David Owens is the author of Burmese Silver Art: Masterpieces Illuminating Buddhist, Hindu and Mythological Stories of Purpose and Wisdom, published by Marshall Cavendish Editions (2020). A British-Canadian citizen now resident in Singapore, David’s career has included living and working in Southeast and East Asia for 25 years. Keenly interested in all aspects of Asian history, culture and art, he has also been a frequent visitor to Burma (Myanmar), and so developed his passion for Burmese silver. This interest has lead him to write the first major book to have been published on Burmese silver, anywhere.
How did you become interested in Burmese silver?
My interest began by chance. I accompanied my wife on a visit to an art gallery in Singapore to view Thai textiles and serendipity intervened. The gallery also displayed a small collection of mesmerizing Burmese silverwork and this hitherto unknown genre of silverwork immediately captivated my full interest. In fact, the day’s mission to view the Thai textiles was quickly abandoned in favour of learning more about the Burmese silverwork. However, I should mention some relevant historical context. I was in fact already attracted to the history and culture of Myanmar based on frequent visits over many years and friendships with émigré Burmese in Canada.
What was the very first piece of Burmese silver you acquired and what were the circumstances?
The first piece I bought was a quintessential Burmese ceremonial offering bowl in the general shape of an alms bowl carried by Buddhist monks. It was purchased on the same day I discovered Burmese silver art in the Singaporean gallery. After handling the tactile bowl and discovering the ‘strange’ decorative narratives, I was intrigued and very curious. This was the cue for my collector’s instinct to come to life and the bowl was purchased with little further ado.
Have you always been a collector? Did you collect things as a boy?
Unequivocally yes, but never is a manic way. As a young boy in England I first collected small photo cards featuring wild animals that were tucked into food packages for marketing purposes. Then I advanced to ‘conkers’ from the horse chestnut tree, ‘Matchbox’ and ‘Dinkey’ model cars, ‘Swopitt’ soldiers and James Bond cards featuring scenes from the film Thunderball. Finally, I matured to postage stamps at the age of ten. Soon thereafter I became a focused ‘train spotter’ – a curios hobby dedicated to collecting locomotive numbers. In adult life I collected mineral specimens during my career in the mining industry and, throughout my life, I have accumulated and disposed of several book collections. The Burmese silverwork featured in the book is undoubtedly the grand fulfillment of my predilection to collect.
Do you have any theories about why some people collect and others don’t?
Perhaps collecting at heart is a primeval survival instinct that resides in us all to a greater or lesser extent. On the individual level, I suspect natural curiosity and passion in the blood are two essential personality traits found in all collectors. Also, I believe all collecting is strangely and deeply fulfilling to the psyche, although, regrettably, we are not all blessed with this aspect of human nature.
Has it become more difficult to acquire Burmese silver?
The two most important sources for purchasing old Burmese silverwork are galleries in southeast Asia that have acquired many pieces from private owners in Myanmar, and galleries in the UK which commonly trade pieces that were originally purchased by the British serving or working in Burma during the colonial period. The highest quality pieces by master silversmiths are now rarely offered for sale. Good quality silverwork is still found in galleries in southeast Asia and London, although supply has declined in recent years. Burmese silversmiths typically crafted individual pieces on demand or for competitions. There is no record of a commercial silver export business in Burma and therefore the total amount of silverwork made in the period between the mid-19th to the early 20th century is more limited compared to the larger volumes made in China, India and other southeast Asian countries during the same period.
Is Burmese silver represented well in any museums/ Which would you recommend visiting to see Burmese silver?
There are excellent displays of Pyu era (c. 5th century BCE) Burmese silverwork in the National Museum of Myanmar in Yangon and Naypyitaw, and in the Sri Ksetra Museum in Pyay. A small number of high-quality silver artefacts from the mid-19th to 20th century is also exhibited in the National Museum in Yangon. A larger and more representative collection of silverwork from this period is found in the ‘Ancestors and Rituals’ gallery in the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore.
The impressive ‘Silver Gallery’ in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London displays several high-quality artefacts from the early 20th century, including a magnificent centrepiece by the acclaimed silversmith Maung Yin Maung. There are also several fine pieces of Burmese silverwork sadly archived in the museum’s Olympia storage facility in London. In Munich, Germany, the Five Continents Museum ( Museum Fünf Kontinente) has a significant collection of Burmese art, including some representative pieces of silverwork from the 19th to 20th century.
Other than these museums, I am not aware of other noteworthy public displays of Burmese silverwork, although my knowledge in this matter is geographically limited to Asia and London. However, research indicates that few international museums with significant Asian art collections exhibit Burmese silverwork, although Burmese textiles, lacquerware, woodwork and Buddha images are studied and well exhibited. Why Burmese silverwork is not more widely acknowledged as important to the cultural and artistic history of Burma is perhaps a good subject for discussion.
Are there any controversies when it comes to Burmese silver?
In my experience the generic ‘controversy’ over provenance is the most common issue for old Burmese silverwork. And, in this regard, it is a ‘controversy’ common to silverwork from other Asian countries. Strong provenance can only be established for a small proportion of old Burmese silverwork. This is due to several factors; Buddhist strictures discouraged silversmiths from signing their work, Burma never established an official hallmarking system, no workshop records survive and contemporary literature on silverwork is limited to two Monographs published in 1902 and 1904. Furthermore, modern reproductions of the historical forms and decorative styles need to be differentiated from the work of the mid-19th to early 20th centuries.
