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Rare scene showing Canton waterfront




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There were many high quality sets of armorial counters produced for some of the most influential families of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: but this set stands out. The counters are in the large size (round diameter 1 11/16 inches) and they are made from top-quality mother-of-pearl. The set has the Elphinstone crest of a lady from the waist upwards holding in her left hand a laurel branch and in her right a tower; the Latin motto is Cause Causit (Cause caused it). There is a key-fret border to the front with an unusual reverse border of well-drawn flower scrolls to the reverse and the key-fret border suggests a date of 1790.

The Elphinstone family was indeed  one of the most prominent of the time and one with very strong links to the East India Company and to India in particular. Mounstuart Elphinstone was Governor of Bombay; Lord John Elphinstone held the same post. Major-General William George Keith Elphinstone led his troops in the first Afghan war and was in command of the garrison in Kabul (4,500 troops and 12,000 civilians) ; it is reported that he was unfortunately totally incompetent and led a disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. Other possible owners were Charles, 10 th. Lord Elphinstone or his son John, 11th.Lord or even his brother, William Fullerton-Elphinstone who was a director of the East India Company. Several Chinese armorial porcelain services were ordered at around this time for the family - but D.S.Howard (Chinese Armorial Porcelain) does not specify who they were made for.

The counters all display the very best of artwork in the scenes and would suggest that one of the finest artists in Cantton was given the task of decorating them. There are counters with four people in the scenes - an indication of a special set- and one with five. But there is one scene which is truly exceptional: the one which shows four men - two in European costume- among buildings. The two men on the left are standing near a flag which on close inspection is the flag of the East India Company with horizontal red and white stripes and the Union flag in the corner.  And they are standing in front of a European-style buildin: this is clearly a representation of the British hong in Canton (the building where the British traders and captains had their offices, living qualrters and dining halls et.. The two people on the right are also not shown in typical Chinese dress-  and the building in front of which they are standing probably represents a church - with the cross on the roo. The two men could well be priests. This subject matter is extremely rare on a counter and could possibly be copied from a painting. It suggests that this set of gaming counters was a very special order indeed.


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