Attitudes to Chinese art dealers . . .


Seen at the current National Museum of Scotland exhibition Ming The Golden Empire.


Plus ca change, toujours la meme chose! This was Li Rihua’s view of the Chinese art market at the beginning of the 17th century. Many people would say that not much has changed in 300 years . . .

Auctioneers L& T launch Asia Day initiative

As competition for new Asian items for sale builds, Edinburgh auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull are hosting a day-‐long programme of talks on Asian Art with expert speakers and valuers. Valuations will be available – either of complete collections or individual items – throughout the day and, rather more interestingly, a range of disparate talks will be given.

Speakers at the ‘soft sell’ event on September 28 include a former diplomat involved in the Hong Kong takeover, Claire Smith, who will share her insights into historical trade relations between Scotland and China, including the origin of collections; ceramic conservationist Douglas Strang, an expert on the care and conservation of Chinese porcelain will assess the care and restoration of objects; and James Robinson, Keeper of Art & Design at the National Museums of Scotland, who will provide an inside track on plans for the Museum in the wake of the successful exhibition Ming: The Golden Empire, which is running until next month. All attendees will be offered free tickets to the NMS exhibition.

Also talking will be L&T’s own China expert Lee Young, Head of the Asian Department and a contributor to The Antiques Roadshow, who will talk about the Chinese and Japanese market today and, hardly surprisingly, of the successes enjoyed by Scottish families who have sold through L&T.

The event takes place on September 28 starting at 1100 hours. It will wind up at 1700 and takes place in L&T’s elegant and historic auction room in Edinburgh’s Broughton Place.

L & T preview May 13 (5)

Lyon & Turnbull’s Edinburgh auction room on a recent private view night. Photo Paul Harris


The Scholar’s Table featured at NMS exhibition

SONY DSC The Scholar’s Table was a sort of altar for the learned Ming man. An Eight Immortals Table in the exhibition Ming The Golden Empire at The National Museum of Scotland. It is made from the much-prized wood huanghuali and such tables would have been known as Eight Immortals, Six Immortals or Four Immortals, depending on how many might be able to sit at it. It could have been used by the scholar (scholarly objects are placed on the table) or for dining, games or other domestic uses. Photo Paul Harris

During the Ming period, wealthy and elite literati engaged in self-cultivation and the study of the arts. They amassed private libraries and created studios for their literary and artistic activity. Here, scholars surrounded themselves with objects reflecting their tastes and interests. Studios were filled with fine furniture, bamboo, wood and ivory carvings, brush and scroll pots, musical instruments and other objects for use and amusement.

SONY DSC Snuff bottle decorated with scholarly objects. Courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland

The essential literati trappings – the so-called Four Treasures of the scholar’s studio – were paper, ink sticks, ink stones (on which to grind ink) and brushes. Reading and study featured heavily in the lives of such literati. Jesuits arriving in late Ming China recorded their astonishment at the size of the libraries of the literati.


Portrait of Xu Wei From The National Museum of Scotland exhibition Ming The Golden Empire From The Nanjing Museum Photo Paul Harris

Xu Wei (1521-93) was such an accomplished man who would have fitted admirably into the scholar’s studio. He was variously renowned as a painter, dramatist, poet, writer and calligrapher. His style of painting was individual and marked by expressive brushwork. Like so many artists before and since, he led a chaotic life, lived in poverty and traded food and clothing for paintings. he made several suicide attempts and was imprisoned for seven years for the murder of his wife.

Ming The Golden Empire continues at The National Museum of Scotland until October 19 2014



The Chinese fish vat features at Ming The Golden Empire


One of two highly-prized fish vats from the collection of The National Museum  of Scotland which feature in Ming The Golden Empire at The National Museum of Scotland. Photo Paul Harris

The very large vat seen above is one of the prizes of the NMS East Asia collection. Jiajing mark and reign (1522-66), it is an early example painted on the outside with two Imperial dragons chasing a flaming pearl. The dragons and floral motifs have been outlined and then painted between the lines with iron-rich cobalt which produces a very dark blue (so-called heaped and piled effect). Such iron-rich Imperial quality cobalt was imported at great expense from Persia and Central Asia.

Fish vats like the one above, and below, would have been used for raising fish and aquatic plants in the Imperial Palace or palace gardens. Large ones like these were difficult to manufacture because of their enormous size. Many were broken in production and those that actually went into use were often cracked or broken in the harsh winters of northern China.


