The China Trade

Circle of George Chinnery – ‘Factories, Canton’ (Junk in Canton Harbour), early/mid-19th century watercolour, titled in pencil verso

In 1757, during the reign of the Chinese Emperor Qianlong (1735-1795), Canton was the only port left open to foreign trade after all the other Chinese ports were closed.

The Chinese allowed a limited trade area for westerners to be established outside Canton’s city walls under the watchful eyes of the Co-Hong–thirteen Chinese merchants who were responsible to the Emperor. The westerners, described by the Chinese as ‘foreign devils’, were not allowed to travel in China and all their business had to be conducted through these Chinese Merchants. This system would remain unchanged until the 1841 opium war.

Most European countries established trading companies. The British East India Company was formed in 1600 and the Dutch East India Company two years later. The fashion for tea grew throughout the 17th century adding another valuable commodity to the China trade.

European demand for exotic goods in the 18th century led expanded beyond silks and porcelains to include lacquerware, enamels, furnishings, wallpapers, carvings, ivories, watercolours and paintings. By the third-quarter of the 18th century England, Holland, France, Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Spain all occupied hongs at Canton. The small early 19th century watercolour is very much in the style of the artist George Chinnery. It depicts the hongs, also known as factories, which consisted of a front building facing the river with a myriad of buildings connected by courtyards and passages behind them. Westerners’ activities were very restricted. They lived under the constant surveillance of the hong merchants and the Chinese police.

A pair of Chinese famille rose export porcelain candle holder figures of ladies, Qianlong period, each lady modelled holding a lotus bud shaped vase, the figures with brightly enamelled decoration

The importance of the Chinese export trade in ceramics cannot be overstated. It is hard for us to imagine the vast quantities of useful and ornamental porcelain imported into Britain and Continental Europe. These pieces would inform western taste. Whole industries were created to reproduce Chinese blue-and-white patterns. Even the humblest pieces of Chinese were well made.

The British East India Company’s China trade imports predominately comprised of bulk lots of blue and white including wares like plates and dishes which could be packed tightly in the hold with the ballast below the waterline. The second category of imports were important to the commercial success of the voyage for the crew and Company. This officially permitted private trade was made up of pieces of far higher quality. They included armorial, crested, figurative and colourful wares of which the Qianlong period pair of Chinese famille rose export porcelain candle holders modelled as ladies are a fine example.

The watercolour and porcelain candle holders were sold at Toovey’s for £7000 and £2700 respectively.

The company took a percentage of the private trade pieces with the remainder being shared amongst the crew. Much of these wares were sold at the Company’s auctions in London.

Finally the valuable and highly profitable tea and silks were stowed above the waterline in these leaky timber ships.

The lucrative China trade continues today as the Chinese compete with British and European collectors to reacquire items they sold to us for export in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Important London Collection of Asian Art to be Sold in Sussex

Toovey’s Asian Art specialist, Tom Rowsell, with one of a pair of rare Chinese Qianlong period cloisonné enamel elephants from an important London single owner collection of Asian Art

This week I am in the company of Toovey’s Director and Asian Art specialist, Tom Rowsell, who has just finished preparations for the sale of an important London single – owner collection of Asian Art.

I ask Tom how the collection looked in the collector’s London home and he replies “Many of the pieces were beautifully displayed around the house, but it was when I discovered and began to unpack boxes and go through the shelves in an upstairs room that the scale and importance of this collection became apparent. The collection had remained largely untouched for 40 or 50 years. The vast majority of the pieces are from the imperial Kangxi (1654-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1735-1796) periods of the late 17th and 18th centuries.”

Tom explains how today’s Chinese collectors are following in the tradition of the Qianlong emperor who was the last of the great imperial art collectors and patrons in Chinese history. His genuine passion for art and collecting seems to have been inspired by his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor (1654-1722), and his uncle Yinxi (1711-1758).

The Qianlong emperor was prolific in his collecting applying an exceptional personal connoisseurship. His collection would number more than a million objects.

The Qianlong emperor took a personal interest in porcelain production and was an ardent patron and collector of it. Many of the types of porcelain associated with the Qianlong emperor, however, were seeded under the Emperor Yongzheng’s supervisor of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, Tang Ying (1682-1756).

A garniture of five Chinese Yongzheng period (1723-1735) porcelain vases estimated at £15,000-£25,000 from an important London single owner collection of Asian Art

My eye is taken by a rare and beautiful garniture of five Chinese porcelain Yongzheng period vases. Tom comments “Yongzheng porcelain is known for the quality of its glazes, these vases are very fine quality. It’s very unusual to find a set of five still together in such remarkable condition. The finely enamelled decoration with its delicate flowers and landscapes has wonderful fresh colours. Look at the subtle, recessed panels with their moulded borders. Lovely details – these would have probably been made for an important European home.”

Tom continues “Toovey’s are one of a very small number of UK auctioneers with the ability to market online directly to mainland Chinese collectors through our working relationship with Epai Live, China’s largest mainland online auction platform for the marketing of art and antiques. This collection will certainly attract Chinese and overseas buyers as well as UK interest. We will be exhibiting the collection’s highlights at the international Asian Art Fair in London on the 4th November before it returns to Sussex to be sold.”

Today’s Chinese collectors are as passionate in their collecting as their imperial forebears and the market shows no signs of abating.

This important single owner collection will be auctioned at Toovey’s on Thursday 29th November 2018. If you would like advice on pieces in this collection or your Chinese objects Tom Rowsell can be contacted on 01903 891955, and visit www.tooveys.com to view the sale online from the 4th November.

Ancient Chinese Jade Ceremonial Blade Discovered

A rare archaistic Chinese jade ceremonial blade from the late Shang/early Zhou Dynasty (11th - 15th century BC) with important collectors’ labels, inscribed with a translation of the engraved Chinese calligraphy which reads: ‘In the Royal 12th year in the 1st Moon, and the fortunate 1st day of the King whilst staying in the Capital caused to be made this blade of jade. May it be for perpetual use.’
A rare archaistic Chinese jade ceremonial blade from the late Shang/early Zhou Dynasty (11th – 15th century BC) with important collectors’ labels, inscribed with a translation of the engraved Chinese calligraphy which reads: ‘In the Royal 12th year in the 1st Moon, and the fortunate 1st day of the King whilst staying in the Capital caused to be made this blade of jade. May it be for perpetual use.’

A rare and important archaistic Chinese jade ceremonial blade from the late Shang/early Zhou Dynasty (11th – 15th century BC) has been discovered by Toovey’s specialist, Mark Stonard. This remarkable object formed part of the collection of the late Fred Clark, a gifted and meticulous antiquarian, whose collector’s label it bears.

It is believed that Fred Clark bought it in the years immediately after the Second World War. The blade has an older hand written paper label which offers a translation of the Chinese calligraphy engraved into the jade and also a printed paper segment which reads ‘Beasley Collection’.

It is always the cause of some excitement when an archaic piece surfaces bearing the name of the early 20th century collector Harry Geoffrey Beasley (1882-1939).

Between 1895 and 1939 Beasley put together one of the largest collections of ethnographic material in Britain. The collection was formed of more than 10,000 objects from Asia, Africa, Scandinavia, and across the world. In the years after Beasley’s death in 1939 the majority of the collection was donated to leading British Museums.

The Chinese have always prized jade more highly than gold. This hard translucent stone has, over the centuries, been worked into decorative and ritual objects as well as ceremonial weapons.

Jade was worn by kings and nobles in life and was buried with them, affording the material a high status and associations with immortality.

The Chinese way of life was based on a combination of faith, tradition and ethics which bound families and communities together. The Chinese philosopher, Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC), emphasized the moral responsibility that accompanies authority. Confucius established a school with a radical new principal of accepting students of sufficient intelligence regardless of their background or ability to pay. He combined this belief in meritocracy with a faith in the generous order of a hierarchical society. The hierarchical principles expressed in Confucianism may, perhaps, give some insight into the use of this jade blade. A ruler had a right to obedience and respect but equally had a duty to act justly in the best interests of his subjects. Many academics believe that jade objects like this blade were symbols of office. If this is correct it is probable that blades of this type were used in a similar way to ceremonial jade Kuei tablets of the period. A high ranking courtier would have held the blade to his mouth and spoken through it when addressing the Emperor.

When you hold this ancient ceremonial blade you become aware of the exquisite workmanship employed in its making. The balance and line of the blade work in concert with the patterns in the jade. It has the power to move you and a particular, vital quality to it.

This late Shang/early Zhou Dynasty jade ceremonial blade has just returned from exhibition at the International Asian Art week in London where it attracted much attention and is expected to realise thousands of pounds when it is auctioned at Toovey’s specialist Asian Art sale on Thursday 30th November 2017.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

£132,000 Chinese Discovery in West Sussex

The pair of Chinese imperial famille rose enamelled porcelain rectangular tea caddies
The pair of Chinese imperial famille rose enamelled porcelain rectangular tea caddies

A pair of Chinese famille rose enamelled porcelain tea caddies dating from the Qing dynasty have just sold at Toovey’s Fine Art Auctioneers for £132,000. They were being displayed on a window sill in a Sussex home when they caught the eye of a Toovey’s valuer during a routine visit. The result illustrates the strength of Chinese Hong Kong collectors and the benefits of the post-Brexit pound which have caused prices and competition from abroad to soar.

Today’s Chinese collectors are following in the tradition of the Qianlong emperor (1711-1799) who was the last of the great imperial art collectors and patrons in Chinese history. His genuine passion for art and collecting seems to have been inspired by his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor (1654-1722), and his uncle Yinxi (1711-1758).

The Qianlong emperor was prolific in his collecting applying an exceptional personal connoisseurship not only to the acquisition of art and antiquities but also to his patronage. His collection would number more than a million objects. It included the collection of the Ming emperors (1368-1644) which was the oldest art collection in the world with a continuous collecting tradition dating back over 1600 years.

The Qianlong emperor took a personal interest in porcelain production and was an ardent collector of it. Many of the types of porcelain associated with the Qianlong emperor, however, were seeded under the Emperor Yongzheng’s supervisor of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, Tang Ying (1682-1756).

Toovey’s Asian Art Specialist, Tom Rowsell, with the £132,000 pair of Qianlong period tea caddies
Toovey’s Asian Art Specialist, Tom Rowsell, with the £132,000 pair of Qianlong period tea caddies

Toovey’s Asian art specialist, Tom Rowsell, explains “The mid-18th century porcelain designers had an unprecedented freedom due to their technical understanding of glazes. This resulted in enamelled wares often decorated with dense, complex and colourful designs as you can see on the side panels of this remarkable pair of Qianlong period tea caddies from the imperial kilns. Their shape and proportion is typically well judged and shows the influence of European taste, the superb fine white bodies and beautifully ordered and executed decoration are quintessentially of the period.”

The densely decorated sides of the Chinese famille rose tea caddies, typical of the Qianlong period (1735-1796)
The densely decorated sides of the Chinese famille rose tea caddies, typical of the Qianlong period (1735-1796)

I comment on the virtuosity in the contrast between the restrained depiction of the blossoming branches and flowering stems which enfold the finely executed text, and the polychrome enamelled sides densely filled with lotus flowers and scrolling tendrils on the yellow and iron red grounds. Tom agrees and says “This technical excellence and style is explained by the production processes refined by Tang Ying at Jingdezhen. Tang Ting was the foremost ceramic expert in China. He was summoned to Beijing in 1743 to illustrate and catalogue the imperial collection and described the process of porcelain manufacture in twenty steps. This led to an elaborate division of labour at the imperial kilns so that no one person was responsible for the production of a single piece at Jingdezhen.”

