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Tour of the Percival David Collection at the British Museum on 20 August 2021

On Friday 20 August, I gave a talk on the Percival David Collection to a group of Chinese clients of the New Vision Artall Consultancy. It was my first lecture from the series that I will be giving entitled: Chinese Art Collectors in Britain in the 20th Century and it was a most enjoyable experience.   

I met the group at Room 95 and I began with an introduction of Percival David and read his obituary written by Harry Garner in 1964, which I have reproduced below. I followed this with a brief chronology of Sir Percival David’s life and then gave a tour of the collection, looking at pieces in chronological order. I have reproduced the notes of my talk below with images of the pieces and of me giving the talk.

Sir Percival David.

Sir Percival David – Gentleman, Scholar, Collector and Philanthropist


1892 – Percival David was born in Bombay into a prominent Bhagdadi Jewish family – the Sassoons. 

His father Sassoon David, was co-founder of Bank of India and ran Sassoon David J & Company. Initially the company dealt in banking and property and later commodities like precious metals, silks, gums, spices, wool and wheat and then cotton and opium from India.  

Percival David graduated from Bombay (Elphinstone College) and Cambridge universities where he studied law, which was to be his career before discovering Chinese art. 

1912 – He moves to London and marries Vere Mozelle 

1914 – David starts collecting Chinese ceramics. It is believed that he was introduced to this it by an older collector – Marcus Ezekiel who lived near Brighton. He then bought four pieces from Sparks & Co London and subsequently from Bluett, Chait in NY, Yamanaka and Mayuyama. He also bought at auction and whilst travelling in China.

1923 – David is recognised as a serious collector and made his first trip to China. Important to consider the contextual environment of his collecting world, which consisted of five parts i. Family and Home; ii. Social life, iii; Buying and Collecting, iv. Scholarship (lecturer and scholar), Exhibitions/Museums and v. Philanthropy (he supported museums with money and donations).  Percival David funded the first degree programme at SOAS in Chinese art and archaeology). 1. 

He was a member of prominent clubs, Atheneum, Burlington Fine Arts Club, OCS , fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Philatelic Society. 

1920s – He buys a huge country house – Friars Park in Henley (in the 1970s it was bought by George Harrison of the Beatles). His collection was stored there during the war. He starts to build up his collection, travels extensively and starts his signifiant philanthropic work. 

1926 – His father dies and he inherits the Baronetcy and the chairmanship of Sassoon David & Company.  

1928 – He made his second visit to China to complete a transaction of pieces from the imperial collection. The Yuin Yeh Bank had retained important pieces as part of collateral for a loan from the Empress Dowager Cixi when she left Forbidden city in 1901. Percival David finally purchased 40 pieces after long and protracted negotiations. 

1928 – He set the objective to create a historical and artistic centre for the study of Chinese art and archaeology. 

1930s – He becomes active in museums and societies including the OCS, which was founded in 1921 and he becomes an active player in it. He expands his collection to include paintings and books. He travels to help with the selection and organisation of 1935-1936 International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy. 

An early photograph of members of the Oriental Ceramics Society meeting, including R.L. Hobson, George Eumorfopoulos and Sir Alan Barlow.

1931 – Percival David purchased a flat in the Dorchester Hotel when it opened and his collection was later housed there. 

1934 – Special private publication by R L Hobson of the Percival David Collection. 

1935-1936 – Percival David was the instigator, organiser and lender to the International Exhibition of Chinese Art at Royal Academy. It was the largest exhibition of Chinese art organised in the West.  

1939-45 – His collection and others stored at Friars Park. 

1950 – Sir Percival David donated his collection to the Universtiy of London. 

June 10 1952 – The Percival David Foundation was opened at 53 Gordon Square. 

1953 – He marries his second wife – Shelia Jane Yorke nee Hardy (Lady David), who had been his companion for many years. She became the first curator of the Percival David Foundation. 

Sir Percival and Lady David.

Sotheby’s sales of duplicates and works of art. 

1961 – 6 December – 1st Sotheby’s sale. 

1962 – 29 May  – 2nd Sotheby’s sale. 

1964 – Sir Percival David died and survived by Lady David.  

2008 – Museum at Gordon Square moves to the British Museum (after 56 years). An important proviso was that all pieces had to be on view at Gallery 95.

1. Stacey Pierson lecture, Sir Percival David and his collecting world: towards a personal and material biography, 06 May 2021 –

Gallery 95 at the British Museum.

