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Visit a collector of ancient works of art — His house and garden — Inspect his collections of old crackle china and other vases, &c. — Fondness of Chinese for their own ancient works of art — Description of ancient porcelain most prized by them — Ancient enamels — Foo-chow enamels — Jade-stone — Rock crystal — Magnetic iron and other minerals — Gold-stone — Red lacquer and gold japan — Porcelain bottles found in Egyptian tombs — Found also in China at the present day — Age of these — Mr. Medhurst's remarks. 

A SHORT time after the events took place which I have related in the last chapter, and before leaving this part of the country, I paid a visit to another Chinese gentleman, whose acquaintance I had formerly made in an old curiosity shop in Ningpo. Like myself he was an ardent admirer and collector of ancient works of art, such as specimens of china, bronzes, enamels, and articles of that description. Neither of us collected what are commonly known as curios, such as ivory balls, grotesque and ugly carvings in bamboo or sandalwood or soapstone, and such things as take the fancy of captains of ships and their crews of jolly tars when they visit the Celestial Empire. Above all things, our greatest horror was modern chinaware, an article which proves more than anything else in the country how much China has degenerated in the arts. The venders of such things  as we were in the habit of collecting knew us both well, and not frequently made us pay for the similarity of our tastes. Oftentimes I was informed, on asking the price of an article, that my Tse-kee friend was anxious to get it, and had offered such and such a price, and I have no doubt the same game was played with him. That what they told me was sometimes true I have no doubt, for in more than one instance I have known specimens purchased by him the moment he heard of my arrival. But for all this rivalry we were excellent friends, and he frequently invited me to visit him and see his collections when I came to Tse-kee. 

Curious Pilgrim-shaped bottle, enameled with butterflies &  etc.

Curious Pilgrim-shaped bottle, enameled with butterflies &  etc.

I found him the owner and occupant of a large house in the centre of the city, and apparently a man of considerable wealth. He received me with the greatest cordiality, and led me in the usual way to the seat of honour at the end of the reception-hall. His house was furnished and ornamented with great taste. In front of the room in which I had been received was a little garden containing a number of choice plants in pots, such as azaleas, camellias, and dwarfed trees of various kinds. The ground was paved with sandstone and granite, and, while some of the pots were placed on the floor, others were standing on stone tables. Small borders fenced with the same kinds of stone were filled with soil, in which were growing creepers of various kinds which covered the walls. Here were the favoured Glycine sinensis, roses, jasmines, &c., which not only scrambled over the walls, but were led inward and formed arbours to afford shade from the rays of the noonday sun. In front of these were such things as Moutans, Nandina (sacred bamboo of the Chinese), Weigela rosea, Forsythia viridissima, and Spiræa Reevesiana. In opposite corners stood two noble trees of Olea fragrans, the celebrated "Kwei-hwa," whose flowers are often used in scenting tea; while many parts of the little border were carpeted with the pretty little Lycopodium cæsium, which I introduced to England some years ago. This pretty fairy-like scene was exposed to our view as we sat sipping our tea, and with all my English prejudice I could not but acknowledge that it was exceedingly enjoyable. 

The reception-room was hung with numerous square glass lanterns gaily painted with "flowers of all hues;" several massive varnished tables stood in its centre, while a row of chairs was arranged down each side. Between the chairs stood small square tables or tepoys, on some of which were placed beautiful specimens of ancient china vases. Everything which met the eye told in language not to be mistaken that its owner was not only a man of wealth, but of the most refined taste. 

After a few commonplace civilities passing between us I expressed a wish to inspect his collections. He led me from room to room and pointed out a collection which was enough to make one's "mouth water." In some instances his specimens stood on tables or on the floor, while in others they were tastefully arranged in cabinets made expressly for the purpose of holding them. He showed me many exquisite bits, of crackle of various colours — grey, red, turquoise, cream, pale yellow, and indeed of almost every shade. One vase I admired much was about two feet high, of a deep blue colour, and covered with figures and ornaments in gold; another of the same height had a while ground with figures and trees in black, yellow, and green — rare and bright colours lost now to Chinese art, and never known in any other part of the world.   

Porcelain vase enamelled with figures of Animals & Plants

Porcelain vase enamelled with figures of Animals & Plants

 In one of the rooms I observed some handsome specimens of red lacquer most elaborately and deeply carved, and also fine pieces of gold japan. There were also numerous bronzes and enamels on copper, which my friend informed me were from 800 to 1000 years of age. His collections of jades and agates was also extensive and valuable. 

Taking the collection as a whole, it was the finest I had ever seen, and was a real treat to me. On going round the different rooms I observed more than one specimen I had been in treaty for myself, and I thought I could detect a good-humoured smile upon my friend's countenance, as the same idea was passing through his mind which was passing through my own. 

