Closure and dispersal looms for unique Butler Collection of Chinese porcelain

lr Butler Collection (27)The elegant and airy private museum in Mapperton, Dorset which houses The Butler Collection   Photo Paul Harris

The Butler Collection of Chinese porcelain is presently held in a large and well appointed private gallery in Dorset, in rural England. Just in case you are not aware of the fact, it is the world’s most important collection of 17th Century Chinese Porcelain, covering what is often referred to as ‘the Transitional period: that is to say, that particularly vibrant and interesting period between the Ming and the Qing dynasties. It was built up over 50 years by Sir Michael Butler, a senior diplomat, who left it to his 4 children when he died suddenly on Christmas Eve three years ago.

Today, however, that collection today appears to be doomed to a court-ordered extinction. On 20th July, 2016 the High Court in London ruled that his two eldest children, Caroline and James Butler, the petitioners in an acrimonious legal battle, have the right to remove 250 pieces from the purpose built museum thus destroying the 500-piece collection. The collection is internationally famous and draws scholars, students and art lovers from around the world. If the two elder siblings could be persuaded to let the Art Fund or another entity to buy them out, the two younger siblings, Katharine and Charles, have pledged to put their shares into a charitable foundation or other structure which preserves and endows the collection. The situation has been much complicated and compounded by the fact that the only communication between the two warring parties over the last few years has been via their respective solicitors.

lr Butler Collection (77) The £15 purchase by Sir Michael Butler which started it all . . . Photo Paul Harris

Sir Michael Butler began collecting Chinese 17th century ceramics in the 1960s, finding his first piece, a green wine pot (illustrated above), for just £15 with three other pieces thrown in.

‘He became fascinated by the 17th Century pieces, because he realised that was a period which had been overlooked,’ says daughter Katharine who has tirelessly looked after the collection in its own purpose-built museum for many years. ‘Traditional collectors were obsessed by the Imperial pieces, but Papa realised that at that time there was an explosion of creativity.’ This creativity derived from the chaos following the collapse of the Ming dynasty and its replacement by the northern Manchus who founded the Qing dynasty. It was a time of industry and energy.

lr Butler Collection (22) Section of the Museum devoted to High Transitional pieces. Photo Paul Harris

The High Court has ruled that the Collection must be divided between the four children and this is what will happen towards the end of September 2016. In a scenario straight from some Victorian penny-dreadful tragedy, the four siblings will gather at a Grade II-listed family country house seat in Mapperton, Dorset, close to the private museum, and begin the process of dividing up their father’s legacy, in direct contravention of Sir Michael’s dying wishes, which were that the collection should remain complete. Alas, however, the provisions he made were insufficiently clear in the documentation he left behind  . . .

And so, the High Court has decided that the collection must be physically dispersed to the four children of the family. ‘We’re supposed to take it in turns to decide on a piece and to keep on taking until there are none left,’ Katharine Butler says, ‘The act of doing that will be the most devastating experience of my life.’

lr Butler Collection (11)   Fighting for survival . . .  Katharine Butler with a piece from the Collection. Photo    Paul Harris

The View from Here

opinion hl

It seems unconscionable that this wonderful collection should be broken up and dispersed to the four winds, so to speak. Indubitably, this is the finest collection of 17th century transitional porcelain to be found anywhere in the world. As such, it represents a unique  resource, not just for existing scholars and collectors but for enthusiasts of the future.

It is often said that when families fall out the ensuing disputes count amongst the bitterest. For that reason, it is incumbent upon the owners of resources such as The Butler Collection to make very precise future provisions for their assets. Unfortunately, in this instance, Sir Michael Butler’s provisions were open to misinterpretation in the context of his own professed wishes. In some respects the provisions made were contradictory in essence and the judgement in Court was, some legal sources say, only to be expected. Unfortunately, the results of the judgement are, to put it mildly, very regrettable. It is to be hoped that some last minute accommodation or arrangement might be made which will keep this uniquecollection together and Katharine Butler is rightly pressing The Art Fund to get involved.

The value of the four individual parts of the collection is being put at up to £2m. each by commentators in the press. It is ironic that, as a complete collection, the value to a serious collector or institution would, we expect, be around twice this sum: we know Chinese investors who would pile in at such a price with a commitment to keep it whole, albeit in Beijing or Shanghai. Not only would the value of the collection be diminished in scholarly and heritage terms by its division, but also by application of available financial criteria. Not to mention the devastating effects on those involved.

An online petition is still available for signature if you sympathise with those of us who would like the Collection to remain in existence as a historical and cultural asset with the support of The Art Fund

lr Butler Collection (42)


Some pictures from the China Arts & Culture Festival held in Edinburgh

P1120202 A scene from The Hubei Provinicial Peking Opera production at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre last Sunday. Below A touching scene from Farewell my Concubine Photos by Paul Harris

P1120185 Below A choral performance by singers from The Experimental High School (of Arts) at Beijing Normal University. Photo by Paul Harris

P1120141 Below: Hubei Provinicial Peking Opera costume (for The General) on display Photo by Paul Harris

P1120133Below: Charlotte Rostek, head of Glasgow office at auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull, gave a talk at the China Arts & Culture Festival on Chinese porcelain illustrated with pictures from her work as Emeritus Curator at Dumfries House and at L&T.