Exhibits and Themes

  • The Percival David Collection is one of the best collections of imperial Chinese ceramics in the world in terms of its breadth, depth and quality. There are almost 1700 pieces in the collection in the gallery (1400 were collected by Percival David and 300 were from the Elphinstone bequest). 
  • This was not his complete collection, which also consisted of works of art like lacquer, jade, cloisonné enamel, Chinese paintings, books, cartography and stamps. 
  • The ceramic collection is essentially from the Song to Qing dynasties (10th to 18th centuries)and took 40 years to put together. 
  • The collection focuses on pieces made for the imperial court, and has the largest proportion of inscribed and dated pieces, which was an important focus for David.
  • Sir Percival David’s intention was to collect on a scientific and historical basis and not just purely aesthetic. This reflected his scholarly approach. 
  • A reflection on my own personal involvement with the study of the collection with the SOAS Song to Ming course run by Rosemary Scott in 1990. The advantages of being taught at the Lady David Seminar Centre at the top floor of 53 Gordon Square: with morning slide lectures, followed by visits to the galleries below where pieces were taken out of the cabinets by Scott and shown to students. This was a marvellous personal introduction to the collection and to Chinese art, which was part of Sir Percival David’s great legacy.
  • This talk will give a chronological view of the collection and look at some of the essential aspects of each period and type of ware. 

Song Ceramics

To look at what Chinese scholars have considered the five classic Song wares: Ru, Guan, Ge, Ding and Jun. 

What are the essentials elements of Song ceramics?  An understated, paired down aesthetic in keeping with Song literati taste (where less is more). 

This has some elements in common with the formalism of modern art, which focusses on the essentials of form (shape), colour and glaze effects.

Ding: Northern Song/Jin dynasty

Northern Song/Jin dynasty. This high fired porcelaneous stoneware is characterised by a light coloured body, covered with a translucent ivory coloured glaze. The decoration on carved examples is rendered by carving into the semi-dry body at an angle to create the decoration, which was mainly flowers, and animals such as fish and dragons. 

From the Jin dynasty, the decoration was also created by moulding, where a potted piece would be placed over a pre-carved mould. This was to help increase the speed of production.

Ding wares employed the Fushao firing technique, where they were fired upside down on their rims within the sagger. This was to prevent warping and also to make it possible to fire more pieces in the firing. This left the rims unglazed, which were then strengthened by covering them with metal, which was usually a copper alloy. 

Jun: Northern Song/Jin dynasty

Jun ware was produced mainly at Yuzhou and Linru in Yu county, Henan province. The bright blue colour in these wares was created by a series of thick bubbles in the glaze. The addition of purple copper splashes enhanced their appeal and thus made these examples more sought after. Despite their appearance of spontaneity, the splashes were quite carefully applied.

Jun vases are particularly rare and the Percival David Collection has one of the finest and rarest. The bottle vase has a rounded pear-shaped body with a tall cylindrical neck. The slight widening at the rim helps to give overall balance to the form. 

The collection also has a number of ‘bubble’ bowls, which are so named, because they appear like soap bubbles when viewed from above. 

Guan: Southern Song dynasty 

Guan wares were believed to be initially made at Hangzhou, under the supervision of Xiuneisi (the department of palace supply) and later at Jiaotanxia.

They are characterised by a dark body and a pale blue to grey-green glaze, which contains a network of prominent and fine crackle, which has been described as ‘golden threads and iron wires’.

One of the finest pieces in the collection is a beautifully potted bottle vase, that is one of the rarest forms of Guan ware. It was one of Sir Percival David’s most prized pieces and was one of the 40 pieces purchased from the Imperial collection in 1928. It was also the frontispiece illustration for 1935/36 RA exhibition catalogue. 

Guan wares, including the bottle vase, Southern Song dynasty, 18cm high and a foliate dish, Southern Song dynasty, 16.8cm diameter.

Ru: Northern Song dynasty

This ware was produced for the imperial court for a short period from 1100. There are around 89 heirloom pieces pieces known, nearly all of which are in museums.

The Ru kiln site is situated at Qingliangsi village in Baofeng county, Henan province. A sherd was found in 1977 but the site had been identified in 1950. 

Characteristics of Ru ware are a pale ice-crackled or opaque turquoise glaze. The colour has been described as ‘the colour of the sky after rain’. Ru wares are fired on spurs in the kiln, which leave small sesame seed type marks to their bases.  

