Magnificent Oriental charger on display at Cragside

A truly magnificent Oriental charger is to be found on display in the Japanese Room at Cragside, once the grand Northumberland residence of Newcastle industrialist, shipbuilder and inventor William George Armstrong (later Lord Armstrong). Today, the house is in the care of The National Trust and is open to the public.

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Cragside, once the home of industrialist William Armstrong  Photo Paul Harris

The Japanese Room celebrates the achievements of William Armstrong (1810-1900) in opening up the Japanese market for his products and is dedicated to Yorisada Tokugawa, an uncle of the Empress of Japan and one of Armstrong’s most significant trading partners. The present Emperor of Japan visited Cragside in 1953 and his son, the present Crown Prince, in 1991.

It is said that half of the battleships successfully used by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War were built on the Tyne by Armstrongs’ shipbuilding yards.

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The Japanese Room at Cragside. Photo Paul Harris

A central feature of the room is an extremely large and very handsome blue and white charger depicting the various stages in the manufacture of porcelain. We stand to be corrected, but it seems to us this is rather a Chinese piece. In any case, it is a remarkable item in excellent condition. Chargers illustrative of the manufacture of porcelain are, of course, extremely rare.

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The very fine charger illustrative of the processes of porcelain manufacture

Yongzheng chicken bowl comes to light in Scotland


Sun Yumei’s daughter, Lucy, holds the Yongzheng chicken bowl for sale in Scotland

A rare Yongzheng chicken bowl has come to light in Scotland. Chinese Art in Scotland have been asked to sell the bowl by an anonymous collector, who is simply described as ‘a well known international film director’. No further information is to be given out as the owner who, it is understood, is very ill wishes to protect his identity at this sensitive time.

Genuine old chicken cups or bowls, correctly ascribed to their period, are in considerable demand these days. Most prized are 15h century Chenghua reign bowls and last year Shanghai collector Liu Yixian paid a record US$36.3m hammer for such an example.

Chicken cups have, of course, been much copied over the years and, even, Liu Yiqian has authorised copies of his own purchase at around $60 US.

“This is the crowning glory for collectors,” says Nicholas Chow, Sotheby’s Chinese ceramics expert.

The painting on the cup bought by Yixian is a naive, almost childish, coloured depiction of a rooster and a hen taking care of a young chick—a parable for Confucian virtues that extend to an emperor’s looking after his subjects. The simplicity is what makes this cup so desirable, said Mr. Chow, and the artist’s “impressionistic” style is atypical for that time.

But, as usual with Chinese porcelain, it is a case of caveat emptor. Mr. Chow says the chicken cups are the most-copied bowls in China, and even the Chenghua examples in museums have aroused suspicion. In a Sotheby’s catalogue essay about the chicken-cup sale, ceramics expert Regina Krahl has written that former Sotheby’s Chairman Julian Thompson had maintained that the two examples at the Palace Museum in Beijing were fakes.

The new discovery is not in perfect condition. There are signs of use and wear to the inside and hairline cracks visible to the base.

Chinese Art in Scotland director, Sun Yumei, says they are ‘completely satisfied’ with the authenticity of their chicken cup. ‘Everything about it is right: the translucence, the whiteness of the porcelain and its fragility. It is well painted in the doucai tradition and we are sure it is right.’ And what will be the price?

‘Understandably, it will not appear on our website ( There are a few parties possibly interested but, most likely, if it is not sold privately, it will eventually go to auction. Meantime, we shall enjoy having it around.’


Yongzheng mark to the base of the cup


Combing through China’s history . . .


Chinese ivory combs, like the ones illustrated here, were made for the Western market. Ivory work, primarily based in Canton (Guangdong), reached the apex of production between 1790 and 1850. Merchants and travellers typically brought home to Europe small items as souvenirs and gifts for family and friends. Additionally, an export  business gradually built up around small, decorative ivory pieces and combs (craved, fretted or pierced) became a part of this industry.

Ivory combs like these are crafted in the European style and would have been exported in substantial quantities to markets in the USA and Europe. Many of them were intricately carved and are evidence of considerable craftsmanship. Very often subjects of great Chinese symbolic importance were carved , like the dragon in the comb above. For Western purchasers such imagery was perfectly acceptable endorsing the credentials of the object as coming from the mysterious and exotic East.


These pictures are sourced from Barbaraaness Hair Comb blog. There is truly something for everybody on the net today, no matter how arcane your interest!


Is the age of the gallery over?

opinion hl

There are good reasons to suppose that art buying habits are changing. Private jets lined up on the runways and parking areas at Basel airport a few weeks ago were a very tangible manifestation. The high prices for the best of Chinese art at auction easily eclipse those in galleries: indeed, galleries are all too conscious that the buyers from China who pack the auction rooms do not, for the most part, ever find their way into commercial galleries.