Charlotte Rostek  Experimental School of Shanghai Conservatory of MusicAbove: a rousing end to the concert given by The Experimental School of Shanghai Conservatory of Music  Photo by Paul Harris

Shanghai painter Wu Lifan exhibits at Edinburgh Festival

P1120111Painter Wu Lifan at the Edinburgh Festival last Sunday  Photo by Paul Harris

Shanghai ink and wash painter Wu Lifan has been showing his work at the China Arts & Culture Festival, part of the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe. Speaking at the Festiuval on Sunday, he made a plea for the survival of traditional Chinese ink and wash painting as China builds and great new constructions dominate the landscape.

Wu Lifan was born in 1977 and has been practising traditional Chinese painting for mpore than 30 years. His accomplished ink and wash style depicts China’s natural subjects like the mountains, rivers, plants, flowers, waterfalls and clouds. He seeks to reflect the spirit of Mother Nature at all times. In that respect, he follows in the established and respected tradition of the scholar-artist but with a modern twist in terms of style. He believes that ink and wash creates texture and quality which transmits a three dimensional sensation when applied to paper. He showed more than 20 examples of his impressive body of work at Edinburgh’s prestigious International Convention Centre.

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Two examples of the ink and wash paintings shown by Wu Lifan at the Edinburgh China Arts & Culture Festival, part of the annual Edinburgh International Festivals programme.



Stunning Chinese Art & Culture Festival held in Edinburgh

P1120225 Chinese Consul General Pan of the PRC Consulate in Edinburgh yesterday congratulates performers from the Hubei Provincial Peking Opera after their successful performance at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. To his left is Mr Shihui Zhu, President of the Opera.  Photo by Paul Harris

The Chinese Arts & Culture Festival, which closed yesterday in Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe, was marked by a series of stunning performances. The performances were held in one of the city’s most prestigious venues, The Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Amongst the glittering array of Chinese artists and performers were The Hubei Provincial Peking Opera Company; dancers and musicians from The Experimental High School atached to Beijing Normal University; ink and water artist Lifan Wu; and the orchestra of The Shanghai Conservatory of Music’s Experimental School who presented a remarkable concert last Friday which culminated a Chinese arrangement of the Scots classic Auld Lang Syne.

We shall feature more words and pictures from these events in the coming days.


From the performance yesterday of the Hubei Provinicial Peking Opera                   Photo Paul Harris




Mahjong score cards are now collected!

2 girls play mahjong 1924 via Orientally Yours

Two young girls play mahjong almost 100 years ago. These girls are clearly playing at home rather than in a public or commercial situation.

We now live in an age when everything is collected – no niche activity is too obscure. Indeed, the more obscure the activity, the more dedicated is the collector! Mahjong, of course, is not actually an obscure activity in itself. It originated in China and is a game normally played by four players. It a game of skill, strategy and calculation but also involves a considerable degree of chance. It is usually played with a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols (there are regional varaiations): each player, to begin, gets 13 tiles and players draw and discard further tiles. It is sometimes said that the Western card game ‘rummy’ shares a common origin with mahjong.


The game was imported into the United States in the 1920s. These score cards date from that period. They are Mahjong score cards, c. 1923. They come from from the exhibition, “Project Mah Jongg” that was on view from May 4, 2010 through February 27, 2011 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and that explored the traditions, history, and meaning of the Chinese game in Jewish-American life from the 1920s to today.

Source: Project Mah Jongg


Unusual Chinese art image 82 Teddy bear warriors in clay


An exhibition of 500 handmade pottery clay teddy bear warriors was opened earlier this year in Wuxi in East China’s Jiangsu province. A direct take off of the rather more famous terracotta warriors in Xian, this pastiche has appraently gone down very wwell with visitors. The event was mounted as part of a larger teddy bear show which displayed more than 60 teddy bears like Teddy van Gogh, Teddy Gandhi and Teddy Mona Lisa . . .

Incense making factory enjoys historic legacy

24 Da-Cheng

The history of Taiwan’s Da-Ching Incense Making Factory can be traced back to more than 150 years ago when the ancestors of the present owners started selling joss papers and sticks as a family business.

The actual incense-making factory was first established by their great-grandfather Mr. Mao-Gui Hsieh in 1945. It is now a fourth-generation operated family business headed by Mr. Po-Chuan Hsieh. It has succeeded in keeping the traditional skill alive in a modern society. Although, like so many other businesses, they are facing the problem of the soaring price of the raw material and decreasing uses of incense, they are resolved to pass the skill down to the future generations.

Thanks to International Wood Culture Society and orientally yours on

Unusual Chinese art image 81 Probably the ultimate bed!


This once-Imperial Chinese moon bed must surely represent the ultimate in style, chic and desirability. It dates from 1876 and is now to be found in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachussets (which we have been writing about over the last couple of weeks). It has featured recently in several blogs on Tumblr. One blogger, ladonnapietra, mused if it might be possible to ‘become an art burglar and steal this Chinese moon bed’.

We also happen to think it is the most delightful piece of Chinese furniture we have ever seen!