There is a simple elegance to their forms – round brush washers are the most common shape (33 known), there are also oval brush washers with fish (2), bowl stands (4) and vases (only 5 known). 

Yaozhou: Northern Song dynasty

Most important kiln sites are at Linru and Baofeng in Henan province.

Carved designs were made with a knife at an angle in a similar way to Ding wares, but the glaze is deeper in colour and becomes darker in the recesses, which creates a clever three-dimensional effect. Combed lines to the petals and leaves helps to create a greater naturalistic effect. 

Longquan: Southern Song, Yuan & Ming dynasties 

Longquan kilns were situated in Zhejiang and Northern Fujian provinces. Pieces were fired in large dragon kilns, which could accommodate hundreds of pieces in one firing. Glaze variations depended on the location of pieces to the fire. Fenqing (powder blue) is the most desirable glaze colour, known as ‘kinuta’ to the Japanese (the name for the mallet shaped vases). These were generally situated in the kiln furthest from the fire, where they could heat up and cool down more slowly during the firing process. Longquan wares were fired in a reducing atmosphere (firing without oxygen).

Tobi Seiji Vase (spotted greenware), Yuan dynasty. These have traditionally been favoured by Japanese collectors. The spots are created by the application of an iron-brown glaze. 

Octagonal vases with unglazed panels and dishes with animals in relief were made during the Yuan dynasty. The reddish-brown colour of the biscuit (unfired body) was created after the reduction firing had ended and where oxygen was re-introduced to the kiln. Unglazed panels were created by being covered with wax prior to being dipped in the glaze. The shape and decoration of some of these wares derived from Tang dynasty metalware.

Large Temple Vase, Yuan dynasty – dated to 1327 

This is inscribed to the rim with a dedication by Zhang Jincheng (patron) of Wanan village (at Longquan), who fired a pair of flower vases for the Great Dharma Hall at Juelin temple. Large baluster vases like this are potted in three pieces and luted together. A similar vase was found in a ship wreck of the coast of Sinan in Korea in 1323. 

What are the differences between earthenware, stoneware and porcelain?

Earthenware: Pieces are fired below 1200’C, and are also referred to as terracotta, which is porous.

Stoneware: Has a harder ceramic body and is fired between 1100 and 1300’C.

Porcelain: Consists of a white china clay and petunse (china stone) – from mica and fired to 1360’C and above.  

Qingbai (green white)

This was the first true porcelain made at Jingdezhen from the Northern Song dynasty, which was the forerunner to blue and white. There is very little Qingbai ware in Percival David Collection as it was not considered an imperial ware. However, all the subsequent porcelain wares that we will look at were all made at the kiln complexes at Jingdezhen in Jiangsi province. 

Yuan Blue and White Wares

The David Vases (dated to 1351)

These are generally regarded as the most important pieces of blue and white Chinese porcelain in existence. They are significant in helping to date other, unmarked pieces with similar designs. These vases incorporate most of the design elements of the early to mid 14th century. The decoration is organised into horizontal bands.

Translation of the inscription on each vase: The faithful disciple and member of the Jingtan society, Shang Wenjin of Dexiao lane in the village of Shunzheng in Yushan district of Xinzhou, is happy to present an altar set of an incense burner and vases as a prayer for the protection of the whole family and for the peace and prosperity of his descendants. Recorded on an auspicious day in the fourth month of the eleventh year of zhizhen (1351). Dedicated before the Xingyuan altar of the General Hu Zhingyi. The prefecture of Xinzhou (now Guangxin) was about seventy miles southeast of Jingdezhen. 

Sir Percival David acquired these vases at different times and they are slightly different. It is believed that they were brought to England around 1920 by Mountstuart William Elphinstone (1871-1957). He gave one to Sir Percival David and sold the other to the collector Charles Ernest Russell (1866-1960). Sotheby’s sold Charles Russell’s collection in June 1935, where David purchased it for £360. 

Copper-Red and Underglaze-Blue Jar, Guan 

Only four are known to exist: 1. Percival David Collection. 2. Hebei Provincial Museum (Baoding Hoard). 3. Palace Museum, Beijing and 4. Christie’s sold in 1972. Anthony du Boulay had discovered it in a house, where it was being used as an umbrella stand. It was then sold to the well known Japanese dealer and collector – Goro Sakamoto. In 2002 Eskenazi bought it from Sakamoto.   

This jar demonstrates the successful combination of copper-red and cobalt blue, which is possibly the first time it is seen in Chinese ceramics and is very rare. Beading used to surround the quatrefoil panels was also commonly found on large Qingbai figures of Guanyin or Buddha during the Yuan dynasty. 

Early Ming Wares

Copper-red pear-shaped ‘lotus’ ewer, Hongwu period (1368-1398)

This piece was made during the last quarter of the 14th century. It is an adaptation of the pear-shaped vases, with the addition of a handle, spout and cover. As in the Yuan dynasty, the decoration is organised into horizontal bands. Copper-red is seen on numerous pieces at this time, as it was more available than cobalt, which was imported from the Middle East. However, the copper-red was quite unstable and many pieces were misfired to an almost grey colour. 

Blue and white bird flask, Yongle period (1402-1424)

The shape is influenced by a Middle Eastern metalwork form, but the design represents a move towards a more Chinese style, which was influenced by contemporary and earlier paintings. The painting was executed to a very high standard. Flasks of this design were copied in the Yongzheng period (1723-1735) of the 18th century.

Two large blue and white ‘dragon’ flasks, Yongle period (1403-1424)

These are large and boldly potted pieces that display a real energy and dynamism of painting and are a perfect combination of form and decoration. The decoration is drawn directly onto the unfired body. Areas of thick cobalt seep through the glaze and react with the air to become an almost black colour. This phenomenon is known as the ‘heaped and piled’ effect.

One of these flasks is painted with a dragon on an Indian lotus flower ground, the other is a negative version, called ‘in reserve’, where the details of the white dragon are incised into the body and only the eye is painted. The wave background is boldly painted in various tones of blue and contrasts effectively with the white dragon. 

Other forms developed in Yongle period, such as meiping vases and large dishes, (barbed or circular in shape). The latter were exported to the Middle East and were used in communal style dining.

Xuande Period (1426-1435)

This was the first period to have reign marks on porcelain, which were inscribed on the bases or on the sides of pieces below the rim. 

Dragon dish

This dish is painted with a very lively dragon which has been depicted very successfully ‘flying’ above the waves. The sense of space created by the lighter tone of the wave background. 

Bajixiang circular box and cover   

This is one of my favourite pieces in the collection, which displays the combination of top quality painting and colour of cobalt, which works so successfully on the circular format of the box. One section of the upper surface of the cover has very slightly sagged in the firing, which gives it a slight undulating appearance. Rather than seeing this as a defect, it can be viewed as confirmation of it being a hand made object fashioned nearly 600 years ago! It is painted with the Eight Buddhist Emblems (Bajixiang).

Chenghua Period (1465-87)

This period is regarded as the pinnacle of quality in porcelain production during the Ming dynasty. It combined the most refined white body with the highest quality painting and coloured glazes. The quality was only to reach these heights again in the Yongzheng period of the Qing dynasty, where some designs were reproduced, such as chicken cups.

Palace Bowls  

These are generally considered to be one of the finest wares of Chenghua porcelain. Designs consist of day lily, melons, Indian lotus, hibiscus, magnolia, peony and camellia. Some examples are painted just to the exterior, whilst some are also painted to the interior. 

Doucai (fantailing or contrasting colours)

This technique combines underglaze-blue outlines which are glazed and subjected to a first high temperature firing. They were then enamelled and fired at a lower temperature in a muffle kiln. They were thus more expensive to produce (because of the two firings), but the bright colours no doubt satisfied the luxurious tastes of the imperial court. 

Chicken Cup

This classic design is widely regarded to be one of the finest and most well known in Chinese porcelain. The design is influenced by contemporary and earlier paintings, which were sent to the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen. There is a six-character mark within a double square to the base. When compared with Yongzheng and Kangxi examples – how do they differ? The white ground colour of the Chenghua examples is softer, almost off-white and the enamels are a little deeper in colour and a bit more muted.

Mid to Later Ming Wares

Zhengde Period (1506-1521)

Pieces with Arabic inscriptions were made for the court either for Muslim administrators and eunuchs who held considerable power at the time, or for the Zhengde emperor, who was fascinated by foreign scripts and was rumoured to have converted to Islam.

