This spring has been a busy period and I have been fortunate enough to have seen a number of museum collections and been involved with some handling session with the Oriental Ceramics Society.
In May I travelled to Singapore, where I gave a lecture entitled Adventures and Discoveries in Chinese art, 2008-2018, which covered my time as head of Sotheby’s London Chinese department. I have posted the slides of the lecture on my website and I have provided the link below.
Finally, I briefly review the London and regional Spring Chinese sales that were held in May.
I hope that you enjoy this post and I wish everyone all the best over the summer period.
Robert Bradlow, June 2023
Visit to Blenheim Palace – 03 March
On the 3rd of March, I took a client on a visit to Blenheim Palace to view some of the Chinese ceramics on public display.
Blenheim Palace is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough and the birth place of Winston Churchill. It is situated in Woodstock, Oxfordshire and was built in the English Baroque style by Sir John Vanbrugh between 1705 and 1722. The land was given as a gift by the Crown to John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough after his military success in the war of Spanish Succession against France and Bavaria, which culminated in the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.
One enters the Palace from a large quadrangle into a magnificent three story Great Hall, which has a large oval painting by Sir James Thornhill set into the ceiling which depicts the Duke of Marlborough presenting the battle of Blenheim to Britannia.
Situated around the Great Hall are a number of cabinets containing Chinese porcelain, two of which are dedicated to the white wares of the Dehua kilns from Fujian province. Otherwise known as Blanc de Chine, these were highly collectable at the beginning of the 18th century and many in the collection date from the Kangxi period (1662-1722).
Some of the most notable pieces in both cabinets are those with Christian influence such as the figures of Guanyin with a child and the rare figures that are often referred to as Adam and Eve who wear only wrapped material around their waists. The collection is also notable for its many figures of the seated Budai, as well as those of Dutchman, with one of the latter rare examples seated on a Buddhist lion.
At the back of the Great Hall there are two grand cabinets dedicated to famille verte wares of the Kangxi period. One cabinet contains ‘powder blue’ ground examples and the other with their original white grounds.
The name ‘powder blue’ relates to their production, where liquid cobalt glaze is blown through a tube directly on to the unfired porcelain body. The effect of this technique gives a rather mottled appearance to the blue glaze. A number of shaped paper panels would be placed over the pieces to mask certain areas to be left white, which would then be enamelled over a clear glaze after the initial high temperature firing.
One of the rarest an most interesting pieces in the famille verte cabinet is the gilt-bronze mounted ‘dragon’ ewer. It is an unusual shape, being of quite upright narrow form and has a green four-clawed dragon writhing around the elongated neck. There was most likely damage to its spout and a gilt-bronze replacement in the form of a bird’s head has been used.
On the shelf below there is a pair of unusual smaller gilt-bronze mounted ewers, that are painted with panels of figures below turquoise festoons.
As we moved through the grand state rooms, a number of of which displayed the early 18th century Flemish tapestries of the War of the Spanish Succession, we came to the central Saloon, which was originally used as the communal state dining room.
At each end of this grand space there is a pair of marble topped tables and on one there is a large pair of Kangxi period blue and white baluster ‘lotus’ jars and covers. These are painted in bright blue tones with a dense design of lotus blooms which cover the main body of the jars.
On the opposite side of the room, there are two further large blue and white jars and covers from the Kangxi period, the right hand example looks to date from the early Kangxi period and still has some design elements of the Transitional period, that is in its shape, its continuous pictorial design and the band of ascending leaves at the neck.
The last large state room one enters is the Long Library which was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1722-1725 and contains the largest pipe organ in private ownership in Europe.
Situated at the opposite end are two large and magnificent famille verte jars and covers of the Kangxi period. They are painted in bright enamels and the surface of each is divided into a number of panels depicting a mythical qilin, deer beneath pine trees and the main panel of a four-claw dragon writhing above two phoenix. I have included some close up images of the decoration to give one an idea of the quality and opulence of the design of these vases, which are around 75cm high.
Jars of this size, quality and design are rare, especially having their original covers and being in intact condition.
Oriental Ceramics Society (OCS) Handling Session at Harrow School – 10 March:
On the 10th of March I helped to organise a trip with the Oriental Ceramics Society to handle some of the pieces in the Chinese ceramic collection of H B Harris at the Old Speech Room Gallery (OSRG) at Harrow School.
Henry Blackwall Harris (1871-1929) was a founder member of the Oriental Ceramics Society and had enlisted in World War I as a private and was badly gassed at the Battle of Loos in 1916.
He bought a number of pieces from Bluett & Sons and one of his most significant purchases is the very rare Chenghua mark and period blue and turquoise ‘dragon’ box and cover in the British Museum.
The event was hosted by the OSRG curator, Julia Walton and Dominic Jellinek gave and interesting introduction to H B Harris and the period in which he was collecting. A number of young specialists from the London and regional auction houses were invited, as well as some OCS Council members. It was a most enjoyable day and I would highly recommend the collection to potential visitors.
Woolley & Wallis Oriental Ceramics Society Handling Session of the Lawrence Collection of Jades at the Society of Antiquaries, London – 14 March:
On the 14th of March, on the day of the annual Woolf Jade lecture, Woolley and Wallace held two handling sessions of some of the highlights of a collection of jades that they will be offering for sale this November.
The collection was put together primarily by Neville Lawrence (1891-1959) who made a number of purchases from Spink & Son, London up to 1958. Lawrence was born in Kashmir and after World War I he became a banker and member of the Stock Exchange. His passion for collecting jades was ignited when he was gifted a piece of jade by his wife Sarah, which led him to building this unique collection.
On his death in 1959, he gifted the collection to his son Murray Lawrence (1935-2021), who continued refining and upgrading the collection after his retirement from an illustrious career at Lloyd’s of London.
The collection features a number of top quality white jades. One of my personal favourites is the Qianlong period vase in the form of a section of bamboo, with one side delicately carved with an offshoot of branches and leaves.
One of the finest pieces in the collection is the Qianlong period white jade censer and cover, which is superbly carved and features a band of ruyi at the shoulder. The stone is of a perfect white tone and is flawless in its composition.
Another example I really enjoyed handling was the pair of Qianlong period white jade lobed jars with pierced covers. The finials are carved with ruyi and centred with a shou character, which is surrounded by lotus lappets. The overall effect is a real tour de force of carving and would have taken great skill to execute.
Another personal favourite of the group is the pair of Qianlong period pale celadon brush pots. They are unusual in that each are mounted to the rim and base with spinach jade and are very finely carved in a continuous design of figures on horseback in a rocky landscape amongst swirling clouds and retreats.
The collection also features an unusual pair of gilded bowenite bowls, each with a four-character Qianlong mark to the base. They are delicately painted to the exterior with panels of flowers.
One unusual object that caught my eye, was a spinach-green jade stand and there was some discussion as to what it might have supported. From the four impressions at the inner part of each lappet, I thought that it could be the stand for a white jade brushpot with four feet, the shape of which corresponds to these recesses.
The sessions were very well attended by members of the OCS, which was followed by a very interesting lecture on Adèle and Salomon de Rothschild’s Chinese collection of jades by Élénore Dérisson, the curator of the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild in Paris.
Lecture and Valuation Trip to Singapore 05 – 09 May
In early May, I travelled to Singapore to give a lecture to a group of collectors entitled Adventures and Discoveries in Chinese Art, 2008-2018, which covered my ten years as head of of the Chinese Department at Sotheby’s London.
I really enjoyed reliving some of the experiences and the great objects and clients that I came across during my time in London. I have attached the slides as a seperate post that can be accessed at the following link:
Brief Review of the London and Regional May Chinese Auctions
This spring selling season was the first where only Bonhams, of the three main London auction houses, held sales at their Knightsbridge and Bond Street branches. Sotheby’s had moved its May sale to Paris, which was held in earlier this month and Christie’s had ceased sales in London in 2021.
Despite this, there was still a significant amount of Chinese art to be viewed as a number of regional auction rooms held special viewings in London.
Bonhams held two sales at its Bond Street rooms, the first on the 17th of May was Michael Goedhuis: Brush & Bronze and the second was Fine Chinese Art, held on the 18th.
The most significant highlight from the bronzes in the former sale was lot 308, the late Ming dynasty rare silver inlaid bronze figure of Guanyin by He Chaozong. He was a renowned early 17th century potter at the Dehua kilns and his works in bronze are indeed rare. This figure sold for £214,500, well over its £100,000-150,000 pre-sale estimate.
The top selling painting of the sale was lot 326, the atmospheric Landscape work by Li Huayi (b.1948), which sold for £277,500 (Estimate £100,000-200,000).
The Fine Chinese Art sale opened with an interesting collection of early jade from a British family and one of the highlight lots was lot 19, the large and very rare late Shang dynasty archaic jade ‘buffalo’ carving, which sold for £94,800 (Estimate 50,000-80,000).
Two examples I particularly liked was lots 20, the Warrings States finial and 21, the Warring States/Western Han dragon and figure pendant, xi. Both sold well over their presale estimates (£3,000-5,000 and £8,000-12,000) for £31,800 and £40,600 respectively.
The highest selling piece in the sale was lot 40, the Yongle mark and period gilt-bronze figure of Shakyamuni Buddha. The figure was beautifully cast and seated in a meditative pose, his face with a peaceful expression with the eyes closed. It sold for £806,700 against a pre-sale estimate of £300,000-500,000.
The second highest lot of the sale was lot 128, the rare and important imperial court painting of the Bannerman Te’er Den Che. The work is inscribed by the Emperor Qianlong and dated to 1788 and depicts the Bannerman front on and in the process of unsheathing his sword. It is an engaging work and the inscription describes him as a great archer that never missed his mark. The work sold for £781,500 (Estimate £200,000-300,000).