Today’s Chinese collectors are as passionate in their collecting as their imperial forebears and the market shows no signs of abating. If you would like advice on your Chinese objects Tom Rowsell can be contacted on 01903 891955 or by emailing auctions@tooveys.com.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

The International Appeal of Chinese Blue and White Porcelain

A £30,000 Chinese Kangxi period blue and white porcelain brush pot (bitong), finely painted with a continuous scene of poets and attendants indulging in scholarly pursuits
A £30,000 Chinese Kangxi period blue and white porcelain brush pot (bitong), finely painted with a continuous scene of poets and attendants indulging in scholarly pursuits

A remarkable selection of Chinese blue and white porcelain dating from the late 16th to the early 18th century has just been sold at auction by Toovey’s in their December specialist Asian Art sale. This important collection was bought in the 1960s and 1970s in London. Its sale attracted international attention.

A Chinese blue and white Kraak porcelain dish, late Ming dynasty, from the Wanli period
A Chinese blue and white Kraak porcelain dish, late Ming dynasty, from the Wanli period

Chinese blue and white has from the 16th century appealed to an international market. The decorative designs of late 16th century blue and white porcelain had been characterized by panels filled with flowers, precious objects and Buddhistic emblems in often repeated patterns, contained within compartmentalized borders. These motifs can be seen on the Wanli period Kraak porcelain dish seen here.

The Manchu threat meant that money was diverted to the Ming army which, together with the luxury and corruption of the Court of Wanli, deprived the kilns at Jingdezhen of imperial patronage. This had a liberating effect on the Jingdezhen potters and by the time of the death of the Ming Emperor, Wanli (1572-1620) a noticeable shift in the design and decoration of Chinese porcelain had occurred. This new and exceptional work would span the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties and is therefore termed the ‘Transitional period’. The Transitional style was more painterly than anything that had gone before. It is filled with movement; the figures appear natural and at ease. Perhaps it was influenced by the tastes of the Dutch merchants for whom much of this blue and white porcelain was produced.

A £37,000 rare Chinese Transitional period, mid-17th Century, blue and white porcelain brush pot (bitong), decorated with horses and three female acrobat riders
A £37,000 rare Chinese Transitional period, mid-17th Century, blue and white porcelain brush pot (bitong), decorated with horses and three female acrobat riders

The decoration of Transitional period porcelain typically employs naturalistic themes depicting, beasts, flowers and most especially figure subjects. Figure subjects on Transitional wares are often united by a narrative following the traditions of Chinese opera which incorporated music, song, dance and acrobatics as well as literary art forms. The finely painted ‘bitong’ or brush pot illustrated dates from the mid-17th century. It is a fine example of Transitional period porcelain, decorated with a continuous scene depicting horses and three female acrobat riders galloping through a woodland landscape with trees, rocks and mist. This rare object, measuring 22cm in height, realised £37,000 in Toovey’s December specialist Asian Art auction.

The Transitional aesthetic would continue into the first twenty years of the reign of the Qing Emperor, Kangxi (1662-1722). Kangxi was the fourth and arguably the most famous Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. His reign was marked by long-term stability and a period of relative prosperity.

The Kangxi period is renowned in the history of blue and white porcelain. In 1683 the Imperial Court appointed a director of the factory in Jingdezhen. The restoration of court patronage raised standards even further.

The exceptional quality of the painting and clear cobalt blue distinguishes Kangxi blue and white porcelain and is apparent in the decoration of the brush pot seen here. Our eyes are met by a continuous scene reminiscent of the Transitional with poets and attendants indulging in scholarly pursuits. Some sit at a table playing Weiqi whilst a lute is played. Two figures and an attendant look on as a scholar writes. It fetched £30,000 at Toovey’s reflecting the international appeal and technical brilliance of Kangxi blue and white porcelain, which many ceramic historians believe has never been surpassed.

If you would like more information or advice on your Chinese porcelain and works of art email auctions@tooveys.com or telephone Toovey’s specialist, Tom Rowsell, on 01903 891955.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.