However, notwithstanding these provenance challenges most artefacts provide enough evidence to establish general provenance beyond reasonable doubt. This evidence can include inscribed completion dates, the silversmith’s name or initials and the location of the silver workshop. In conjunction with this evidence, a methodical evaluation of the technical and artistic quality of the artefact often provides critical provenance information. For example, much of the ‘modern’ reproduction silverwork lacks the artistic finesse and technical quality of the earlier work spanning the turn of the 19th century.
Of what aspect of the book are you proudest?
Chapter 4 in the book is titled ‘Understanding the Decorative Narratives’. This chapter illustrates and interprets the exquisitely crafted, storyboard-like visual narratives that decorate most old Burmese silverwork. These allegorical Buddhist, Hindu and mythological narratives define Burmese silverwork and enrich the artefact with spiritual value. All these stories were unknown to me when I purchased the first ceremonial offering bowl decorated with scenes from the Buddhist Sama Jataka. Now I realize that it is imperative to recognize and understand the narratives to fully appreciate the unique quality of Burmese silver art. So, if there is one aspect of the book that engenders some pride, it is the presentation of an inspiring collection of ancient narratives, especially since the ethical threads running through many of these stories still resonate to this day.
Understanding the decorative narratives on the silverwork is an important theme in the book. Do you have a favourite narrative?
I like the Patacara poem for its emotional drama and the exceptional artistic quality of the decorative scenes by the master silversmith Maung She Yon. However, the story of the wise sage Vidhura-Pandita story is perhaps my favoured narrative for two reasons. One, it is a Jataka tale that teaches the essential moral value of truth. And two, it is a high drama story incorporating elements of young love, misunderstood language, a supernatural horse, high-stakes gambling, abduction, attempted murder, reconciliation and, finally, the revelation of truth. Also, Punnaka’s supernatural horse is a wonderful subject for the silversmiths to demonstrate their artistic and technical high-relief repoussé skills.
Who should buy your book? Did you have a target reader in mind when you were writing it?
The primary motivation to write Burmese Silver Art was to raise general awareness and appreciation of an alluring and aesthetic genre of silverwork. Therefore, the comprehensive content and highly illustrated style of the book are designed to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of readers. This spectrum ranges from anyone interested in the general culture and art of Burma, through private silverwork collectors and Burmese country specialists, to the owners and curators of Asian art collections in museums and galleries worldwide. And I hope the book also appeals to curious readers to whom Burmese silverwork is an unknown genre of art waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.
What was the most difficult part in putting the book together?
The biggest challenge to delivering a book that fulfilled the parameters I’d set for the book was finding a photographer in Singapore with the proven skill to create superb artistic photo images of the silver artefacts. Silver photography is not an easy task. The metal is notoriously difficult to photograph due to its monochrome colour palette and the constant ‘battle’ to avoid the reflection of light and other close objects. Charlie Lim was a godsend and only ‘discovered’ after several disappointments with journeymen photographers and many online searches for a true artist-photographer. I think the quality of the images in the book testify to Charlie’s special skills.
What do you feel your book adds to the stock knowledge in this area?
Burmese Silver Art is the first book exclusively about Burmese silverwork. The only other known work dedicated to the subject were Monographs by Harry Tilly published in 1902 and 1904. There are other descriptions and references to Burmese silverwork in books published in the latter half of the 20th century, although these are within chapters or sub-sections of books describing regional Asian art and silverwork from neighbouring India. So, the ‘big-picture’ answer to this question is that Burmese Silver Art makes available for the first time ever a comprehensive and fully illustrated reference work on silverwork from Burma.
A more specific answer to the question is related to a critical objective of the book – to provide a more detailed understanding of one rather special characteristic of Burmese silverwork that is not generally well understood or appreciated. That characteristic is the historical source, significance and spiritual meaning of the complex decorative narratives. These have been described and illustrated in detail in Burmese Silver Art and I hope this refreshed knowledge allows the readers to value in full the artistic and cultural significance of Burmese silverwork.
What advice would you give to other aspiring authors waiting to write in the field of world arts?
I am not so qualified to answer this question since Burmese Silver Art is my first book and it was only recently published. Reviews and sales are still unknown and no doubt any future advice to aspiring authors will be shaped to a degree by the success or otherwise of this book. Having offered that caveat, it should not be a surprise that I would offer this clichéd advice – the visual arts are by definition a visual experience and the use of high quality photos in an art book can do much more than words to bring the beauty and detail of the art to life for the reader, and, hopefully, generate more acclaim for the book.
And, by way of comment rather than advice, I soon realized that business and design managers at the publisher were critical to the successful and painless realization of my expectations for the book. I was fortunate to work with two managers at Marshall Cavendish in Singapore who empathized with my publishing dreams and nurtured the book throughout the publishing process. So, to the extent it is possible, I would advise aspiring new authors to take this empathy factor into account when choosing a publisher. Finally, and perhaps it goes without saying, if you aspire to writing a specialized art book consider the effort a ‘labour of love’ and find your fulfillment in the meritorious achievement of becoming a new published author and sharing knowledge and passion with your readers.