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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Wu

Chinese Art in London! Museum and Gallery Highlights from my Spring Visit

Last month I had the pleasure of visiting London for the first time in almost three years!

Even though I resumed traveling internationally during the summer of 2021, it was only to USA destinations like Boston, New York and Chicago - so going across the Atlantic was quite a grand adventure.

The purpose of the trip was to view the Asian art auctions at Sotheby's and Bonhams. I also visited some of the smaller regional auction houses. (More about these highlights in a future blog... I took nearly 3000 photos and still have to organize all of them!)

London as you all know has some of the best museums and galleries for Asian art on the planet. By far one of the biggest collections of Chinese art is in the British Museum. This is one of my favourite places to be, and even though I spent a whole day here, I still wasn't able to see everything in the Chinese art galleries.

British Museum Qianlong Bronze Ding

Photo 1. Here's a view of the main hall of the Chinese art gallery at the British Museum. In the front is a massive bronze tripod censer with a Qianlong mark and period seal (1736-1795). In the far back you can get a glimpse of the famous Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) Buddhist stucco murals.

British Museum early Ming gilt bronze Buddhist sculpture

Photo 2. One of my favourite display cases at the British Museum is this incredible selection of early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) gilt bronze Buddhist figures. The examples here all date to the Yongle (1403-1425) to Xuande (1426-1435) reigns.

British Museum Ming Chenghua Palace Bowls

Photo 3. The number of important Chinese art items at the British Museum are simply stunning. Here we see a selection of blue and white porcelain 'Palace Bowls' from the Chenghua Period (1488-1505) of the mid Ming Dynasty.

These bowls are extremely rare and known for the gracefulness of the floral designs and the softness of the cobalt blue pigments. They are very seldom seen on the auction market (maybe one example every couple of years), and I've only been able to handle two similar bowls during my entire career. So for me, seeing five of them on a shelf so closely packed together is quite exciting.

Also at the Bristsh Museum is the Percival David Foundation (PDF). This collection was put together by the esteemed collector Sir Percival David (1892-1964) during the early 20th Century.

Around 1950, the collection was housed in SOAS (the school of Oriental and African Studies) and only in 2009 did its entirety move to the British Museum.

This collection of approximately 1700 objects focuses mostly on Chinese imperial ceramics from the Song to Qing Dynasties.

Percival David Foundation Yongzheng monochromes

Photo 4. One of my favourite display cases at the PDF features examples of Yongzheng Period (1723-1735) monochrome porcelain. This period was well-known for their experiments with colours in many different palettes. Some of the rarer ones are found here including the lime green and coral red in the upper right side, in addition to turquoise and ruby pink.

Another fascinating thing about the PDF is how the objects are displayed and numbered. All the cases along the outer wall are thematically organized and carefully inventoried.

Percival David Foundation yellow and white porcelain

Photo 5. This is the 'egg yolk case' I am so fond of. It contains yellow and white porcelain objects from the Ming to Qing Dynasties.

Percival David Foundation yellow and white porcelain reign marks

Photo 6. By peeking underneath the cases you're able to see all the different reign marks for these porcelain ware. This is useful in identifying the different periods from when each piece was made.

For someone like me, by knowing which period each of the porcelain pieces are from, you can study the different variations of colour used throughout the different periods ie the difference in quality of the glaze from the mid 17th century to the early 18th Century.

Percival David Foundation Ru wares

Photo 7. Ru ware is also on display at the PDF. Outside of the Beijing and Taipei, the PDF houses the most number of Ru wares. These pieces are extremely rare and sought after.

There are just over 90 complete examples that still exists and they fetch significant $$$ whenever an example appears on the auction market. Take for example this Ru dish from the Le Cong Tang collection that sold for HKD 294,287,500 (approximately CAD 47.8 million) at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2017.

Ru wares were made for the imperial court of the Northern Song Dynasty and the pieces were well-known for their elegant shapes, perfect crackles, and translucent bluish glaze.

Another important museum is the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is a museum that is associated with the history of art and design, so fittingly they have a strong collection of Chinese art work.

This time I was focusing mainly on their vast collection of Buddhist sculptures, some of which date to as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.

V & A Eastern Wei Buddhist sculpture

Photo 8. This is one example of a Buddhist sculpture I paid close attention to. It is a Buddhist triad dated to 544 of the Eastern Wei Dynasty (534-550). An example like this would have been found in a cave temple along the Silk Road so that pilgrims can pay their respects. I particularly like the 3D look of the figures and their elegant appearance.

V & A wall of porcelain

Photo 9. Also at the V & A is their wonderful new display cases on the third floor. These were something that is new since my last visit a couple of years ago. Essentially they moved the important objects from their storage area out into cases that can be viewed by the public. There were many important examples I was able to see in person rather than from old exhibition catalogues.

Finally, a trip to London museums and galleries wouldn't be complete without a visit to Eskenazi Gallery. Globally they are the most recognized dealer in Chinese art for the past 50 years with major pieces sold to important museums around the world.

It has been a couple of years since I last visited, and this time I was able to see some of the items from their last major show in November 2021 titled Tang: ceramics, metal work and sculpture.

Eskenazi Gallery lacquer bodhisattva head

Photo 10. Here is the cover object to their Tang Dynasty (618-907) exhibition, a rare dry lacquer head of a Buddhist bodhisattva (618-907). Only a handful of similar examples survive. This one is just over life-size and features a beautiful face that exudes compassion and wisdom.

Eskenazi Gallery Tang zodiac horse

Photo 11. And finally I wanted to show one of my favourite pieces of all time which just happened to be at the Eskenazi exhibition. This is a rare and unusal sancai model of a zodiaz horse from the Tang Dynasty.

The figure has the head of a horse and body of human. These sancai (three-colour) glazed items were associated with tombs, and the details and colours are so precise suggesting it was buried with a high ranking noble. Sancai figures and wares were funeral items and this extraordinary example was probably accompanied someone who had the horse zodiac to the afterlife.

Eskenazi Gallery Tang zodiac horse

Photo 12. Here is a frontal depiction of the horse zodiac.

Anyways, thank you for reading this post, and I'll put another one together about some of the auction highlights I saw during this trip to London. Hope everyone has a nice summer!


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