Museums in the UK specialising in art of East Asia

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UK Museums Specialising in East Asian Art

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The National Museum of Scotland  Photo Paul Harris

A large number of museums in the UK boast relatively small collections of Asian art. This is a list of those museums with large and significant collections.

  BATH  The Museum of East Asian Art, 12 Bennett Street, boasts a large collection of objects based around the personal collection of Brian McElney, a solicitor who practised in Hong Kong: Chinese ceramics, metalware, jade and bamboo carvings.

CAMBRIDGE The Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street  Founded in 1816 by Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam is the art museum of the University of Cambridge.

COMPTON VERNEY  Compton Verney House, Compton Verney, Warwickshire boasts the largest collection of Chinese bronzes in the UK outside of London.

DURHAM  Durham University Oriental Museum, Elvet Hill  Opened in 1960, this museum is devoted to the arts of Imperial Japan, China and other East Asian countries. A recently opened gallery is dedicated to China in the 20th century. Exhibits on the Silk Route and the Imperial Court, as well as sculptures, ceramics, paintings and jades.

EDINBURGH  The National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street is located in the centre of the city and has been substantially refurbished in recent times. It boasts a large 5th floor gallery showcasing items from China, Japan and Korea. It has collected porcelain and other arts since the opening of the Museum in the middle of the 19th century. An important exhibition of Ming Dynasty art from June 27 2014.

GLASGOW  The Burrell Collection Pollok Country Park, 2060 Pollokshaws Road  The Burrell Collection is home to the vast number of artistic works (some 8,000)  put to together by shipping magnate Sir William Burrell. Includes a collection of Chinese Neolithic burial urns and other items.

HULL  Hull University Art Collection, Cottingham Road. An important collection of Chinese ceramics spanning the period 618-1850 on long-term loan from Dr & Mrs Peter Thompson. Unfortunately, the collection was closed to public view on June 8 2014 but is expected to reopen in September or October.

LONDON  The British Museum has a number of galleries specialising in the arts and archaeology of East Asia. It is an important collection much boosted by the acquisition of the 1700-piece Sir Percival David Collection of Chinese ceramics, which includes many items of Imperial quality. See our list of forthcoming/current exhibitions.

LONDON  The Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, possesses a substantial collection of Oriental art.

MAIDSTONE  The Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery, St Faith’s Street Located in an Elizabethan manor house, the museum has a significant Japanese collection.

OXFORD  The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Beaumont Street  Possesses a very large collection of Chinese art and artefacts and benefits from its long term connection with the late Professor Michael Sullivan who has bequeathed his own extensive collection of Chinese paintings.

SONY DSC ‘Heaped and piled’ 16th century Chinese fish bowl in The National Museum of Scotland

London Sunday Times alleges most V&A Chinese paintings ‘forgeries’

In an extraordinary article published February 2 in the London Sunday Times, apparently written by Arts Editor Richard Brooks, it is alleged that ‘ more than three quarters of Chinese paintings from the Ming and Qing dynasties at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum are either forgeries or copies and are kept away from public gaze.’ The even more extraordinary headline to the article reports ‘Merciless Ming swamps V&A with forgeries’.

It is not exactly clear from the article who the merciless and cunning Ming might be who has apparently flooded one of Britain’s most highly regarded museums with forgeries, but below the headline appears a picture of Emperor Chu Yuan-chang (sic.). One presumes the newspaper is referring to the first Ming Emperor, known as the Hongwu Emperor, who reigned 1368-98. The Victoria & Albert Museum, arguably the best museum of decorative arts and design in the world, was founded in 1852 so the Emperor in question must certainly have been extremely able and cunning . . .  Quite how he ‘mercilessly’ filled the Museum with fakes and forgeries is not explained!

Sunday Times fakes at V&A567

The article further goes on to cast doubts on the successful exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Painting:700-1900 which has just closed, saying some of those paintings were also in doubt, quoting the museum’s deputy director Beth McKillop, “We put captions beside them stating that they were either ‘traditionally attributed to’ a certain artist or ‘possibly by’.” The newspaper alleges there were such doubts in regard to ‘about a dozen’ of the paintings in the show (there were around 70 paintings in total on display). By way of explanation, the newspaper states that the V&A did not employ a curator who could read Chinese until the 1970s (‘essential for deciphering inscriptions’) and says ‘Concern about the fakes partly explains why  much of the Chinese art in exhibitions is borrowed from America, Europe and China itself.’ As if there are no doubts about attribution in the case of paintings from these parts of the world . . .

Similar doubts are cast on paintings in the collection of The British Museum. ‘Likewise many of the 500 paintings owned by the British Museum, dating form the 6th to the 20th century, also have question marks about their authenticity.’ The British Museum opens a new exhibition in April, Gems of Chinese Paintings.

The problem is that there is little explanation in the article of the difference between fakes and forgeries, executed with the specific objective of deceiving, and copies made out of period in a bid to emulate the highest standards. The V&A-owned landscape Visiting a Friend in the Mountains, apparently signed by Li Zhaodao, is condemned as a ‘fabrication’ made 800 years later (around 1600).  Of course, the date it was created is neither here nor there in terms of the extreme artistic skill displayed in the picture. The motivation for the so-called ‘fabrication’ cannot be ascribed to greed or financial enrichment but to rather more noble desires unique to the cultural scene in China. There is a hint of such an explanation from an anonymous British Museum spokesman who told the newspaper, “It is true that a considerable number of these works could be seen to have false attributions. The majority of them were ascribed to Old Masters (sic.) in order to reference the past, or to continue a line of tradition. The moral implications to (sic.) ascribe a painting to an Old Master are looked on differently in east Asian cultures.”

The article ends with a most peculiar alleged assertion by Shelagh Vainker, head of the Chinese collection at the highly respected Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Apparently, according to The Sunday Times, the Ashmolean only collects paintings from 1850 onwards because of such difficulties.

“So many were fakes . . . The main focus of our China collection is on ceramics and jades where forgery is not really an issue . . . “. Oh, really? Never seem to have heard of a piece of porcelain bearing a copied or earlier mark?

As a piece of journalism the article does, of course, read well despite its misleading headline and a woeful lack of context. The problem with articles like this in the so-called popular press is that they seek to make a ‘sensational’ point and evidence is selectively garnered. For a large section of the readership, lacking a wider perspective or knowledge, it calls into doubt the intrinsic value of Chinese art.

Ashmolean gifted mega collection of Chinese modern art

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has been bequeathed the largest private collection of modern and contemporary Chinese art held in the West.

More than 400 modern and contemporary pieces of Chinese art have been left to the Museum by the art historian and connoisseur Professor Michael Sullivan, who died in September at the age of 96. Press reports have estimated the value of the collection at ‘more than £15m.’. In our view, £150m. would be nearer the mark: the collection contains works by Qi Baishi (12864-1957), Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Fu Baoshi (1904-64) and contemporary painter Xu Bing (born 1955). A work by Qi Baishi recently fetched more than $40m.

Professor Sullivan was not only the first person in the West to collect Chinese modern art, but he was also the author of the ground breaking book Chinese Art in the 20th Century (1955). A regular visitor to China, he struck up personal relationships with many Chinese artists and his collection includes a significant number of works gifted to him. There is already a gallery at the Ashmolean named after him and his wife, The Khoan and Michael Sullivan Gallery, and in March 2014 there will be a commemorative exhibition Michael Sullivan: a Life of Art and Friendship.

The works in the newly acquired collection will be shown in rotation by the Museum.

Michael_Sullivan, Huang Xiang 2011

Professor Michael Sullivan pictured 2011 on a visit to China with artist Huang Xian