Jiajing (1522-1466) and Wanli Periods (1573-1620)

The output of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen increased markedly during these two reign periods as imperial demand increased significantly. As a result, the quality declined. However, there are some good examples from this period in blue and white which were painted in a deep blue colour, which is known as ‘Mohammedan blue’. For example a lobed dragon box and cover, a large blue and white ewer and a blue and white ‘boys’ dish

Wucai (five colour) (underglaze blue and overglaze enamels) pieces were very popular in the Jiajing and Wanli periods. These wares have always been popular with the Japanese market. Examples are Jiajing period fish dish and a Wanli period ‘dragon mountain’ brush-rest, which was made for the scholars table. 

Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Kangxi Period (1662-1722)

Famille Verte/Famille Rose 

These are terms coined by the French 19th century collector – Albert Jacquemart, which translate to green family and pink family.

Famille verte are characterised by the use of translucent enamels with black and iron-red outlines. This developed out of the wucai (five colour) palette of the Ming dynasty. Pieces from the early Kangxi period are decorated in underglaze blue, but an overglaze blue enamel was later developed during this period.  

Birthday plates 

These were made for the emperor Kangxi’s 60th birthday in 1713. They are very finely potted and painted. The border is decorated with four medallions in seal script: wan shou wu jiang (ten thousand years of long life without end). The base bears a six-character mark within a double circle. 

Wucai Month Cups

Each cup depicts a different flower relating to the twelve months of the lunar year and is accompanied by a couplet ending with the seal 賞 (shang)

Underglaze-blue and copper-red

This was the first time that this colour combination was used since the Yuan dynasty. The copper-red is now much more stable than it was in the late Yuan/early Ming dynasty. This creates an effective colour combination which is achieved in one high temperature firing. 

Yongzheng period (1723-1735)

Pieces of the highest quality were made during this period of the Qing dynasty. Pieces are characterised by a high quality white porcelain body, combined with extremely refined potting and top quality painting, in imperial designs. This high point in production was largely the result of the restructuring of the imperial kilns under the Kangxi Emperor and the appointment of Tang Ying (1682-1756) as its superintendent. With imperial input, Tang Ying had a signifiant influence on shapes and designs and oversaw the quality of production. 

Doucai Teapot and cover, Yongzheng mark and period 

This teapot depicts the Three Friends of Winter, representing the ideal characteristics of a scholar-gentleman, the trio came to be known as the Three Friends of Winter. They stood as symbols of hope and sheer determination, encouraging perseverance in the face of adversity. A duplicate of this teapot was sold by Percival David in one of his duplicate sales at Sotheby’s in the early 1960s.

Famille Rose

Two significant developments occurred in enamel painting during this period. The creation of a pink enamel from colloidal gold and an opaque white enamel. The latter made it possible for the painter to create tonal shading, which was not possible with the translucent enamels of famille verte. This led to a more Western style of three-dimensional painting (and included European subjects) which was the direct result of the influence of Jesuits such as Giuseppe Castiglione, or Lang Shining as he was known to the Chinese. 

Two large famille rose dishes, Yongzheng period 

One is painted with branches of peach, symbolising longevity and five bats (wufu), which represent the Five Blessings (longevity, prosperity, health, love of virtue and a peaceful death). The other dish is painted with branches of flowering prunus which is inscribed Danzhuang shuying liang yiyi: ‘Lightly adorned and scattering shadows, the two sway softly [in the breeze]’. The detailed painting of both is of the highest quality.

Famille Rose ‘Birds of Branches’ Moon flask, Yongzheng mark and period 

This is probably a unique example of birds painted in this manner to a moon flask. The painting is exceptionally well executed and each side depicts two birds perched on different flowering branches. The scale of the birds are small in comparison to the flowers, but this adds to the balance and cohesiveness of the design. 

Qianlong Period (1736-1795) 

Some of the finest enamelled wares – known as Guyue xuan ware (often translated as Ancient Moon Pavilion), is commonly used as a name for types of ware with highly detailed enamel decoration. This is often found on smaller pieces such as cups, small vases, teapots, glass cups and snuff bottles.

What is Missing from the collection?

  • Qingbai (only a few pieces).
  • Qing blue and white.
  • Transitional (17th century wares) (only a few pieces).
  • Chinese export.

The above were not made at the imperial kilns.


It is not possible to overstate the importance of Sir Percival David in the field of Chinese art, through his collecting, scholarly approach and philanthropy. He used his significant family wealth and astute judgement to assemble one of the most important collections of imperial Chinese ceramics and established a centre of learning at London University that has helped to create a long lasting understanding of Chinese art in Britain. 


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