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The Other Side of the Mirror

The Re-display of Chinese Bronzes at Compton Verney

Guardian-2

Two Guardians. Gilt bronze, Ming dynasty, 1400-1500

Look closely, the iconography is strangely familiar. The spread legs, the feet firmly planted; the passively aggressive stance that conveys infallibility, authority and awe. The gaze is challenging, an impenetrable stare that both welcomes and warns.

But this is no Holbein portrait, no Tudor tool of power and subjugation; Henry VIII plays no part in this drama, Wolf Hall seems of another world. And so we enter the room, past the two guardians, representatives of the Four Heavenly Kings or Guardians of the Four Quarters; these gilt bronze figures of impeccable Daoist pedigree. Their role today is strangely inverted, no longer is their charge to protect against evil spirits, or deter the Barbarian invasion, but now they offer a renewed challenge, and a direct one, to the visitor. “Look upon us” they seem to say, “look deeper into our craft, trace the lines, catch a glimpse in the mirror.”

Compton Verney’s Chinese collection of ancient bronzes is of international significance, and one of the three finest collections in Europe. Until last season these enigmatic bronzes were displayed in broad chronological order. It was a fascinating, stimulating, but oddly impenetrable collection; one that unwittingly hid its light under a bushel. The visitor left with curiosity renewed, but a sense of unfulfilled promise, as if the covers of the book had been glimpsed, yet the pages of the story left unread.

During the closed winter season the gallery has been working on a major re-display of the Chinese collection, and visitors in March 2015 will have the opportunity to re-discover these stunning artefacts. Great care and attention has been given to both the physical and contextual display of items. The palette upon which they are displayed is a joy; gone is the slightly garish yellow hue, replaced by a warm grey, imbued with a depth of suggested colours. Against this the new display cabinets have been designed for both accessibility (visibility is greatly improved for both children and wheelchair users), and for greater engagement. The innovative positioning of objects, and their greatly improved state-of-the-art lighting, enables new ways of seeing. Colour and detail, once seemingly missing amongst this “sea of green vessels”, is now startlingly present, and brings a new vibrancy and vitality to the pieces. In some cases under-lighting adds a refreshing new dimension to familiar objects.

But the most welcome change, and the most positive step towards improved engagement and understanding, is the adoption of thematic displays and greatly enhanced labelling. We no longer tread a timeline of seemingly unrelated artefacts, but inhabit a world of food and drink, ritual and symbolism, horses, mirrors, and strange mythical beasts. Through this narrative we come to understand a people, distant both in terms of geography and time, though strangely familiar to us through their shared human frailties, their superstitions, beliefs and traditions.

A lobed mirror detail ®Compton-Verney photo by Jamie Woodley-

Detail of mirror with coiled dragon. Bronze, Tang dynasty (AD 618-906)

The re-display also makes great leaps towards greater accessibility and engagement for the young. As the National Curriculum now embraces the history of China amongst its various options, this collection provides a vibrant and stimulating learning opportunity for younger visitors. What child can resist the allure of dragons, monsters, and the mythical taotie? Indeed, who can resist staring into a polished bronze disc and dreaming of what might have been? In the adjoining learning rooms we can also see the influence of ancient Chinese culture upon later generations, through the media of 20th century posters. What better way than through such early engagement, for younger visitors to reach an understanding of our diverse cultures, and shared humanity?

Just as importantly, objects in the collection are de-coded for the first time, and we start to understand what our eyes previously just saw. We begin to comprehend the significance of ritual objects in the honouring and remembering of the dead, and of their place in both the afterlife and the here-and-now. Above all, we start to see the people behind the objects in a way that’s not been possible before. The collection holds out a hand to us, and craves our understanding. The tension between symbolism and utility is slowly resolved in our minds.

