The Peabody Essex Museum shows significant Chinese art Part 3

We have written over the past couple of weeks about the splendid and quite unique collection of Chinese art to be found within The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachussetts (USA).  Amongst the collections held there is a quite breathtaking series of gouache paintings vividly illustrating the vigorous ongoing trade between foreign countries and the traders of Canton (Guangdong) during the 1820s.

16 images for joss houses 1825 guangzhou

This image is captioned as ‘images for joss stick sellers’. It appears to depict a shop selling Buddhistic and other devotional figures associated with the burning of joss sticks and incense in a devotional situation at the temple or at a personal shrine. Ca. 1820-5, Canton, gouache on paper. Courtesy The Peabody Essex Museum.

These are unique not just as a collection but also because of their freshness and crispness, unaffected by the passage of almost two hundred years. They would have been executed for the export market and are not unique in themsleves. What is, however, very special is the fact that they have been so well preserved as a collection.

16 metal articles Peabody Essex gouache on paper

Metalware store in Canton, ca. 1820-5. This image painted in gouache seems to include many items made in the archaic style (copies of ancient artifacts from early dynasties). Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachussetts.

16 porcelain shop 1820 Guangzhou

Chinese porcelain shop, Canton, ca. 1820-5. Note the porcelain garden seats depicted (bottom left) and which are clearly destined for the export market. There are vases of various forms which would be contemporaneous in origin and certainly not antique items. The vases would probably have been manufactured in nearby Jingdezhen. Gouache on paper, ca. 1820-5. Courtesy The Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachussetts.

The Peabody Essex Museum shows significant Chinese art Part 2

18 chinese house peabody essex museum

The Yin Yu Tang Chinese house at The Peabody Essex Museum, Salem Massachussetts. Photo by Rickinmar, via Tumblr

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a prosperous merchant named Huang built a stately sxteen-bedroomed home in China’s southeastern Huizhou region, calling his home Yin Yu Tang. This Chinese name implies the desire to create a home to shelter generations of descendants. In 1982, though, the last descendant left the village and it has now been removed, piece by piece, to the unlikely location of Salem, Massachussetts as a result of tha city’s close historic links with the China trade.

Originally, the home was oriented in the village according to well established principles of feng shui, to ensure a harmonious relationship with the landscape and it was constructed according to local traditions of building and local customs. Coins were placed under structural columns to bring prosperity to the home and its occupiers. The first floor bedrooms have intricately carved lattice windows that look out onto two fish pools in a central courtyard. Lots of small details in the building inform the viewer about the aspirations, identity and creative expression of the Huang family, as well as simply telling us about architectural style. There is a magnificent accumulation of furnishings which, again, tell us about things as varied as global trade and connections between China and America, finely developed personal taste and historical preferences.

Yin Yu Tang house Peabody Essex Museum

Unusual Chinese art image 79 Actress Hu Ping in swimwear 1936


Actress Hu Ping (1910 – ?) photographed in swimwear 1936/7 by Xi Yuqun. In addition to being a film star in the 1930s, she was also a talented writer, publishing several stories, essays amd screenplays. It is unknown as to what became of her after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. From issue 298 (1937) 0f Ling Long Magazine via orientallyyours on Tumblr.

The Peabody Essex Museum displays significant Chinese art Part 1

17 peabody essex museum

Not only is The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachussetts (USA) possibly the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States, but it also has one of the best collections of Chinese artifacts anywhere in the world. Its holdings in total are some 1.3m. pieces. The present museum had its origins in the East India Marine Society (1799), founded by a Salem-based group of sea captains in the Eastern trade, and it inherited its collection of Far Eastern objets. Its collection wa merged with those of the former Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute which bnrought about the current curious-sounding nomenclature.

One extraordinary aspect of the Museum’s collection is its acquisition of complete historic houses and contents: it has set these, some 24 in total, in its own grounds, transplanted from their original sites. One of these houses is the home of the Chinese Huang family, a stately six-bedroom house from China’s south eastern Huizhou region known as Yin Yu Tang (we shall write about this remarkable preservation in the coming weeks).

