Magnificent obession: the British and Chinese wallpaper

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Book Review Chinese Wallpaper in Great Britain and Ireland by Emile de Bruijn, Philip Wilson Publishers 2017   £30 RRP

This is the first volume in a welcome cooperation between The National Trust and Philip Wilson Publishers which, it is planned, will lead to a wider exposure to the public of some of the valuable and unique furnishings and valuables within the properties held by the NT. We are all, of course, aware of the diligent activities of the Trust in their many fine properties.

Probably, you are less well aware of Philip Wilson Publishers, one of the UK’s best publishers of fine art books. Philip Wilson, the eponymous guiding hand, has been producing some of the most beautiful fine art books for around forty years now. It’s a long time since I last met and talked with Philip.. I can remember exactly where and when it was: in the magnificent imperial-style halls of Zagreb’s Hotel Esplanade, once a stop on the Orient Express route. The circumstances in June 1991 were rather less leisurely. Croatia had just anoounced its independence was was suddenly at war with Belgrade. I booked into the magnificent Esplanade reckoning that it was the building least likely to be destroyed by the Serbian tanks advancing on the Croatian capital. Philip, I guess, stayed there a a matter of course. There we planned our escape from the Yugoslav war. In the event, the tanks stopped before Zagreb and we were afforded the opportunity to get back to dear old Blighty . . .

As usual, Philip Wilson Publishers have excelled with their production of this book on the wallpapers within National Trust properties. Up until now, there was just a slim National Trust brochure on this neglected subject. Now we have a proper book in which the illustration is matched by the scholarship.

You might be forgiven for not having realised the passion which developed, mainly in the 18th century, for all things Chinese. China was an object of committed fascination for the upper classes and by that I mean ‘them who had money’. Porcelain, bronzes, scrolls, furniture and, indeed, wallpaper became the rage. It was not just a matter of simple decoration. Whole rooms or suites would be furnished entirely with Chinese things to create an all pervading environment. Shiploads of goods from China flooded into the UK, not to mention Portugal, France and The Netherlands. The map at the beginning of this book shows 169 country houses which contain Chinese wallpapers. And those are just the ones left after the dilapidations of the 20th century.

Of course, in return, we made the Chinese buy a lot of things they did not really want, opium, perhaps, being the most odious. Maybe the wheel now, though, is going full circle. If you examine this magnificent book’s biblio page you will see that it has been printed . . . in China. We can hardly complain about a book like this being made available.

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Winner Takes All in the World of Antiquities

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I reckon it must have been some twenty years ago. A sunny August afternoon (highly unusual for Scotland) found me playing cricket in the grounds of a great Scottish country house. After tea on the lawn, we were invited inside to view the crowded interior and, there, lo and behold, high up on the wall of a reception room, above the dado rail, was a marble panel. Although I was surprised at the time to be told it was a part of the so-called Elgin Marbles, stripped out of the Parthenon in Athens, I did not feel affronted to find it there. After all, the Greeks are a thoroughly charming but, ultimately, unreliable lot and I was confident that the titled owner of the house would do all in his considerable power to preserve the panels. A rather more po-faced member of our team muttered darkly about moral obligations to return such items whence they came, but the general view was that it probably had been  rather better off there than rotting in some Greek glory hole.

In more recent years, the debate has really hotted up on the issue of repatriation of culturally important items to the countries which lost them in troubled times. In this new book, Tiffany Jenkins, a writer and academic, examines individual historic events and the issues, moral and legal, surrounding them. She casts her net pretty much worldwide to engage with specific occasions on which items were removed from the custody of their owners. This was, of course, in a world rather different from our present one. It was a world where winner took all. If you got beat on the battlefield, the victor was perfectly entitled to make off with all your clobber: treasures, art works, military gear and, if they took his fancy, your wives, concubines and, even, your pet dogs.

Such was the case, of course, with one of the Imperial Pekinese dogs which was ‘dognapped’ during the sacking of the Chinese Imperial Summer Palace in December 1860. It was hauled off to Britain by the victors and presented to Her Majesty Queen Victoria at her summer home in Scotland, Balmoral. The captive animal was, somewhat insensitively, named ‘Looty’ and came to symbolise British superiority over the Chinese, and is immortalised in paintings held in the Royal Collection.

Rt Hon Lady Loch

The present Lady Loch, descended from Henry, 1st Lord Loch who was aide de camp to Lord Elgin who ordered the destruction of Yuanminguan. In the background are two Imperial roof tiles taken from Yuanminguan.