A Lobed mirror -®Compton Verney, photo by Jamie Woodley Photography

Mirror with coiled dragon. Bronze, Tang dynasty (AD 618-906)

And so, as my time to leave these rooms comes, I return once more to the display of mirrors. One in particular holds my attention, and draws me closer. “Mirror with coiled dragon. Bronze, Tang dynasty (AD 618-906)” the caption informs me. The sinuous dragon, a potent symbol of the Emperor himself, writhes amongst floating clouds, and as I look at him I imagine the polished bronze reverse, the burnished disc into which distant eyes once stared. I picture the owner looking back at me, his or her face softly illuminated in the reflected glow. And it seems to me that we stand beyond their gaze, the other side of the mirror, and yet in some way it’s we who are the reflection, we who shine back to them across time, living embodiment of what would become. A continuum of humanity, linked across time by shared experience and imagination; brothers and sisters, each interpreting a bewildering world, finding our way, telling our tales. And through these bronzes those tales are passed on, and on.

Notes

I’m grateful to Annelise Hone and Morgan Jones of Compton Verney for the opportunity to witness the re-construction of the galleries in progress, and for an insight into the re-interpretation of the Chinese Bronzes collection.

All images are courtesy and copyright of Compton Verney.

Enlistment Day

When war was declared in 1914 many young men in Britain were eager to enlist. This was the war to end all wars, the war that would be over by Christmas, the great adventure not to be missed. Some slipped through the net, and convinced the authorities they were of age, but most had to wait until their nineteenth birthday. Arthur, my paternal grandfather, eager to play his part, was one of those. He passed nineteen on 29th October 1914, and successfully enlisted one hundred years ago to this day, on 18th January 1915.

Grandad Hobbs 1916

He spent his first few months in the British Expeditionary Force in Egypt, visiting Alexandria and Port Said, and returning with his head filled with romantic visions of Egypt and its people. But before long, and with bitter inevitability, the dark clouds loomed, and he was recalled to the main theatre of war, in northern France. Here he joined the Royal Field Artillery, and spent much time with the horses that pulled the guns. I cannot watch Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse without bittersweet memories of my grandfather’s recollections of those days, and his empathy for the poor creatures’ suffering. To this day we have his spurs, and this empathy rings true when I hold them, for on each he has replaced the spiked rowels with silver French coins. Amongst all that slaughter, horses had feelings too.

At some stage, and certainly by April 1917, he joined the Royal Engineers’ Corps of Signals, initially as a Signalman, and eventually as a Sapper. It was in this regiment that he spent the majority of the conflict, hunkered down in squalid conditions on France’s western front.

Grandad Hobbs 1917 Aged 22As with many men who endured the conflict, my grandfather spoke little of his experiences. But when he did he was inevitably drawn to fond reminiscences, and light-hearted anecdotes. We never learnt of the suffering and the pain, the unspeakable anguish of those young men. No. What I listened to, in my early years, were tales of him lying on his back in the sunshine of one calm afternoon, and watching a German red-painted tri-pane weaving overhead like a curious moth in search of nectar; or of the particular sound a shell makes as it streaks overhead. And my favourite tale of all, when, having cooked a pan of porridge in the board-lined dugout, he and his friends were intrigued to find lengths of string in their bowls as they ate, only to discover some time afterwards that their scant supply of candles had rolled from the shelf above, and fallen into the steaming pan. “Wax never did anyone any harm little man; it kept us insulated from the cold.” Always humour, always good grace, always humanity. He was always that way.

By God’s grace, or whatever providence looked over him, he came through the conflict, and married my grandmother in 1919. The same year he was stationed as part of the Army of Occupation in Germany. For a while he was billeted in Ramersdorf, in what he told us was Baron von Oppenheim’s castle. My father has a photographic postcard he sent to my grandmother, picturing the castle above the Rhine, and a pencilled arrow indicating “My room”.