A wucai (five colour) fish vat from the National Museum of Scotland collection currently to be seen at Ming The Golden Empire in Edinburgh.Lonqing mark and period (1567-73). Porcelain with under glaze blue and over glaze polychrome decoration. Despite its name, wucai, developed during the Jiajing Emperor’s reign (1522-66) is not strictly limited to five colours. Photo Paul Harris


Ming The Golden Empire continues at The National Museum of Scotland until October 19 2014

The story of the Chinese roof featured at ‘Ming the Golden Empire’


Chinese roof details on display at The National Museum of Scotland  Back Ridge end tile in the form of a water dragon from the Bao’en Temple, Nanjing Left Roof finial in the form of a closed lotus bud, Hongwu from The Nanjing Museum  Right Ridge tile in the form of a cow-headed human figure with a dragon tile . . . all on show at Ming The Golden Empire

An interesting section of the current exhibit at The National Museum of Scotland illustrates the fact that roofs were often elaborately decorated with protective figures, zoomorphic ornaments and motifs intended to provide protection from harm or, even, evil spirits. Roofs were also, through use of colour, indications both of building function and of social status.

There were four basic types of roof structures that were used in Ancient China; the hip roof, half-hip roof, conical roof, and the gable roof.

The hip roof consisted of five ridges and was very large in scale. It was characterized by its inward curve and upturned corners. Sometimes the hip roof had a flat top. The hip roof was used for important buildings only.

Second, was a half-hip roof consisting of nine ridges and also being very large in scale. The half-hip was made up of a hip roof with a peristyle and at the end of each gable was an eave board with a hanging fish symbolizing happiness. It was also used only for important buildings.

Third, was the conical roof which was spherical in shape. This unique roof could be placed on any compact symmetrical structure such as a square, hexagonal, octagonal, or circular form. The conical could be transformed into a pyramid with gables to all four directions. The pyramid or conical roof sometimes were flattened at the top so as to have a cross ridge.

Fourth, was the gable style, having one main ridge at the top of the gable. There are two types; one where there is an overhang and two where the overhang is flush with the end wall and sometimes the walls would be raised above the roof like a parapet. This style is the simplest in construction and was widely used for less important buildings such as houses for common people.

Roof structures are the first thing you might see and admire when you look at classical Chinese architecture. Since the beginning of time, the large roof over thin wooden columns and the beams resting upon a podium are the primary architectural characteristics of Chinese architecture. They are practical and functional\; roofs serving many purposes such as protection from rain, snow, sun and whatever the weather might bring. The eaves are another important feature of the roof. Depending on the type of the building, the eaves have a wide overhang. This feature protects the building from the sun in the hot summer months and allows the sun to penetrate in the winter months. They also protect the exterior building walls and columns from the rain.


Symbolic decoration. Roof at the Imperial Palace, Shenyang. Photo Paul Harris

Symbolism has been part of the Chinese culture, and was embedded into architecture, for centuries thereby creating a dialogue between man and architecture. Architecture’s symbolic language has been developed to represent the character, spirit, feelings and ideas of both the builder and beholder. Sociology, art and philosophy are what shaped the form and character of Chinese buildings. In some cases, the roof may have been a representation of heaven; the yang (the light and upper principle). The Chinese worshipped heaven, assuming that the large roof was a symbol of respect to the “Son of Heaven.” The house was a model of Chinese private life.

Chinese architecture brought with it artistic characteristics such as harmony, which emphasized the feel of the material and unity between materials and structure.

Post and beam construction was used most often in classical Chinese architecture. The roof structures were based on a series of beams set in parallel tiers. The post and beam gave the interior an open floor plan having the weight of the structure on the posts rather than the walls making the walls non-load bearing.

There are two main types of framework used. The first was a post and beam: it was used in the north for important buildings. It has two posts supporting a horizontal beam on which short vertical posts and struts are placed to lift another beam. On these are fitted purlins that define the shape of the roof and across were the rafters are laid. Small buildings have four pillars and the large buildings have additional sets of pillars added to the four. The outer pillars are typically inclined inwards and may taper towards the top to achieve visual balance.

The post and tie beam is most commonly used in southern China. The horizontal beam rests directly on notched posts, instead of on beams or struts. This method crowds the interior space with columns and so the post and tie beam is used only in the gable and post and beam frame is used in the middle of the building.

In important buildings a group of cantilevered components called “bracket sets” or puzuo or dou-gong, are placed atop the posts to help support the beams or overhang eaves. They are consisted of block and supporting arms. Bracket sets, are classified by the number and complexity of their horizontal, vertical and diagonal elements. The brackets helped the roof fluctuate during an earthquake. The brackets usually gave good decoration.

Wood was abundant in olden time. Classical Chinese architecture was constructed mainly from wood. Wood as a building material was natural and had many advantages: it was lightweight, easy to obtain, easy to work with, easy to transport, and most importantly, easy to standardize. The Chinese sensed the advantages of wood construction. The span of a wooden beam is wider and the plan freer and more flexible.

Important buildings such as Imperial buildings, have colorful glazed tiles, or even gilded tiles, as roofing materials making them attractive to the eye under the bright sun.

Ceramic roof tiles in rust, yellow, green, or blue are secured to rafters by fasteners with decorative animal motifs. On temples and important public buildings, these motifs symbolize authority, protection from evil spirits, and the blessing of the gods.

These colors are based on the importance of buildings. Colors are strong and bright because pigments are seldom mixed. The palette includes red (for fire, symbolizing happiness on doors or buildings), yellow (earth), gold, green (prosperity), and blue (heaven). Walls, columns, doors, and window frames may be red. Color and gilding may highlight details and motifs

article roof Shenyang swan ceramic (2) lr

Roofs old and new: view over the Imperial Palace roof, Shenyang  Photo Paul Harris

article roof Shenyang swan ceramic (1) lr

Building ceramics used at The Imperial Palace, Shenyang  Photo Paul Harris

Ming The Golden Empire continues at The National Museum of Scotland until October 19 2014


‘Chicken fat’ glaze on display at the National Museum of Scotland


From the National Museum of Scotland exhibition lent by the Nanjing Museum Ming The Golden Empire  Photo Paul Harris

The jar on the right of this picture was produced at the Chinese Imperial kilns in Jingdezhen and was designed for use at the Imperial Court. The fine quality of the yellow glazes produced by these kilns during the Hongzhi period were described variously as ‘chicken fat yellow’ or ‘tender yellow’. A piece of this quality is likely to have been used for ritual purposes at Imperial ceremonies held at The Altar to the Earth (Ditan) northeast of the Forbidden City.


These dishes were also produced at the Imperial kilns in Jingdezhen. The extraordinary quality of the yellow glazes produced during the early-mid Ming period were often described as ‘chicken fat’. Nanjing Museum from Ming The Golden Empire at the NMS. Photo Paul Harris

Items completely glazed in yellow, such as these dishes, were used as table wares reserved for the Emperor, Empress or Dowager Empress.

Ming The Golden Empire continues at The National Museum of Scotland until October 19 2014

NMS Exhibition highlights role of women under the Ming


National Museum of Scotland   Photo Paul Harris

We wrote last week at some length about the opening of the magnificent new exhibition at The National Museum of Scotland Ming The Golden Empire. In the coming weeks, we shall have a look in more detail and with pictures at some fascinating aspects of the new exhibition.

Several exhibits relate to the role of women in Ming society. As may be discerned from the quotation below from Dong Qichang, incorporated in the exhibition signage, women’s liberation, let alone political correctness, had, in the early days at least, made virtually no impression on Ming society.


Today, this would hardly be described as politically correct! From National Museum of Scotland exhibition Ming The Golden Empire

 Traditional Confucian thinking defined women in terms of The Four Virtues: womanly work, womanly speech, womanly virtue and womanly deportment. Fair enough! But Confucian ethics also viewed a woman as subordinate to her father before marriage, to her husband during marriage, and to her son after her husband’s death. The lives of elite wives and concubines tended to be highly restricted and they were largely confined with the women’s quarters.

But things improved somewhat by the late Ming. The domestic, social and public role of women had seen some expansion, with greater access to education and social opportunity. Women of the gentry learnt to read classical Chinese and books were even produced specifically for them. They formed literary and, even, religious groups, and began to participate in cultural activities as musicians, writers, poets and painters.


The piece of cloisonné in the foreground was designed for the dressing table of a Ming lady. Such pieces of frippery were not regarded as being nearly substantial or interesting enough for the male of the species. From The National Museum of Scotland exhibition Ming The Golden Empire. Photograph Paul Harris

Magnificent Ming Museum offering in Edinburgh


Cloisonné dish 16/17th c. and jar with yellow glaze, Hongzhi. Nanjing Museum Photo Paul Harris

The story of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a period marked by a social, cultural and economic transformation and a dramatic flourishing of the arts, is being told in a major exhibition showing at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) this summer, Ming: The Golden Empire. We attended the press preview for the exhibition today and which opens on June 27 We can report that the exhibits are magnificent and quite outstanding.

Some of the fine items on display are drawn from the National Museum’s own extensive Asian collection. (Its own rather fine gallery of Chinese Japanese and Korean artefacts has just been closed for large-scale renovation and is expected to reopen in 2018). They have been more than adequately supplemented by some extraordinary objects from the Nanjing Museum. Nanjing was the birthplace of the Ming dynasty, its first capital before the creation of the Beijing palace complex or ‘Forbidden City’. The NMS is the only place in Britain which will be showing this exhibition of international significance: in fact, it has just transferred from Amsterdam.

Dr Kevin McLoughlin, Principal Curator East and Central Asia, at the NMS explained to us something of the thinking behind the exhibition. “We very much aim to make the culture and history of the Ming Dynasty accessible to people who, perhaps, know little of it. Here we are not  assuming any prior knowledge.” Indeed, the signage and descriptions of exhibits are admirably clear, direct and to the point.

“Our approach is not sinological. We have provided for the visitor things gathered together thematically. The aim is to make it understandable.”

Here, in our view, the exhibition succeeds admirably. The objects are of a sufficiently high standard to impress virtually any viewer and the explanation of them is remarkable for its exemplary clarity.

For 276 years, 16 emperors of the Zhu family, beginning with Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming emperor, reigned over the world’s largest, wealthiest and most populated empire. Through this remarkable assembly of treasures, the exhibition examines imperial power, the Ming elite, the development of new wealth, and international trading relationships as they developed over the period. It also sheds interesting light on developing tastes and aesthetics, as Chinese society changed.


We particularly liked this massive Hongwu plate. Early Ming craftsmen mastered the technique of using copper oxide to produce an underglaze red. Nanjing Museum. Photo Paul Harris

As the exhibition literature further explains: ‘The Ming imperial court commanded the very finest materials and workmanship. This is revealed by the exquisite imperial items and rare objects within the exhibition, including the iconic blue and white porcelain with which the Ming period is synonymous. It was far superior to anything that could be produced in Europe at that time. The rich selection of porcelain of different glazes and decorations on display makes clear that blue and white was actually one among many decorative treatments of Ming porcelain. A meiping (plum vase) jar from the Zhengtong emperor’s reign (1435-1449) features a copper red underglaze, a colour effect so difficult to achieve that it was considered especially suitable for elite use.


Copper red underglaze on a Zhengtong meiping vase from the Nanjing Museum. Photo Paul Harris

‘ Workshops overseen by imperial eunuchs provided the court with all it needed for ritual, recreation and decoration. Also on display are sumptuous silk textiles, gold and jades, and rare examples of elaborately enamelled cloisonné.

‘At the top of the late Ming social order were the Ming’s educated elite, the literati, who had achieved success through the punishing civil service examination system. Exams were in principle, open to all, and therefore an important means of promoting social mobility. An extraordinary collection of life-like portraits show the faces of some of these men.

‘Accessories to the scholar’s studio, such as painting tables, musical instruments and delicately carved bamboo brushpots, depicting scenes such as pines and cranes, or scholars writing poetry, illustrate the literati ideal of self-cultivation. Many who failed to reach an official position pursued artistic and literary interests instead, and emerged to become the greatest painters, calligraphers, poets and writers of the Ming.


The NMS is particularly proud of this fish vat taken from its own collection. Jiajing mark and reign with underglaze blue decoration and made in Jingdezhen in the 16th c. Photo Paul Harris

‘Ming: The Golden Empire shows how an increasingly wealthy society led to greater demand for luxury and craft objects, including blue and white decorated porcelain. Using skills and techniques developed for the imperial court, the kilns of Jingdezhen began producing more porcelains to meet the demands of a growing domestic market that sought to emulate the tastes of the literati. Greater discrimination about the quality of goods meant that skilled craftsmen began signing their works just as literati painters did, becoming, in effect, brands.’

Ming: The Golden Empire is supported by investment managers Baillie Gifford. It will also be supported by a programme of events. There is also a publication to accompany the exhibition, featuring many of the beautiful objects on display. This exhibition has been produced by Nomad Exhibitions in association with Nanjing Museum.


Chicken-fat yellow glaze bowls made in Jingdezhen early to mid-Ming for use as table wares reserved for the Emperor    Photo Paul Harris