Mainland Chinese Buyers Beat a Path to Toovey’s

A group of five Chinese famille rose porcelain rectangular plaques, Republic period (1912-1949), sold at auction by Toovey’s for £16,000
A view of the entrance to The Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square, taken by Rupert Toovey on a business trip to Beijing

We are familiar with stories of revolution in China. When you go there, the influences of the communist takeover of mainland China in 1949 and Mao’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 onwards are apparent everywhere. Tiananmen Square in Beijing is dominated by marching Chinese People’s Liberation Army guards and enormous television screens project images of modern China beneath fluttering red flags. A queue, ten people wide, stretches patiently as far as the eye can see, processing into Mao’s mausoleum, where his embalmed body lies in state. On the other side of this square is the entrance to the Forbidden City. You enter past an army guard through a narrow arch beneath an enormous portrait of Mao and, as you do, you witness families and people venerating him, bowing and reaching out to touch one of the large bronze studs on the ancient red door, which are polished by the stream of hands. It is apparent that Mao is perceived by many to be the father of the nation and is now a cultural icon in his own right. It is as though these people are on a pilgrimage to visit the relics of a saint. There are the qualities of both the ancient and the modern in these scenes. Once inside the Forbidden City, the atmosphere is more playful with Chinese families enjoying a day out.

A Chinese porcelain circular plate, Republic period (1912-1949), sold at auction by Toovey’s for £8,500

The Xinhai Revolution began with the Wuchang Uprising in October 1911. By January 1912, the Republic of China had been established. It brought to an end two thousand years of imperial rule. Emperor Puyi was allowed to continue to reside in the Forbidden City, his story made famous by Bernardo Bertolucci’s film ‘The Last Emperor’. Through much of the 19th century, Imperial China fought numerous rebellions and invasions. The relative stability which the Republic period brought in the 20th century signalled a revival in porcelain manufacture in Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi province.

A Chinese porcelain rectangular plaque, Republic period (1912-1949), sold at auction by Toovey’s for £4,000

The items of Chinese porcelain shown here date from the Republic period (1912-1949) and were sold in Toovey’s specialist Asian Art auction in August. They were the property of a local collector, who had spent several years in the Far East. His interests reflected the tastes of the Western connoisseurs from Britain and America who purchased this porcelain in the early 20th century. The delicacy of the enamelling on the group of five porcelain plaques, each measuring 19 x 12.5cm, is exquisite and the composition of birds and flowers is highly refined. Despite the fact that two of them were restored, they sold at auction for £16,000 to a collector in Shenzhen, China. Just as fine is the single plaque, measuring 37.5 x 24cm. The two birds in flight are beautifully depicted, framed by the restrained floral branches. This piece was sold to a Chinese collector from Nanchang for £4,000. The delicately painted Republic period plate, diameter 23.5cm, decorated with a scene of a man and maiden in a boat beneath a willow tree, also found favour with Chinese bidders and went under the hammer to the same collector in Nanchang for £8,500. All pieces bear the black enamelled calligraphic script which is so often found on objects from this period. Although many such pieces imitate Imperial designs, these later examples are sometimes signed or give clues to the artists or private workshops which proliferated at this time in Jingdezhen.

Tom Rowsell, head of Asian and Islamic Ceramics and Works of Art at Toovey’s, commented: “We have specialised in Chinese porcelain and fine art for almost twenty years at Toovey’s. We have a long-standing Chinese client base but we are continuing to build relationships successfully with new, emerging mainland Chinese collectors through our business activities out there, working with China’s leading collectors’ internet platform, EpaiLive.”

Today, it is the Chinese collector who is driving the demand for Republic period porcelain, rather than the Western buyers who originally patronised this beautiful work. Tom Rowsell is always pleased to offer advice, whether you are interested in selling or acquiring Chinese objects in this boom market. He is now taking in entries for his next specialist sale on Thursday 9th October 2014 and can be contacted on 01903 891955.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 27th August 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Chinese Republic Porcelain in Sussex

The Forbidden City, Beijing

Mercantile trade was at the heart of British prosperity and overseas interests from the 18th to the 20th centuries. By the 18th century Britain had become the greatest European power in the East. This success was predominantly bound up with the government-licensed British East India Company, which had become the leading trading and political force in India.

A Chinese famille rose porcelain vase, early 20th century Republic period, auctioned for £76,000
A Chinese porcelain vase, early 20th Century Republic period, auctioned for £650
The Great Wall of China

In the late 18th century attempts were made to establish official relations with China by Lord George Macartney. The lavish embassy sent to Beijing as part of this British Government-backed mission was interpreted as humble tribute-bearing by the Chinese. The response to George III from the Qianlong Emperor noted that trade was out of the question, since Britain possessed nothing for which China had the slightest need. There were, however, many Chinese traders who were prepared to do business unofficially with foreigners. The trade in opium from India, the Opium War and ensuing British military expedition in 1840 resulted in the Qing government ceding compensation, Hong Kong Island and the opening of five ports to British traders. Twenty million people died in the bloody Taiping Rebellion in southern China, a massive civil war against the ruling Manchu-led Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1850 to 1864. Invasion by Japan in the late 19th century and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 left the Qing dynasty severely weakened. A Chinese army rebellion in Wuchan sparked a series of mutinies culminating in the formation of the Republic of China in 1912, which would last in a series of guises until 1949. The last emperor, Puyi, was allowed to remain living in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The formation of the Chinese Republic brought to an end the Qing Dynasty and 2000 years of imperial rule.