Grandad Hobbs GermanyFrom Ramersdorf he was re-assigned to Köln, where he was billeted with a German family. For the rest of his life he spoke fondly of them, and never failed to express his gratitude for the friendliness and kindness with which the German people treated him, particularly his host family. We have a photograph of him from this time, sitting in his room in Köln. It’s a somewhat faded and indistinct image, but a compelling one nonetheless. What strikes me most when I look at it is the beguiling light in his eyes; eyes lit by optimism, by the prospect of a future life to be savoured. And the symbol of that optimism stands alongside him, in the framed photograph of my grandmother on his table; a photograph we still have.

My memories of my grandfather are wholly benign. Each image I conjure belies the nature of the man. I see him perched high up on a ladder, painting the interior of his church. I see him mending clocks and watches for friends and family, a legacy of his father’s skills. I see him sitting at his table, watercolour painting; returning to images of the east, of Alexandria and the desert.

And certain phrases summon the memories like few others; act as a curious catalyst for fond reminiscences. Rise Up Like the Sun by the Albion Band is one of my favourite albums, and each time I listen to it my grandfather’s memory comes flooding back. The song Poor Old Horse not only re-awakens that empathy he had for the plight of the poor working horse, but contains one of the most evocative lines I know.

He’s as dead as a nail in the lamp room floor” it goes, and each time I hear it the involuntary impulse drives me back, back to my childhood, back to a way of life long gone, back to him. The words are in all probability lost on many. But to me the lamp room floor is a compellingly evocative image. After the war my grandfather, newly married, relocated from his native Isle of Wight to Yorkshire, the county of my grandmother’s birth. For those men that survived the war, the collieries promised a trade, a livelihood, which exerted an irresistible attraction. And so his life played out, amidst the grime, the danger, but significantly the fiercely proud companionship of the collieries. He remained there for the rest of his working life. When I was a small child I remember being taken to see him at Ackton Hall colliery in Featherstone. And my two lasting memories of that visit were of the leviathan of a winding engine, and the curiously Victorian ambiance of the lamp room, where the miners’ lamps were maintained and re-primed.

As dead as a nail in the lamp room floor; I’ve trod those ancient boards. And in my imagination I still do, with Arthur at my side.

Kintsugi

KintsugiAnything? Anything at all?

What redeeming scraps endure the passage? What slick trail of affirmation survives this slithering, ponderous tragedy, dragged out over time’s bleak passing, played out across this wasted land?

This fractured life; this broken, little life; this wreck of once-sweet promise.

For wasted time, unconsummated experience, shames the living for having lived so low.

The spark un-lit, consumed in apathy, lives not to light another day.

And yet…

And yet through quiet reflection we may come to gild the fractures. Grace and favour, however briefly gifted, perform the craft. Life’s bitter vicissitudes, now conjoined with veins of gold, create the whole upon which hope’s foundations lie.

These enduring staples, forged of life’s brief loves and treasures, bind the shards

And this life is no more; that life it now becomes

And when we focus on the inner light

This mind, this heart, this abandoned goal; through life’s treasured moments, becomes now whole

See no more the broken vessel, but the glinting fissures within a worthy soul

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King John’s Christmas Court – Worcester 1214

King John - detail from his funerary effigy in Worcester Cathedral. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

King John – detail from his funerary effigy in Worcester Cathedral. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

As we move into Advent, many of us turn our minds to planning for the forthcoming Christmas festivities. There’s much to do; food to order and prepare, the house to tidy and decorate, family and friends to consider, not least the thorny question of just what to wear! It was ever thus.

In 1214 (800 years ago, to the year) King John’s mind was similarly engaged. That year he held his Christmas Court in Worcester.

In my latest blog for Worcester Cathedral Library I tell the story of King John’s visit to the city, the preparations he made, the clothes he wore, and not least the unrest and troubles he endured.

To read the blog, and discover more about this fascinating monarch, click here – King John’s Christmas Court

The Limewood Master and the Female Saint

In late 2010 Andrew Graham-Dixon introduced his BBC4 series on The Art of Germany thus, “Maybe I am wrong, but how many people watching at home will already be aware of the great limewood carvings of Tilman Riemenschneider (the greatest artist who ever set out to carve a piece of wood)…?”