Below we illustrate some of the outstanding exhibits within the Museum.


Detail of a large punch bowl made in China and given to the Salem merchant Elias Hasket Derby in 1786. The Derby ship Grand Turk was only the third American ship to trade with China. In 1801 the punch bowl was presented to the East India Marine Society, which became the PeabodyEssex Museum where it is still on display today. Photo by Rickinmar, via


A blue and white Chinese export platter, date about 1740 and with a view of the 16th century English residence Burleigh House. From thecollection of The Peabody Essex Museum Photo by Rickinmar, via


Detail from a gouache painting of trade in Cantonese waters during the first half of the 19th century. The picture well captures the vigorous, breathless nature of the trade which took place with Europe and the US at that time. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachussetts.



Making sense of Chinese censers

Rowleys Ely (8)

A valuable Ming censer in the form of a lion dog with a hinged head ca. 1620s  Photo courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland

Chinese censers crop up on the market all the time: with dealers, auction houses and on exhibition. But what is a censer and why are some so much more valuable than others?

A censer is simply a bowl made to hold burning incense. It may be crafted from a wide range of available materials. The most popular forms are bronze, stone, porcelain, cloisonne, copper and, even, jade.

We think that the first vessels specifically designed to burn incense appeared during the Western Han dynasty (206BC – 8AD). These first vessels were often based upo traditional three-legged bronze ding or ceramic dou ware. Typically, they stand on a tripod base with two loop handles. These designs were often copied much later but many styles and shapes have been used historically, ranging from such simple bronze bowls to elaborate and highly decorated cloisonne vessels in the form of elephants or fantastic, mythical animals.

Mythical animals were very much favoured. During the early 1th century, during the Ming dynasty, censers were made in form of luduan or Buddhistic lion dogs, either with detachable heads or, less commonly, with hinged heads. The incense would be placed within the body of the beast and then set light. Smoke would then issue from the open, menacing mouth of the best.


An early 17th century bronze censer in the form of a luduan (Chinese unicorn) which was sold at TEFAF 2016 for a figure in the region of euros 20,000. Photo courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland

More ordinary small censers might be used as hand warmers in winter, slightly larger ones for perfuming clothes or bed linen. However, most cencers would be used to burn incense at private (domestic) shrines as well as being a form of everyday fumigation at a time when unpleasant smells were, let us say, rather more pervasive.



An attractive very small cloisonne censer, probably used as a handwarmer or dressing table decorative item. Courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland

What determines the value of a censer? Many of the simple but heavy bronze bowls, typically on tripod bases, bear Xuande marks. Such original pieces usually command high prices: later copies are not regarded as so valuable. Design is obviously a factor. Elaborate designs involving a high quality of craftsmanship will inevitably increase value. Rarity, of course, as with any article, also plays its part in determining value. Amongst the most sought after is the so-called ‘incense sphere’ consisting of a latticed metal orb that hung on a chain and opened in half along a centre hinge. The sphere surrounded a small cup that was suitably weighted to ensure the incense would not spill as it was carried.

Cambridge, Ely, Belton House (128)  A very rare Ming incense burner, blue and white porcelain in the collection of Belton House, Lincs.  Photo by Paul Harris

The incense itself was created using dried aromatic plants and essential oils and there were particular skills and special equipment involved in successfully burning incense. There was a large market for incense: by the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) incense sulture was common to all classes in China. Alongside flower arranging, tea-whisking and painting, incense burning was regarded as one of the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar.

cloisonne vase mctears A gold-splashed incense tool vase used to store utensils used in the process of burning incense. Photo courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland

Of course, not all censers are particulalry valuable and it is possible to pick one up at auction or via a dealer for just a few hundred pounds. 19th century examples like the fairly large censer illustrated below are usually available on the market.


A late 19th or early 20th century bronze censer with detachable head and crafted in the form of a fantastic animal. Photo courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland