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March News: A brief review of Winter 2024

I had an enjoyable period over the winters season, which included a three week trip to Melbourne, Australia to break the winter and to visit my daughter. 

Last December I celebrated five years in the Chinese art consultancy business and I have written an article with some of my thoughts and successes over this interesting period. 

I also visited the Science Museum exhibition ‘Ziminghong’, of 24 clocks from the Palace Museum, Beijing, which was not highly publicised, but was a real treat.

I wish everyone all the best over the spring season and look forward to seeing some of you over this period.

Best wishes,

Robert Bradlow, March 2024.


30 January – Visit to the National Gallery of Victoria

On the 30th of January I visited the National Gallery of Victoria, which is located on the busy arts precinct in Southbank, just south of the CBD on St Kilda Road. It was opened in 1968 and was designed by Sir Roy Grounds. In 2002 the Australian collection was moved to Federation Square (The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia) and the St Kilda Road building was re-designed by Mario Bellini to house its International collection.

The National Gallery of Victoria has been collecting Asian art since 1862 and today holds around 5,000 works, dating from the second millennium BC to the twenty-first century. Many of these works have been purchased with the Felton Bequest, which was bequeathed by Alfred Felton on his death in 1904. The sum that was left the gallery was £378,033, which gave the Gallery the ability to acquire many important international works, which today are estimated to be more than A$2 billion.

The Asian Galleries are situated on the first floor and there are distinct areas dedicated to Chinese, Japanese and South and South East Asian Art. On entering the Chinese galleries one is met with two almost life size standing limestone bodhisattvas from the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577). Both of these sculptures came from the Xiantang shan cave in northern China. The two figures stand rather majestically holding various attributes, such as a lotus, bell and a peach.

After these figures one enters a gallery of early pottery which features three Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) sancai pottery guardians, a camel and a Ferghana horse standing four square.

Further on from these animals was a Tang dynasty white glazed figure of a caparisoned elephant, with a human figure on its back supporting a candle holder. Models of animals, especially elephants in white glaze are particularly rare in the Tang dynasty. Only seven of these types of elephant candlesticks are known and they were produced in the northern provinces of Henan and Hebei. They are relatively high fired, up to temperatures around 1300′ celsius, so nearly a true porcelain firing temperature.

This piece and its non identical pair belonged to the Goldschmidt family and was included in the great Chinese Exhibition mounted at the Prussian Academy of Art, Berlin, in 1929, at a time when Jakob Goldschmidt was one of Germany’s leading bankers.

I have illustrated a figure of a falconer next to the elephant, as these tomb figure would have represented the interests of the person buried, during his life. This figure is particularly well modelled and stands square on with a slight tilt to the shoulder as he looks down to his bird.

On the way to the Tang dynasty gallery, one passes this very unusual and large blue and white guan jar from the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The design is rather rare and depicts scholars in a retreat engaged in a ritual ceremony beneath a pine tree in an idealised rocky mountainous landscape.

The shoulder of the jar is delicately painted with a number of animated lions, who tussle with beribboned brocade balls amongst a number of emblems. Above the base a horizontal band is painted with rather an unusual and dynamic band of breaking waves.

One of my favourite sculptures in the gallery is the large Jin dynasty (1115-1234) carved wood figure of Guanyin. The figure sits in the ‘Royal Ease’ (Lalitasana) posture, where she leans her right elbow on her raised right knee. The figure’s head is angled slightly downward and her eyes are half closed in a deep contemplative gesture.

The sculptor has successfully captured the figure in a relaxed, sensitive pose and the back view displays how successful he has been in creating a balance between the vertical and horizontal lines of this form.

In the centre of the Chinese rooms, there is a circular gallery that contains a number of display cases around its perimeter. In one of these cabinets there are three great examples of mid Ming dynasty five colour ware known as wucai. Essentially these wares are thrown and then painted in cobalt blue and fired once with a clear glaze. Spaces are left where the over glazed coloured enamels will fill in the gaps, leaving a dynamic multi-coloured design usually depicting figures in a garden or birds, fish or other animals in nature. 

The three-tiered peach-shaped box in the centre is rather rare and unusual and is painted with birds fluttering around flowers. The circular box and cover to its left is also a rather rare form and creates two continuous designs in two distinct circular bands. 

On the opposing wall are two blue and white boxes, also of the middle Ming dynasty. The one on the left is a circular box and cover from the Wanli period (1573-1620) depicting the well known ‘Hundred Boys’ theme, which references a wish for many sons to its owner.

The other box is quite different in form and is based on a silver ingot shape. The upper surface of the cover is painted with two confronting five-claw dragons, writhing amongst clouds. It is quite a rare example from the short reign of the Emperor Longqing (1666-1672).

In the centre of the circular gallery sits one of Li Lihong large porcelain apples within a cabinet. It is painted in the millefleurs or 100 flowers technique that was favoured by the Qianlong Emperor in the Qing dynasty (1736-1795). As with his MacDonalds arches painted with five-claw imperial dragons in ‘China’, Lihong opens up a dialogue about the ways in which traditional culture interacts with modern life in an increasingly globalised culture. This can be seen through his combination of themes, styles and formats, from different cultural epochs and traditions.

11 February – A Brief Visit to the Melbourne Docklands

On 11 February, I visited the Docklands area of Melbourne. I had driven over the Bolte Bridge a number of times during my stay and had noticed how much it had changed in the 16 years since I had lived in Melbourne.

I therefore decided to venture down to it towards the end of our trip. Being there on a Sunday evening was a good time to visit, as it was relatively quiet with most of the shops being closed. The light was quite dramatic, being a clear evening with the sun beginning its descent.

I came across this rather unusual sculptural installation by the Chinese artist – Wang Shugang. The work is called Meeting 1 and it depicts eight red painted bronze figures squatting in a circle. The artists examines the idea of meeting and approaching this serious content in a rather humorous way by depicting the figures squatting.

This work was part of the Docklands Integrated Urban Art Program and was launched by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, the Right Honourable Robert Doyle on 18 April 2013.

I have not really written very much for this section, as it is really something that photographs can say much more clearly than words. However, it is clear that one does get the feeling on visiting Docklands, that it has successfully addressed some of the issues of medium density living in a growing multi-cultural city.

27th February – Visit to the Science Museum’s Exhibition – Zimingzhong, Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City.

On the 27th of February, I visited the Science Museum’s exhibition Zimingzhong, Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City. The exhibition comprised 23 exhibits from the Palace Museum, Beijing, a number of which had originally been presented to the Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). Some were produced in Guangzhou (Canton) and a number were produced in England by James Cox.

Some of the displays were quite breathtaking in their sheer size, imagination and ornateness.

Clocks were first brought to the Forbidden City by missionaries in the early 1600s, as tribute gifts to the emperor as a means of currying favour with the court. The Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722) was the first Qing emperor to start collecting automata clocks, which he christened ‘zimingzhong’, (self-sounding bells) and he displayed them as foreign curiosities.

The first display in the exhibition is this 18th century nine story automata pagoda clock. As the hands reach the hour, each of the floors of the pagoda rise up vertically and thus extends its height.

The second clock is a highly ornate sculptural work of a boy leading a ram. The clock element is located below the figure and is almost incidental to the overall work. This English clock was presented to the Emperor Qianlong as tribute by the Chinese customs offical Hoppo. Tribute was a formalised system where subjects showed their loyalty to the emperor by giving expensive gifts.

This clock depicts a crane holding a lingzhi fungus in its mouth, which symbolises longevity and long lasting marriage. The clock mechanism is made by James Cox, but the casing and its highly ornate decoration would have been made under the instructions of the emperor, most likely in the Forbidden City.

One of the largest and most ornamentally outrageous clocks in the exhibition is this one which depicts a Middle Eastern groom leading a silver horse with a bejewelled saddle blanket. Behind is a palm tree and a mirrored canopy, the edges of which are formed by rows of seed pearls. The print on the back of the clock (middle image below) depicts the coronation of Louis XIV of France. The clock dates to around 1780 and was made by Stephen Rimbault, in London.

One of the most unusual clocks in the exhibition is the one made in the form of a large cloisonné enamel fish bowl with lotus pond. The dial is set to one side and on the hour the lotus petals open to reveal standing and seated figures. Birds also swim on the surface of the ‘pond’.

This clock was made in Guangzhou and the maker engraved their company name in both Chinese and English: Cheong Sing. The musical mechanism would have been made in Europe and the Guangzhou maker would have put it all together.

This large and highly ornate clock was made by James Upjohn on a commission for James Cox in the 1760s in London. The middle section below the dial depicts a temple with Alexander the Great and five revolving soldiers. The red velvet base contains a mechanical music box which was made by a composer and programmer.

Clocks such as these were made by hand from hundreds of pieces and as such were only affordable to the wealthiest of clients. This clock was valued around £2,000 in 1770, which is around £350,000 today.

This is a really interesting clock and would have been made in the Forbidden City at the Zaobanchu, the Palace workshops. The enamelling to the roof is very similar to the quality and style of decoration that one sees on ewers and teapots which bear imperial Qianlong reign marks. The quality of the carving to the lower wood tier is of the highest quality and depicts dragons carved in the formal archaic style, that one sees on jades and bronzes.

I believe that the best of these clocks most successfully combine artistic endeavour and the science of automaton and the clock movement. Some, in my view, especially the one above, go a lot bit too far in their ornateness, but I do accept that beauty is in the eye of the holder.

The last clock I will look at is the last in the display is a large and highly ornate caparisoned elephant-form one, which was made in England in the 18th century. It is again extravagantly decorated in encrusted jewels and is either made of gold or silver-gilt. According to the gallery label, when the mechanism is wound, the elephant’s trunk and tail move up and down and his eyes roll!

There are over 1500 clocks in the Palace Museum, which need regular repair and maintenance. One of these highly skilled repairers is the Wang Jin, who has been repairing clocks at the Palace since 1977.

I would highly recommend the reader to visit this exhibition, which is on until early June.


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