This was not the real prize, of course. It is estimated that up to one and a half million artefacts were hauled off from the dozens of buildings and pleasure grounds which made up Yuanminguan. This was intended as a signal punishment to the Chinese (who had imprisoned a truce party headed up by Henry Loch, later Lord Loch, and killed some of his group and horribly tortured the others). It turned out to be a wanton orgy of mass destruction and pillage. Tens of thousands of objects were removed from the site by British and French troops. Sadly, far more were simply destroyed which was, of course, unforgivable. The commander who ordered the destruction was Lord Elgin, whose own father had claimed the Elgin Marbles. The whole incident is well dealt with by Tiffany Jenkins at some length and in rather more detail than other currently available accounts (and, hooray, she has footnotes which are something of a dying breed these days).

As far as provenance goes, items removed from Yuanminguan enjoy just about as good a provenance as it is possible to get. That is largely because the incident still deeply rankles with the Chinese and is conspicuously high on their consciousness. They want all their stuff back and have, in the last few years, been buying back Imperial Summer Palace pieces; been in receipt of donations and, indeed, some Yuanminguan pieces held in public and in private have been specifically stolen, quite possibly to order.

s200_tiffany_jenkins Author Tiffany Jenkins

There are, of course, very many issues to be raised. Theft is, rightly, a crime in the context of our private lives. States, however, are not private individuals and are allowed to wreak revenge on behalf of their subjects. Quite apart from legal implications (and China and the UK rarely cooperate in the field of legal obligation hence the widespread intellectual theft which goes on), there may be moral considerations. It is here we get into very deep water indeed. Should items be returned to the country of origin where they arguably constitute an irrevocable part of its culture and history? Or, should museums, where pieces remain more or less permanently on display, be regarded as international centres of knowledge in demonstration of the fact that no object has a single home and no one culture has an inalienable right to its own culture which might be seen as a part of a shared global heritage?

This book is really strong on the examination of the difficult issues posed by culture and the supposed rights of ownership of part of it. The individual case studies make good reading and it is written in an easy style which will serve to make it widely available. Unlike the statues and columns of Palmyra and Nineveh. They would have been rather better off in The British Museum.

Paul Harris

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Published today, an atmospheric fictional account of the days of Mao and the Stars Art Movement

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Brushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta, Claret Press Paperback £7.99

I suppose I did not find this an easy read. This is a story which starts in that most turbulent time in 20th century China during the days of the excesses of the Red Guards and The Gang of Four, all presided over by Mao Tse Tung at his most ruthless and insouciant. Many of these passages are intensely disturbing to the reader: a mark of the success of the author, Sylvia Vetta, in taking us back to this traumatic time of fear and loathing. As the book moves on to the late 1970s and the short-lived The Stars Art Movement, there is time for some humour amongst the repression of the artists and their supporters. For a while, optimism flourishes.

At one level it is a bitter critique of the political process in China, at another a reminder of the tortuous development of the artistic process in a country which had long repressed individualism. At yet another, it is the story of the young and sensitive Xiaodong (trs. ‘Little Winter’), her loss of innocence and her painful rites of passage. The schoolgirl Xiadong recounts, ‘I went on the rampage. At the back of an old temple were niches filled with little statues of Buddha. Over excited, we smashed the heads off. It didn’t feel right but my friends were screaming with excitement . . . Our holy places were where Chairman Mao had walked, lived or swam . . .’.

Seen through the eyes of a young girl born to be an artist, there is a constant disturbing ring of authenticity about this book. Much of that, I giuess, can be traced back to the genesis of this book when Sylvia Vetta met Qu Leilei, himself one of the Stars, and a series of long interviews resulted.

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The climax of this book comes as The Stars display their paintings, woodcuts and sculptures outside the National Gallery in 1979 in an act of impetuous boldness. That, of course, actually did happen. But we have to remember this is a novel and not a factual account. Perhaps because it is so skilfully executed by Sylvia Vetta, I had considerable difficulty in seeing this book just as a novel: the suspension of disbelief is challenging as we meet the various real participants in the Star Art Movement, including the now internationally renowned Ai Weiwei. When the author writes of the actions of the fictional characters like Ai Weiwei, Qu Leilei, Ma Desheng, Huang Rui, Yan Li, Bo Yun and Wang Keping, who were actual participants in the Movement, I found myself saying, ‘Did Ai Weiwei really do that?’, ‘Is this drawn from fact, or is it simply fiction?’ Of course, it is a bit of both.

This is a problem with this book, the problem of the invisible coalescing of fact and fiction. For me that raises more questions than answers. Perhaps I am being over critical. It should certainly be on the ‘must read’ list of anyone interested in the politics and the art of 20th century China. The Stars were crucial in provoking change in China: not just in art but in politics and consciousness. What about another book, drawing upon your excellent sources, Sylvia: the real story of The Stars Art Movement?