Those of us who know Compton Verney can allow ourselves a little smug satisfaction here, and admit that we are indeed aware, for Riemenschneider’s glorious Female Saint has stood at the heart of Compton Verney’s permanent collection since its foundation ten years ago.

Tilman Riemenschneider  A Female Saint © Compton Verney

Tilman Riemenschneider
A Female Saint
© Compton Verney

Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), was arguably the finest medieval German sculptor, and the leading proponent of the Late Gothic style in Germany. His name first appears in the Würzburg town records before 1479. He married there in 1483, and around the same time achieved the status of Meister. Riemenschneider established himself as a prominent and respected member of the town’s elite, and was subsequently elected to the City and then Upper Council in Würzburg, eventually attaining the position of the town’s mayor in 1520-21.

His carving of a Female Saint sits proudly at the core of Compton Verney’s permanent collection. The sculpture, carved from limewood in around 1515-20, is an outstanding example of his later, and more naturalistic style. Sadly we are unable to identify her with any certainty, as her attribute (formerly held in her right hand) is now missing. Some scholars claim, however, that she is a portrayal of St. Barbara, who traditionally carried a book, symbolic of her study of the scriptures when she was confined to the tower by her father.

What strikes the visitor most, especially on first viewing, is the ethereal grace and serenity of the figure. This sculpture, whilst undoubtedly a religious icon, is imbued with an overwhelming human presence. Sotheby’s sale catalogue describes this beautifully:

“The Female Saint’s posture is elegant, enhanced by the elongated s-curve of her stance created by her slender limbs and by the balance of a variety of compositional details including: her hair falling in long tresses down her right shoulder, the swathe of drapery from her turban curving outward from that same side and the shift of weight from her left leg and hip to the right. Her facial features with almond-shaped, downturned eyes, straight nose, diminutive pursed lips and dimpled, pointed chin combined with the precise and authentic treatment of the skin on her neck and hands are all signatures of Riemenschneider’s distinctive style of carving.”

Signatures, certainly, of Riemenschneider’s later sculptural style; one that evolved out of “the lyrical Schöne Madonnen (beautiful Madonna) style, popular in the early 15th century” where we witness a shift of emphasis to “a distinct natural observation of the body and a decreased idealism.”

This “humanist” approach to his carving lends Riemenschneider’s later pieces a simplicity of form that exudes an almost transcendental serenity. His use of elaborate punched decoration to enhance the sculpture’s surfaces is also evidence that he may have intended this piece to remain monochromatic, unlike many painted pieces of the time.

Some years earlier, in 1495, Riemenschneider had created the statue of Mary with Child which now resides in the Pfarrkirche St Bernard in Würzburg. The writer Hermann Hesse described it as follows:

Dreamily she gazes out from her glass case, far away from our world [...] in her gracefulness and distinction she is refined to a degree of perfection far above that of mankind today

In much the same way the Compton Verney Female Saint’s appearance is transcendent. In her serenity she wears an expression peculiarly of her time, and yet of all time. Hers is a face that speaks to us of a faded history, of experience teased over time into indistinguishable strands, and yet she looks out beyond past experience, and offers us a deeper understanding of the contemporary human condition.

Tilman Riemenschneider  A Female Saint © Compton Verney

Tilman Riemenschneider
A Female Saint
© Compton Verney

As a student I remember reading Herman Hesse’s novel Narziss and Goldmund, where the character Goldmund, having left the sanctuary of his monastery, travels far and wide across Germany on a fugitive pilgrimage of the senses. At a crucial point in his wanderings Goldmund first sees the statue of the Blessed Mother of God,

Then a shaft of sunlight streamed through the window into a side-chapel, and he saw a statue, which seemed to speak to his heart and call him to it, that he turned as though to greet a love, and stood, struck to the heart, and full of reverence.”

He subsequently speaks to the Pater, and enquires of the master who carved her. The priest tells him that Master Nicholas is “… a carver in wood, who lives in our bishop’s city [...] and has great fame at his craft [...] certainly a fine and gifted man.

Goldmund’s quest subsequently refocuses on a search for this Master. He eventually becomes informally apprenticed to Master Nicholas, a master wood carver and sculptor who is socially prominent in the town where he worked, and whose character appears to be loosely based on that of Riemenschneider. Hesse uses Master Nicholas as a source of artistic inspiration for Goldmund, but also as foil for the younger man’s wayward temperament.

When Goldmund comes to ponder on what uniquely differentiates Master Nicholas’ work from that of other masters, whose works, though clearly faultless, utterly displeased him, we read that:

Their bitterest deception lay in this: that they roused men’s longing for beauty, and left it unsatisfied, since in themselves, they lacked its essence – a secret. Dreams and the greatest works both had their mystery.”

Riemenschneider’s Female Saint exudes that elusive, quintessential mystery; she holds unfathomable secrets to her heart, and as a consequence beguiles and delights. She stands unwittingly, almost unnervingly, as the very embodiment of beauty in both mind and soul, not least in body.

When I look upon the Female Saint I sense an almost tangible presence. Standing before her is, for me, existing for a moment in her consciousness. Her contemplation becomes my own, and together we seem to experience a singular state of calm. And in that calm it is painful to ponder on Riemenschneider’s ultimate fate. In 1525, during Germany’s own Peasant’s Revolt, he and fellow Council members refused to vote in support of military force against the peasants. On brutal suppression of the revolt he, along with the rest of the Council, was imprisoned and tortured by supporters of the Prince-Bishop. Although he returned to Würzburg the same year, he was a greatly impoverished man and produced little work during the remaining six years of his life. Legend has it that during his incarceration he had both his hands broken, effectively ending his artistic career. If it were true, then what a bitter irony that the Master who created such a personification of grace should suffer such violent indifference to his craft. But what better legacy could this Master of Limewood have left us to ponder, than Compton Verney’s Female Saint, this indelible embodiment of peace.

Notes

Compton Verney Logo

I am grateful to Flora Cranmer-Perrier and Annelise Hone of Compton Verney for their kind assistance during my research for this piece.

Other Ways of Seeing – The Subtle Art of John Maltby

John MaltbyI define my being by a deep-seated and necessary connection to my past; my ancient, and significantly, my English past. Much of my life I have been unable to walk alone, but have carried with me the most welcome and treasured burden of belonging; a belonging to this place, this land, this immutable continuation of history and tradition.

I tend to look upon myself as a child of the Fifties, and in many ways I feel defined by that. But it’s a poor definition; it fails to describe the essential the core; it falls short of a true understanding of who I feel I really am. For that I need to look back further through time; back to when the foundations of my true belonging were established. As I walk this place, seemingly clothed in modernity, I feel nonetheless written through with a lasting tradition. And that core of tradition is the true defining lode-stone of my existence. It enriches and nourishes my awareness, and my sense of being. It informs my eye and ear. It interprets my experience and enables ways of seeing.

A year ago I bought a beguiling ceramic sculpture by the English artist John Maltby. The piece was to be a gift for my wife. Entitled Bird Man Fish, it seemed at first sight to be imbued with experience; it spoke eloquently to me of an ancient and innate British history. But this was no faux archaic piece; no historical pastiche. What was so illuminating for me was the genuine expression of unity and equality in the relationship between Bird, Man and Fish; and not least the balance Maltby had achieved between them and their position in the broader scheme of things. This was contemporary sculpture addressing questions of fundamental balance and harmony; a place where man is not being seen as dominant, but plays his part in an equal balance; a trinity of mutual importance; a form of spiritual symbiosis.

Maltby, uniquely in my experience, understands that a certain digression from “reality” has to take place if his message is to be understood by a wider audience. His work seems like an unconscious reaction to our contemporary situation, but one guided by a well of centuries of experience in his English soul. His sculptures appear cloaked in a vision of timelessness, innate and ancient, concerned with fable, history and tradition. And though the accusation could be cast, this is no obsession with our English past, but more a concern with, and articulation of, our contemporary situation.

