Tinsel Rush and the Joy of a Christmas Tree

A chromolithographic Christmas Greetings Card, circa 1901, depicting the joys of a Christmas treeOne of the greatest joys of Christmas is being gathered with my family around our Christmas tree. She is already bedecked with baubles representing love and life. Hundreds of lights twinkle like stars in a night sky amongst what can only be described as a tinsel rush. Beneath the angel an array of Alessi baubles represent the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, accompanied by a donkey and an ox.

The fir tree, evergreen and verdant in the depth of winter has been used to decorate homes over millennia. In Christian times it came to symbolize everlasting life with God. The Christmas tree has also become a symbol for the bonds of friendship. Since 1947, in a special ceremony, Norway has donated a Christmas tree to say thank you for the help that our nation gave them during World War II.

By the 1860s most well to do homes would have had a decorated Christmas tree. Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert played a key role in popularising this tradition in Britain. In 1848 a drawing of the ‘Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle’ was published in The Illustrated London News with the Queen and her family gathered around it. The image was replicated in numerous publications. But it is thought that the Christmas tree, a German custom, was actually introduced by George IV’s wife Queen Charlotte, herself of German birth.

I was pleased to hear Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty’s reassurance that despite Covid-19 it is safe for Father Christmas to deliver presents with his reindeer this year. Though the best present will be the company of loved ones after so much separation, and the hope of the vaccines now being deployed.

A chromolithographic Christmas Greetings Card, circa 1901, depicting Father Christmas

Father Christmas and the joy of a Christmas tree are vividly portrayed in the Anglo-German chromolithograph greetings cards from Toovey’s paper collectable’s sale. Father Christmas is depicted in his famous red coat with white fur cuffs and collar carrying a sack full of presents. The boy pulls a sleigh laden with presents and carries a fine tree through the snow. Both cards date from the early 20th century.

The original Father Christmas was Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in the 4th century. He was famous for his gifts to the poor as an expression of Christian love. During the Middle Ages children were given gifts in his honour on the 6th December.

Our gifts, too, are expressions of love for one another, for those in need, and our local charities which have had such a difficult time this year.

This has been a year of challenge and blessing, joys and sorrows, a time for all of us to reflect on what is most important to us – family, friendship, community and the common good. I hope this Christmas will bring you hope and blessing.

The Art of Chinese Cloisonné

An impressive Chinese cloisonné vase (hu), Ming dynasty, height 20inches © Toovey’s 2020

The tradition of enriching metal objects by fusing a composition of ground up multi-coloured glass under heat stretches back over some 3000 years.

It is likely that the origins of these techniques came from the Near East. From the 13th to 12th centuries BC you find it in the Aegean within the cultural sphere of Cyprus. Enamel was employed in Celtic objects from the 5th to 2nd centuries BC and provincial Roman pieces in the first centuries of the Christian era. It reached its heights in Byzantium and European sacred art of the early and high Middle Ages.

The term cloisonné describes the method of creating compartments on a metal object using raised wirework borders, known as cloisons in French. These thin borders remain visible on the finished object separating the compartments of variously coloured enamels. The enamelled powder is worked into a paste to allow its application before being fired in a kiln.

It is likely that these techniques reached China from the Middle East in the 14th century though Byzantium also influenced these developments especially after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 when refugees, in all likelihood, brought their knowledge of enamelling to China.

In China high quality enamelling becomes apparent during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Importantly this branch of artistic endeavour received the patronage of the Imperial Court in China where large pieces were produced.

The impressive Chinese cloisonné vase or hu illustrated dates from the mid-Ming dynasty. The body is decorated in a subtly graded colour palette where two pairs of auspicious, lapis blue dragons frame stylized flaming pearls above the Mountains of Longevity and the Sea of Bliss (shoushan fuhai – live as long as the mountains and may your happiness be as immense as the sea). The chased pair of gilt metal mask and loose ring handles are thought to be of later date.

A Chinese cloisonné bottle vase decorated with a lily pond, Qianlong period, height 8inches © Toovey’s 2020

In the 18th century the emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) surrounded himself with resplendent enamel works in his summer residence which he remodelled in the European Rococo taste guided by Italian and French Jesuit missionaries.

The Qianlong period Chinese cloisonné turquoise ground bottle vase of ovoid form is decorated with a lotus pond whilst the narrow neck has lotus flowerheads and scrolling tendrils above a stiff leaf band. Once again a dragon is depicted, this time cast in gilt metal. Thanks to its symbolic qualities of potent and auspicious powers the dragon is an emblem often associated with the Emperor in China. The turquoise ground is typical of much Chinese cloisonné. Pieces like this embody the search for perfection and originality in an increasingly industrial age.

These two fine examples of the art of Chinese cloisonné were sold for £19,000 and £4,600 at Toovey’s specialist sales of Chinese and Asian Art reflecting its continuing allure to collectors today.

Turner’s Modern World

‘The Fighting Téméraire Tugged to her last Berth to be broken up’, 1839 © The National Gallery London

Tate Britain’s current exhibition Turner’s Modern Britain could not be more timely as our nation once again turns its attention to our industrial heartlands and begins to re-imagine and re-ignite our inventiveness and manufacturing base.

JMW Turner (1775-1851) had strong associations with Sussex through his patron and friend the 3rd Earl of Egremont at Petworth. Turner witnessed an extraordinary period of change during his lifetime: Britain’s industrial revolution and the advent of steam power, social reform, the Napoleonic Wars and French political revolution, the Great Reform Act of 1832, and the abolition of slavery.

This ambitious exhibition seeks to place Turner’s art in the context of his times. It takes a holistic view of the influences of Turner’s broad interests on his work.

The Georgian Britain that Turner grew up in was unrecognisable when compared to the economic powerhouse this country had become by 1851. This period of startling and rapid change has resonances for our own times.

This processional show begins with Turner’s early work as a topographical watercolourist and charts his remarkable development as he found and embraced a new vocabulary to describe his modern age. It was a vocabulary which many of his contemporaries found shocking. The exhibition also highlights Turner’s evolving views towards war, peace, political reform, societal injustice and slavery. Turner celebrated the modern but did not shy away from depicting human tragedy and suffering with an increasing and enduring commitment to reform.

Turner was the first to depict rail and steamboats in significant works which startled his contemporaries. The speed of change must have seemed giddying. Today they provide remarkable evocations of not just the scenes but of the experience of encountering revolution, science, invention and steam.

Two paintings in the exhibition more than any, for me, encapsulate the procession of Turner’s life and his modern age.

‘The Fighting Téméraire’ painted in 1836 provides a muted melancholic scene. Beneath the setting sun and the early risen moon a distinguished old warship, one of the last survivors of the Battle of Trafalgar, is towed away by a steam tug representing the modern age which has made her redundant. The sky, half molten and half glassy green remains, one of the extraordinary achievements in Western art.

JMW Turner, ‘Rain Steam and Speed’, 1844 © The National Gallery London

‘Rain Steam and Speed’ provides an impression of the new age of steam engines and travel. The train appears elemental, at one with the wind and rain as it moves at speed towards us. It captures not only a visual impression but also the experience of this relatively new invention. Nature, science and industry appear united by a modern age in this painting.

Tate Britain, Covid-19 willing, will reopen today. To book tickets for this exceptional and timely show, and to find out more visit tate.org.uk. The exhibition runs until the 7th March 2021.