As invasion and revolt continued to blight China during the early 20th century, porcelain of the most extraordinary quality continued to be made in Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi province. Some connoisseurs note this period of porcelain manufacture for its revival in quality, which they attribute to a number of schools and artists that emerged at this time. Chinese porcelain objects from this period often have inscriptions, usually in black enamel, which may include a combination of a poem, a signature or a cyclical date. Private workshops proliferated and flourished. The wares produced imitated designs from earlier periods, interpreting imperial designs to feed demand from American and British collectors like Sir Percival David. David’s collection includes many original examples of Chinese porcelain from the imperial collection, which can be seen at the British Museum in London.

We often discover Republic period Chinese porcelain in Sussex, which is finding increasing favour amongst collectors because of its quality. The early 20th century Chinese famille rose porcelain vase illustrated is from this period. The elongated ovoid body and flared neck are painted to one side with three birds perched on blossoming branches, to the other side with a gathering of children, elders and attendants beneath a pine tree. Note how these decorative panels are surrounded by lines of black text and red seals, typical of the Republic period. The vase is believed to have been painted by two leading artists from Jingdezhen. Measuring 60.5cm high, the vase sold at Toovey’s for £76,000.

Not all Chinese porcelain of this period is so highly valued. The smaller Republic vase shown here, height 17cm, sold for £650. It is enamelled with a riverscape with a fishing boat by an island and has the typical text on the reverse.

This flourishing and revival in Chinese porcelain manufacture in the early 20th century allows us to once again glimpse the energetic and creative gifts of the Chinese people, which has gained them cultural prominence over millennia. Perhaps it is a rediscovery of these gifts which is allowing a revival of Chinese interests in the world today; only this time they are looking out into the world and reacquiring their cultural heritage.

Toovey’s Chinese porcelain specialist, Tom Rowsell, is always pleased to offer advice, whether you are interested in selling or acquiring Chinese objects in this boom market. He can be contacted at our offices.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 29th January 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Delicacy and Brilliance, Chinese Doucai Porcelain

A Chinese doucai porcelain jar
A Chinese doucai porcelain jar

By the mid-18th century, Chinese porcelain produced for imperial appreciation was at its height. The Qianlong period (1735-1795) overlapped with the reign of our own King George III. As the Industrial Revolution grew under the Farmer King in Britain, the processes and techniques of porcelain manufacture in China reached an advanced stage. This found expression in restrained decoration, characterized by delicacy and brilliance.

Among the favourite wares chosen by Chinese potters of the 18th century for inspiration or copying were those of the 15th century from the early Ming and Chenghua reigns. That they chose to copy earlier styles is reflective of general trends in Chinese art, which display a tendency to antiquarianism. Balancing this was the desire of Qing rulers to validate their own sovereignty and status through associating themselves with earlier reigns by invoking these earlier styles in the designs for their own imperial porcelain.

The Qianlong period seal mark
The Qianlong period six-character seal mark

On my recent visit to China I was fortunate to visit the Imperial Summer Palace, which was reconstructed after the ravages of the Anglo-French invasion of 1860 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The gardens were originally commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor in 1749. Today, the gardens are enjoyed by thousands of Chinese and some foreign tourists. In the palace are rooms furnished with Qianlong period furniture and porcelain of the finest quality. They give an insight to the genius and restraint of Chinese imperial taste in the 18th century.

The piece illustrated is a Chinese doucai porcelain globular jar bearing the six-character seal mark of Qianlong. The body is decorated with slender stems of lotus, alternating with narcissus, over a lower frieze of the eight auspicious Buddhistic emblems, which include symbols representing eternal harmony, knowledge, purity and enlightenment. The third and lower tier is of flowers. All these decorative elements communicate with each other between a frieze of flame-like lappets and a ruyi-encircled rim. All are finely outlined in underglaze cobalt blue.

Rupert Toovey at the Summer Palace in Beijing
Rupert at the Summer Palace in Beijing

Doucai decoration first found favour during the Chenghua reign (1465-1487). The delicate cobalt-blue outline to all the coloured enamels defines doucai decoration and unites them with delicacy and brilliance. It can be difficult to discern the age of these doucai pieces. The specialist and connoisseur will look for differences in the cobalt blue of the outline, which often has a softer appearance on earlier objects. Later examples also fail to capture the charming ivory tint to the glaze of 15th century examples. Qianlong period examples, however, are celebrated for their translucent enamels, alive with colour, which are set off by the precision of the cobalt-blue outlines. We are left with the impression that they are at once fragile and precious.

These qualities are much in demand, particularly in imperial pieces. 18th century examples, like this jar, command high prices, especially when they bear their true reign mark, rather than copying an earlier reign mark. Measuring just 9cm high, this doucai vase sold at auction for £32,000 in a specialist Oriental sale earlier this year.

It is this combination of harmonious design and restraint, combined with the shear quality of the painting and execution, which never fails to delight me. Delicate and brilliant, doucai pieces take some beating in any century!

View Toovey’s Specialist Sales of Oriental Ceramics and Works of Art by clicking here.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 8th May 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.