John Maltby’s ceramic sculptures have long since captivated and moved me. But not until acquiring Bird Man Fish did I start to understand the reason why. In the past I have used my own writing to articulate my own contemporary experiences, but informed by a vision that is fed by centuries of our history. And so I felt strangely compelled to try and express in words the intrinsic reliance and dependence upon each other I sensed so strongly when first seeing the piece. Through the telling of the sacrifice of a life, and its rebirth in a stricken soul through the giving of food, I hoped to achieve just that balance, that perpetual and vital sense (so often lacking, sadly) of a necessary need we all have for each other.

The resulting short story opened my eyes still further; opened them to John Maltby’s other ways of seeing.

NB: To read the story select the Short Stories link from the Other Writing menu option (top right of the page).

Treason and Plot: The Deadly Perjury of Titus Oates

Titus Oates' Manifesto. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Titus Oates’ Manifesto. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Maybe it is appropriate at this time of year that the English turn their minds to gunpowder, treason and plot. Most of us are familiar with the threat posed against King James I and his government by Catesby, Fawkes and their fellow conspirators on 5th November 1605. Perhaps fewer of us though, are aware of the threats, real or supposed, against James’ grandson, King Charles II.

In my latest blog for Worcester Cathedral Library I take a closer look at the murderous intentions of Titus Oates.

Read the full blog here: Treason and Plot

One Leaf Falling

phil-cooper-one-leaf-fallingOne leaf falls, black mote upon the breath of time. In melancholy’s dark dance it drifts and shifts. I lift my eyes and trace the eddies through its sinuous descent. From below all colour’s charred upon the dull furnace of the cloud-racked sky; beneath my feet autumn’s vibrant counterpane awaits.

I hold out a hand, adjust, step forward; hope consummated in the aerial flight.

Behind I sense the tower. Firmly rooted it soars, looming in scraperboard monochrome, jackdaw-crowned and cloud swaying, tipping me off kilter, reducing me to this. I place a hand upon the stone, trace a finger along the mortar line, and invite the infusion of time and place and wonder. What hands? I think, What rough caress shaped and set?

Above, bough and leaf speak the sea’s tongue, squalls counterpoint the sighing rush. Autumn’s siren song turns me again, as one leaf returns to earth. Emblazoned in ochre-red and glistening it rests, evading, un-captured.

The loss of a wish draws down like an anchor, and roots me in loam and turf. Boot toes darkened by yesterday’s rain. Spirits dulled in exquisite suffering. Self-pity a welcome mantle of the season, wrapped sensuously, enveloping.

Torn between living wood and dead stone I stand. One, testament to perpetual re-birth; one, raised in monumental death. And so I choose my path, and take death’s hand. Dark stone on skin. Dressed block upon soft palm. Soaring aspiration dwarfing searing doubt.

Then, with cries darker than the oak’s ancient heart they fly. Jackdaw black. Swirling amidst the new-stirred leaves. The tower draws my gaze upwards towards the rough-hewn blade that ploughs the clouds, and delivers its selfless gift.

I reach out my hand and catch her; sister to the one leaf falling. Dream’s fulfilment.

Make a wish.

Note: The beautiful painting, inspired by this piece, was commissioned and painted by Phil Cooper, December 2016.

A Journey Through Latium – Ellis Cornelia Knight in Italy

Ellis Cornelia Knight

Cornelia Knight by Angelica Kauffman. Image courtesy of and © Manchester City Galleries.

Amongst the many travel books in Worcester Cathedral Library’s collection, there is one that seems to be invested with a particularly personal affection for its subject. The book is Latium (full title A description of Latium or La Campagna Di Roma). It was published in London in 1805, and illustrated with 20 beautiful etchings by the author. Whilst the title page does not bear the author’s name, we know her to be Ellis Cornelia Knight.

Cornelia, the daughter of a Rear-Admiral, was well educated in Latin and several other European languages. Upon her father’s death she moved with her mother to Naples, where their modest income would stretch further. Here they moved in relatively exalted circles, and became part of the extended English court that centred on Sir William and Lady Hamilton. She was also acquainted with Nelson, and had become his unofficial poet laureate, writing verses celebrating his victories.

In my latest blog for Worcester Cathedral Library I take a closer look at this peculiarly personal view of early nineteenth century Italy, and reveal more about its beguiling author.

Read the full blog here: Worcester Cathedral Library Blog

Travels Through Mystery and Certainty

Chinese Bronzes at Compton Verney

When I stop to consider how or why we travel, I feel a need to define the origin of the impulse. What draws one towards the material shifting of place, or the drifting of the mind? What impetus drives the physical progress, or the sensory release? In particular, what unites each in their sense of purpose? That is, if purpose exists at all.

I believe, even in the fleeting moment of the subconscious desire, the incentive of purpose is present. We can interpret a single thought; or marshal a collection of thoughts, into a desire to wander. But in doing so, we need some sort of mental plan. We need to ascribe points of reference to our journey, to plan or steer our way. Not least we need a coalescence of places and names; a guide, a gazetteer, a map – some sort of spirit of place, a goal.

And when we travel, physically or spiritually, we do so with compass or map, we explore with guidebooks in hand, we orient ourselves, consciously or subconsciously, via these points of reference. But occasionally we drift, purposefully eschewing the signposts, the prescribed wisdom, the accepted way. We languish in a state of ignorance, alive to the intangible, the speculative, captivated by the suggestion of an unreachable truth.

Art Galleries posses their own landscapes, their own routes of passage; they require a physical and emotional investment on our behalf; a journey of both mind and body. And here, above all, those keys to senses of place and time and meaning, come to us through the eye. And when I pass through the Chinese Bronzes Gallery at Compton Verney it is the ubiquitous eye, the inscrutable ancient stare, which meets my own and holds me transfixed.

When I stand before these ancient vessels I relish the not knowing; I lose myself in the endless possibilities of meaning and function, of relevance and place. I prefer to speculate on their histories and timelines. I look into their eyes and let them tell me their stories. Perversely I shun the facts, and yet crave interpretation. Mystery and certainty fight a slow fight of attrition. I don’t want either to win.

CVCSC 0365.1-2.A (4C) Wine vessel and cover, fangjia

Late Shang Dynasty (about 1550-1050 BC): Wine vessel and cover, fangjia. Bronze. © Compton Verney, photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

So when I look at the glorious Compton Verney fangjia (see picture) I want to know more of its journey down the ages, from Anyang to Beijing; and on – to Berlin, to New York, and finally to Compton Verney. I want it to tell me of its history, to place itself in a time and culture of my understanding. And yet I guard my ignorance just as rigorously; I want to shun modern interpretations; I want to live in the imbalance of possibility and wonder. Fundamentally, I prefer not to know.

That said, when we study the map of the fangjia’s journey, we understand little of what remains. The greater part of the route is long obscured by the drifting sands of time, and the failed memories of countless generations. We know only of its discovery in Anyang, and subsequent purchase in Beijing by Otto Burchard in 1944. From there it finds its way to a private collection in New York and thence to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.

But what of the fangjia’s milestones along the way? What of its construction, its arrivals and departures; not least what of its owners, its aesthetic worth; in essence, its journey?

Let’s start at the end; let’s start with Otto Burchard. Burchard has been described as “a true mentor” who “made a significant contribution to the understanding of Chinese art.” In particular he “had the qualitative judgement which enabled him to recognise a superb piece at once.”