Paul Harris

Chinese bidets, chamber pots and spittoons come out of the closet

book review typewriter   ‘Out of the Ordinary’

When we talk of Chinese export porcelain we tend to think of the finely worked grander items produced for a sophisticated Western taste: tea services, dinner sets, tureens and armorial plates are seen around relatively often. Everyday objects, fashioned in unusual shapes, like bidets, chamber pots, spittoons and barber’s bowls tend to surface rather less frequently. Now they are doing rather well: at auction only last week I noticed en export porcelain blue and white bidet (illustrated in this new publication) get £3,750. Now we have a detailed guide to these more unusual pieces from Jorge Welsh Books.

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Export porcelain bidet. £3,750 last week at Lyon & Turnbull

Chinese export porcelain was produced in an extraordinary range of shapes during the late 17th and 18th centuries, some of which are truly out of the ordinary. This lavish catalogue from Jorge Welsh, who is also hosting an exhibition in his Kensington Church Street gallery, focuses on the most unusual forms of porcelain, frequently ordered in smaller quantities and through private trade.

Most of these items were copied from Western prototypes made in metal, ceramics or glass, and can also be characterized by their functionality. This catalogue (in actuality a large format coffee table book) includes egg cups, strainers, cutlery handles, pudding moulds, custard pots, ladles, funnels, bulb pots, snuff boxes, cane handles, barber’s bowls and chamber pots, amongst others. The sheer variety of forms in this group is a testament to the significant reach of the porcelain trade as well as the remarkable adaptability of the Chinese potter.

Pair of Famille Rose Goose Tureens and Covers

A handsome pair of famille rose goose tureens at Jorge Welsh’s gallery

Commissioned according to the latest fashions, they also provide an insight into the scope of the European orders and the sophistication of contemporary consumer society in Europe at this time. The popularity of new, exotic and luxury products such as tea, coffee, chocolate and various spices, as well as some alcoholic beverages, stimulated new social practices and the need for numerous porcelain utensils. Also used for personal grooming, fashionable accoutrements and furnishing the home, Chinese porcelain permeated many of the more intimate aspects of daily life during this period.

The book is particularly well illustrated. If £100 seems a bit on the steep side, I do remember the advice given me years ago by an old China hand. ‘You should always lay aside 10% of your buying budget for reference books.’ They don’t depreciate in value, either. I have seen a shelf of sought after Chinese art reference books make as much as £10,000 at auction.


OUT OF THE ORDINARY  LIVING WITH CHINESE EXPORT PORCELAIN    Published by Jorge Welsh Books, London and Lisbon, October 2014

  • Language: English
  • Hardcover
  • ISBN 978-0-9573547-1-5
  • 23.5 × 29.7 cm
  • 344 pages, 351 colour illustrations
  • £100.00

How to find your way through the global art maze . . .

Book Review

The Global Art Compass: New Directions in 21st Century Art by Alistair Hicks, Thames & Hudson £18.95

Global Art

Alistair Hicks should know his way around the art world. He is Curator to the Deutsche Bank where he buys contemporary art for the Bank’s extensive collection. Extensive is possibly an understatement: it has some 60,000 works of art from all continents. It is difficult not to suspect that to some degree the Bank is hedging its bets and its acquisitions represent investment potential as much as support for artists. Nevertheless, Hicks avers that ‘I am meant to locate art, but also to help others to relate to it.

The world is now global thanks to the digital and communications revolutions. However, rather than making the art world easier to understand, we are assailed by so much information, images from so many places and the requirement to assess so many artists. The object of this new book is to help the reader make his or her way through this confusing panorama. It is not trying to tell you “Why should I like this?” Rather, in Hicks’ words, it “seeks to encourage you to use artists to help you understand yourself and those around you.” He repeats Gombrich’s opening salvo in the ground-breaking The Story of Art (1950), ‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’

The author deals with his mission on a continent-by-continent basis. Approximately a quarter of the 224 pages is given over to Asia. Essentially, he deals with the impact of artists he has come into contact with on a professional basis and there are well known names like Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-Quiang, Yan Pei Ming and Wang Qingsong. He is not intimidated by any startling new media. He relates much of new Asian art to the collision of cultures and relates the dramatic fireworks which opened the Beijing Olympics to the tradition of gunpowder drawings. Recent seismic changes in the political and economic structure of China has, he believes, led to dislocation and a growing remoteness from the legacy of the past: the role of the violent and disruptive Cultural Revolution, which features in many artists’ work today, is rightly highlighted. And so, history dominates much of contemporary Chinese art.

I have no real quarrel with the views and assumptions formed by the author. It is a highly useful tool in seeking perspective on the role of art today. However, as an active collector of modern Vietnamese art, I am, of course, disappointed to find that no Vietnamese artist features in the book. That is a failure derived from the ‘personal experience’ model adopted by Hicks. Hopefully, this book will be updated in the future. By that time, I hope Hicks will have found his way to Hanoi and will have discovered the vibrant and exciting work emanating from Vietnam. Strongly influenced by the troubled country’s colonial past, it fits his model.

Global Art 2 Alistair Hicks