The number of art shows internationally has snowballed in recent years. The European Fine Art Foundation’s report for 2015 says that there are now in excess of 180 international art fairs. There were just 55 in  the year 2000. The global market for works of art is now estimated to be worth US$68 billion, a rise of 7% year on year. Why then are galleries closing in, for example, London’s up-market Mayfair if the market is so buoyant?

There are some local factors at work in places like Cork Street, Mayfair. The traditional bases for London’s galleries are being bought up as part of the property explosion by developers who see no financial mileage in seeing their expensively revamped properties let out to modest gallery businesses who earn their money on a relatively long term basis. So, instead of galleries, expensive handbag, jewellery, fashion and accessory shops proliferate. Gucci, Armani, Burberry and the like enjoy dramatic mark-ups and vast markets for their overpriced fripperies.

And a painting hanging on the wall, no matter how attractive, does not have the instant ‘buy me’ ingredient unlike something being disposed of in the flash of a second by the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer.

We recently sold half a dozen items which had been languishing on our own gallery wall, or in the showcases, at auction. Most more than doubled the prices we had been asking in the gallery and one got six times the £200 price we had been asking for a small bronze censer. You can’t beat the fever of the saleroom for achieving what are sometimes quite extraordinary amounts of money for comparatively modest items.

Galleries are, of course, expensive to maintain: lighting, staffing and insurances are just a few of the very heavy costs involved. Dealing with the public means you have to be insured, both against them and on behalf of them. Third party insurances have to be taken out for at least £2m. or £3m. in case they trip over the doorstep on the way in. And there is nothing so depressing as sitting in your gallery all day just in case a serious buyer might appear.

Hence the appeal of art fairs, temporary exhibitions and so-called pop-ups. All are rather more attractive, and certainly more exciting, than sitting twiddling ones thumbs in an expensive gallery whilst the meters runs incessantly.

The entry price for art fairs can be high and we are not talking about gate receipts. The largest income from fairs is derived from letting the space to exhibitors, followed by sponsorship. However, a second tier of cheaper-to-access exhibitions is now appearing. Entrepreneur Tim Etchells has started three new events in recent years: Art 13-15 in London, Sydney Contemporary down under and Art Central, which enjoyed its debut this year in Hong Kong. These fairs are less concerned with the super-rich private jet class of buyer and participation is cheaper.

Then, of course, there are the online sales. We are a bit sceptical of the phenomenon. Online certainly works for everyday items but art is rather more complex and should be unique. Assessing art online is tricky and many buyers would not dream of acquiring something they had not handled (porcelain) or seen in person (a painting or tapestry, for example). The advantage of the internet is probably that it will get just a few extra sales and as a low cost medium serves to amortise general sales costs.

Yes, the art market is changing. However, there are signs that even the new art fairs are becoming picky about who they let in over the door to exhibit. It appears they are going for quality rather than quantity. The whole business is organic and constantly changing and it would be a mistake to write off the gallery quite yet.


A corner of the Olympia International Art & Antiques Fair, June 2015    Photo Paul Harris

British National Trust’s little known cache of Chinese porcelain


Wallington, home of the Trevelyan family in Northumberland.  Photo Paul Harris

In the far north of England, at Northumberland’s Wallington Estate, can be found what is possibly the National Trust’s largest collection of Oriental porcelain to be found anywhere in Britain. The remote location has probably ensured that this is something of a well kept secret.


The large porcelain cabinet in the dining room at Wallington. Photo Paul Harris

Here there are hundreds of Chinese and Japanese porcelain items ranging from large baluster vases to tiny cups. Most of the pieces are late Ming or early Qing dynasty and came to the 17th/18th century Greek revival house as a result of the marital union between Sir John Trevelyan (1761-1846) and his wife Maria Wilson (1772-1851), later Lady Trevelyan. She was a woman of great wealth, the daughter of General Sir Thomas Wilson, who owned land and properties in Hampstead and Greenwich. Indeed, it was his wife, a serious collector, who brought with her a large collection of porcelain from the East, as well as some English and Continental ware She later inherited her mother’s substantial collection.


In the former China Room, now part of the entrance hall to Wallington, are large cases containing porcelain predominantly drawn from the Far East during the early 18th century.                        Photo Paul Harris

The collection is particularly rich in late Ming and Transition Period blue and white porcelain, as well as Kangxi famille verte, displayed in the dining room, as well as famille rose and imari ware.


Large blue & white baluster vase, one of a pair, Transitional period, late 17th century.


Chinese Imari design porcelain, Wallington.

Who is the pretty girl with the penetrating gaze?


We spotted this enchanting oil painting at the recent Olympia International Art & Antiques Fair on the Oriental Antiques stand, a joint stand for Oriental dealers in the Kensington Church Street area of Notting Hill, London. The artist is unknown and it comes with a vague provenance of having possibly been sold by Christie’s in Amsterdam in the 1930s. It is nicely enough painted but unsigned. Which does, of course, beg the question ‘Why should any artist not want to take the credit for having painted such a charming picture?’ The penetrating gaze of the young lady certainly has an alluring quality . . .  For further details of the picture, priced at £5,000, email