The 97 lot Michael Goedhuis sale realised £2.01m with a 99% sold through rate and the Fine Chinese Art realised £5.28m twice the pre-sale total estimate.
Highlights from Other London Sales
Bonhams Knightsbridge, 15-16 May.
Roseberrys, 16 May.
Dreweatts, 17 May.
The Dreweatts spring sale featured a really interesting group of pieces from the collection of Major Edward C. Radcliffe (1898-1967). Radcliffe had served in both wars in the 9th Lancers regiment and emigrated to South Africa in 1948. A number of the pieces were exhibited at the 1953 Chinese Exhibition at the National Gallery of South Africa in Cape Town.
The most significant piece from the collection was lot 5, the rare Xuande mark and period ‘pomegranate’ box and cover. There are only five of these boxes known, with only two currently in private collections. They are inscribed with the six-character marks to the underside of the box and to the interior of the cover. The piece had some slight areas of restoration to the sides but on the whole was in good condition. There was considerable interest and the piece was finally knocked down for £230,000 (Estimate £6,000-10,000).
The collection also featured a Ming dynasty late 15th/early 16th cloisonné censer stand (lot 4), which was ornately decorated with bunches of grapes on a vibrant blue ground and it sold for £10,000 (Estimate £300-500).
Amongst the early ceramics, there was two interesting lots, the first was lot 9, the Song/Jin dynasty Yaozhou celadon ‘fish’ conical bowl. This was particularly well moulded and the deep pooling of the translucent celadon glaze in the design recesses really gives one the clear impression of actual fish swimming through water. It sold for £24,000 against its £800-1,200 pre-sale estimate. The second, was lot lot 15, the Song/Jin dynasty Junyao dish, the glaze of which was of a particular vibrant and consistent blue colour. It was a real pleasure to hold this piece in the hand and it sold for £20,000 (Estimate £1,000-1,500).
Woolley & Wallis, 24 and 25 May.
On the 18th of May, I was invited with a couple of fellow OCS members to a private viewing of the Woolley and Wallis Asian sales. It was my first visit to their newly appointed viewing space in Old Sarum on the northern outskirts of Salisbury.
I was really impressed with the space, which featured a large, well lit and flexible viewing gallery, which had been divided into the Fine Chinese Works of Art sale and the Japanese and Asian art sales. The building was a shrewd purchase by the company and it has become the nerve centre of the operation where photography, catalogue production and storage prior to viewing takes place.
The highlight of the three day series of sales was a group of 17 works of art that came from the collection of Adolphe Stoclet (1871-1949). Stoclet was a Belgian engineer and financier and together with his wife Suzanne, became notable collectors in a breadth of ancient cultures including Chinese, Egyptian, pre-Columbian and African. In 1905 they commissioned the renowned Wiener Werkstätte designer – Joseph Hoffman to build a suitable building in Brussels to house the collection.
The Stoclet Palace is considered to be one of the great architectural structures of the Vienna Secessionist movement and is still held within the family today.
The most significant piece from this group was lot 408, the Northern Qi dynasty white marble stele. The stele features a central figure of Buddha with the abhayamudra or the gesture of reassurance or safety. The figure is flanked by two bodhisattva and below four flying apsaras.
The stele was exhibited in Paris in 1913 at the Musée Cernuschi and published in George A Sales and Daisy Lion-Gioldschmidt’s 1956 work – Adolphe Stoclet Collection (part I).
It was thus not a great surprise that this lot was the highest selling lot of the sale at £554,400 against a pre-sale estimate of £40,000-60,000.
Another significant work from the collection was lot 406, the rare Shang dynasty and Warring States Period gilt-bronze and jade ceremonial dagger. It was an interesting combination of materials with the later Warring States gilt-bronze handle applied to a slightly wider Shang dynasty jade blade. The handle is skilfully cast and inlaid and features two confronting dragons. It sold for £70,000 (Estimate £ 8,000-12,000).
One striking piece that would not have looked out of place in the Stoclet Palace is lot 403, the Warring States Period gold, silver and turquoise inlaid bronze garment hook, daigou. Its intricate geometrical lozenge-shaped and circular motifs have a particularly contemporary feel. This piece was knocked down for £63,000 (Estimate £15,000-20,000).
Of the Qing imperial porcelain, the stand out lot for me was lot 538, the pair of Qianlong mark and period celadon ‘peony’ bowls. It is quite unusual to find these in pairs and they were both nicely carved to the exterior and incised to the interior. The colour of one was slightly brighter than the other and they sold for £58,000 (Estimate £20,000-30,000).
Another favourite of this section was lot 527, the fine Kangxi mark and period copper-red glazed dish. The mark was very well executed and the colour to both sides was a rich and consistent deep red. It sold for £19,500 (Estimate £5,000-8,000).
Woolley and Wallis achieved a sale total of over £4.2m for the three days.
One final point that I would like to make on the spring sales is an observation of the buoyancy of middle market quality Kangxi porcelain, especially blue and white. I have illustrated three examples below with their results against estimate and their sale venue.