tilly (1904)
Left: Centrepiece Betel Box, c. 1905, Maung Yin Maung (attributed), Lower Burma, Sama Jataka; Right: Centrepiece betel box by Maung Yin Maung, 1904, From H.L. Tilly (1904)

Above left is an ornate betel box that showcases all the skills and attributes of a master silversmith, including bold artistic imagination, a flair for exuberant style, a full repertoire of technical skills and the passion to create extraordinary silverwork. The artist who created this betel box did not sign his work. However, a photograph of a betel box with a remarkably similar design and style (above right) occupies a full page in Tilly’s Modern Burmese Silverwork. This piece shared first prize for a betel box at the 1904 Rangoon Arts and Craft competition. Tilly comments on this event in his inimitable style:

 

The prize was offered for the best betel box made by a master of a shop himself … In each design the box itself is a very creditable piece of work and in each the stand is inadequate and neither can be carried about without hurting the fingers. … the last thing of which the modern Burmese silversmith thinks is the adaptability of the object to its use.

 

This might be sarcasm or a genuine criticism of the utility of the boxes. The silversmith who made the betel box was Maung Yin Maung.

The near identical size, design and quality of the betel box on the left compared to the piece by Maung Yin Maung leads to the conjecture that it is either a template or a copy of Maung Yin Maung’s prize-winning work. It may also be a copy made by another equally gifted and anonymous silversmith for commercial rather than competitive reasons. There are many specific design similarities between the two betel boxes, including the four double-pairs of protruding, vertical silver ribs that divide the friction lid, cylindrical box and pedestal stand into four separate decorative sections. The profile of these unique ribs is triangular in the box and flat on the lid and stand. They appear to have been soldered to the betel box before the ornamentation was added. Another similarity is the scalloped design and sharply serrated edges of the pedestal and the form, but not the subject, of the finial. The four talon-like pedestal feet are absent on the Maung Yin Maung betel box.

There is evidence that Maung Yin Maung reproduced close versions of his prize-winning work. His grand, almost ostentatious, centrepiece currently exhibited in the Silver Room of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is similar in size and style to his famous centrepiece that won the Gold Medal at the 1903 Indian Art Exhibition in Delhi. Furthermore, the reproduction of acclaimed and commercially successful work is not uncommon in the world of visual art.

n107_newThe figure above shows the exquisite decoration on the surface of the pedestal stand, which is only revealed when the cylindrical box is removed. This fine attention to ‘hidden’ detail differentiates the work of the finest prize-winning silversmiths from other highly gifted but less inspired silversmiths.

 

Offering Bowl (S141), 1905, Maung Yin Maung, Lower Burma Jataka, ‘Maung Yin Maung Master Silversmith, 29 Godwin Road, Rangoon Burma 1905’
Offering Bowl, 1905, Maung Yin Maung, Lower Burma, Jataka, ‘Maung Yin Maung Master Silversmith, 29 Godwin Road, Rangoon Burma 1905’

Maung Yin Maung did not craft only virtuoso and prize-winning silverwork. A small, delicately pierced and delightfully proportioned bowl (above) is an example of his more commonplace work. An inscription on the underside identifies the silversmith by name, his Rangoon address and the date of completion. The lower price of these smaller pieces no doubt attracted more sales compared to his more prodigious and exceptional work.

Left: Offering Bowl (S138), c. 1905, Mg Shwe Yon Bros, Lower Burma, Mahajanaka Jataka, ‘Mg. Shwe Yon Bros.’; Right: Offering Bowl (S139), c. 1905, Mg Shwe Yon Bros, Lower Burma, Jataka, ‘Mg. Shwe Yon Bros.’
Offering Bowls, c. 1905, Mg Shwe Yon Bros, Lower Burma, Mahajanaka Jataka, ‘Mg. Shwe Yon Bros.’

The small bowls above were made by Mg Shwe Yon Bros. The similar size, form, decorative style and high quality of the two bowls suggest they were both made by the same silversmith, perhaps Maung Yin Maung himself or another under his supervision in the company workshop. Unfortunately, no corporate records or catalogues from Mg Shwe Yon Bros are known to exist, although there may be traces of the company’s history buried deep in British colonial or Burmese archives that have yet to be found.

Left: Portrait of Maung Po Kin, From H.L Tilly (1904); Right: Centrepiece by Maung Po Kin, 1904. From H.L. Tilly (1904)
Left: Portrait of Maung Po Kin, From H.L Tilly (1904); Right: Centrepiece by Maung Po Kin, 1904. From H.L. Tilly (1904)

Maung Po Kin belonged to the remarkable generation of gifted Burmese silversmiths who created exceptional work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He sits in the front row of the classic 1904 group photograph of eight acclaimed master silversmiths. The medal worn on his chest is perhaps the First Prize with Silver Medal awarded to him at the 1903 Indian Art Exhibition in Delhi for the best silver bowl (Fig. 3.45). This large, ceremonial receptacle is in the form used at the Konbaung court before 1885 for carrying rice or other food offered to a monk or a pagoda.

Offering Bowl, 1853 Lower Burma, Sama Jataka, ‘1215, 7th July. Mr Lon Thar’s silver bowl’
Offering Bowl, 1853 Lower Burma, Sama Jataka, ‘1215, 7th July. Mr Lon Thar’s silver bowl’

The figure left illustrates an offering bowl by Maung Po Kin, which is decorated in his characteristic ‘tapestry’ style. The narrative flows around the bowl unconstrained by sharply defined frames and the only demarcation of individual scenes is provided by the silversmith’s insertion of trees and other natural motifs. This style of decoration is more a feature of early 20th-century silverwork. The two small bowls by the Mg Shwe Yon Bros company (above) are decorated in this style.


The Noble Silver Collection, assembled by David C Owens and his wife Kathleen over eight years, is the largest-known single collection of work from the Burmese Silver Age. He is the author of Burmese Silver Art (Marshall Cavendish).