Otto Burchard (1892–1965) developed an interest in eastern Asia, and specifically its literature and art, at an early age. His father collected Japanese art, and at his school in Heidelberg he signed-up to visit Shanghai in order to cultivate his knowledge of the art world. By 1913–1914 he was selling an extensive collection of Chinese artefacts to the Museum of Folk Art in Leipzig; in total around 137 pieces acquired through acquaintances in China, or bought by him on personal visits.

In 1920 Burchard opened a gallery for old and modern art. Significantly, in his first year, his gallery hosted the first international Dada exhibition, displaying 174 works by, amongst others, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Ernst and Francis Picabia. In retrospect this turned out to be the peak of the Berlin Dada movement. Burchard’s personal investment ensured his place as “financier” in the annals of Dadaism.

In the early 1920s he began to make regular trips to China (travelling through Russia and Siberia). He took an interpreter with him on his visits to antique shops as he only had a limited command of the language. When his interpreter was sick, he took Charlotte, the 17 year old daughter of Werner Lu (the hotel manager), who had a good eye for art. She subsequently became his protégée.

In 1925 he was given a room in the Berlin State Museum to display his collection, and in May 1927 opened his art salon in Berlin, from where he dealt in East Asian art. His second and third exhibitions followed in 1928, where Burchard displayed “items that he has acquired in China, which Europe has not yet seen the likes of.”

The late 1920s and 1930s were the golden years for dealing in Chinese art, and perhaps the greatest time for excavations. Grave finds very quickly found their way to the big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.  At this time the most important Chinese dealer in Beijing was Huang Jun. Significantly for Burchard he spoke both English and German well.

The Compton Verney fangjia was reputedly found in Anyang shortly before 1944, and subsequently purchased by Burchard in Beijing. It dates from the late Shang dynasty (13th to 11th century BC), and is one of the rarest ritual vessels of the Bronze Age. A fangjia (literally “square vessel”) was made (we think) for use in ancestral worship or sacrificial ceremonies, and was intended to hold black millet wine that was poured directly into the ground. The Compton Verney example is particularly finely cast, and decorated with symbolic images of owls’ heads, along with other images of snakes, dragons and sun whorls. No other fangjia with this magnificent owl design appears to have been recorded. Its relatively modest size suggests a piece made for a high status individual; it appears not to be a royal or imperial piece, as these are mostly of a grander scale.

Today it sits at the centre of the Compton Verney Chinese Gallery, and silently watches as we file through, from exhibition room to exhibition room. And as we do, relatively few of us stop to look, to consider, not least to dream.

In 2015 the newly re-displayed Chinese gallery will be opened. This will enable a more inclusive view of the collection through greatly improved lighting and more accessible display. Greater care will be given to displaying the objects in context, by arranging them thematically rather than chronologically, and by providing improved interpretation. In particular the most significant objects (both historically and aesthetically) will be featured prominently, allowing those of us with limited time in the gallery to find something special and memorable. One more step on the journey will be accomplished.

But when we consider the fangjia’s long journey we lack the map that guided it; we lack any understanding of all but its final steps upon the road. Above all we lack any legend or key; those elusive pointers to the enriching truths of symbolism and meaning.

Maybe what we also miss is the fundamental truth that none of us wants to contemplate. That it is we who make the journey, we who pass through their time. These vessels witnessed our coming, and will witness our departure. We flit through their permanence like Bede’s sparrow through the banqueting hall of time into “the wintry world from which he came.”

Ultimately, all we do possess is an unwritten history, set out tantalisingly upon the blankest of pages. For the thread of memory is frayed and fragmented; the fibres decayed in the ceaseless passing of time. And whilst the stilled voice of history remains ever silent, the truth is, we may never know.

My own truth is….I never really want to.

Notes

I am grateful to Morgan Jones of Compton Verney for the benefit of his unending knowledge and enthusiasm, and for taking the time to introduce me to this outstanding collection.

And also to my daughter Phoebe, for translating the article on Otto Burchard.

Bibliography:

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ostasiatische Kunst, by Patrizia Jirka-Schnitz. Mitteilungen, Nr.12, Juni 1995. Pages 23–35.