On returning to the reception-room I found one of the tables covered with all sorts of good things for luncheon, which I was now asked to partake of. It was, however, getting late in the afternoon, and near my own dinner-hour, so I begged myself off with the best grace possible, and with many low bows and thanks took my leave much gratified with what I had seen. 

It is well known that the Chinese value ancient works of art, but they differ from western nations in this, that the appreciation of such articles is confined to those of their own country. As a general rule they do not appreciate articles of foreign art, unless such articles are useful in daily life. A fine picture, a bronze, or even a porcelain vase of "barbarian" origin, might be accepted as a present, but would rarely be bought by a Chinese collector. 

But while they are indifferent about the ancient works of art of foreign countries, they are passionately fond of their own. And well they may, for not only are many of their ancient vases exquisite specimens of art, but they are also samples of an art which appears to have long since passed from amongst them. Take, for example, their modern porcelain, examples of which may be seen in almost every tea-shop in London. The grotesque figuring is there it is true, but nowhere do we find that marvellous colouring which is observed on their ancient vases. I often tried to find out whether as a nation they had lost the art of fixing the most beautiful colours, or whether in these days of cheapness they would not go to the expense. All my inquiries tended to show that the art had been lost, and indeed it must be so, otherwise the high prices which these beautiful things command would be sure, in a country like China, to produce them. 

Without coloured drawings it is difficult to give the general reader a correct idea of what these specimens are which are so much prized by the Chinese; and although there are some valuable private collections in England, yet our museums, to which the public have access, are but meagrely supplied. My descriptions, however, will probably be understood by collectors of such articles in this country. 

Vase of Sea-green Crackle.

Vase of Sea-green Crackle.

To begin with what is called old crackle porcelain by collectors. — The Chinese have many kinds of this manufacture, some of which are extremely rare and beautiful. In the whites and greys the crackle is larger, and the older specimens are often bound by a metallic-looking band, which sets off the specimens to  great advantage. White and grey are the common colours amongst modern crackle — a manufacture not appreciated either by the Chinese or ourselves — but the latter is easily known from its inferiority to the more ancient. The yellow and cream-coloured specimens are rare and much prized these are seldom seen in Europe. The greens, light and dark, turquoise, and reds are generally finely glazed, and have the crackle-lines small and minute. In colouring these examples are exquisite, and in this respect they throw our finest specimens of European porcelain quite into the shade. The green and turquoise crackle made in China at the present day are very inferior to the old kinds. Perhaps the rarest and most expensive of all ancient crackles is a yellowish stone-colour; in my researches I have seen only one small vase of this kind, and it is now in my collection. 

Oviform Bottle of rare turquoise colour. Gourd-shaped Bottle of yellowish stone-colour Crackle.
Oviform Bottle of rare turquoise colour. Gourd-shaped Bottle of yellowish stone-colour Crackle.

Of other ancient porcelain (not crackle) prized by the Chinese, I may mention the specimens (generally vases) with a white ground, enamelled with figures of various colours, as green, black, and yellow. It is a curious fact that the attempts made at the present day by porcelain manufacturers to fix such colours invariably fail. 

The self-coloured specimens, such as pure whites, creams, crimsons, reds, blues, greens, and violets, are very fine, and much prized by Chinese collectors. Some exquisite bits of colouring amongst this class may be met with sometimes in their cabinets, and also in old curiosity shops. I purchased a vase in Canton about fourteen inches high, coloured with the richest red I had ever seen. I doubt much if all the art of Europe could produce such a specimen in the present day, and, strange though it may appear, it could certainly not be produced in China. 

But the most ancient examples of porcelain, according to the testimony of Chinese collectors, are in the form of circular dishes with upright sides, very thick, strong, and heavy, and invariably have the marks of one, two, or three, on the bottom, written in this form, II, III. The colours of some of these rare specimens, which have come under my observation, vary; but the kinds most highly prized have a brownish-yellow ground, over which is thrown a light shot sky-blue, with here and there a dash of blood-red. The Chinese tell us there are but a few of these specimens in the country, and that they are more than a thousand years old. A specimen shown me by a Chinese merchant in Canton was valued at three hundred dollars! In endeavouring to make a dealer lower his price for one in Shanghae, he quietly put it away, telling me at the same time that I evidently did not understand the value of the article I wished to purchase. It was with some difficulty I got him to produce it again, and eventually I procured it for a much less sum than I could have done in Canton. 

Ancient Porcelain Vessel.

Ancient Porcelain Vessel.

Within the last few years the attention of collectors in this country has been drawn to the ancient enamels of China. Many fine specimens were seen in the Great Exhibition of the Works of Art of all Nations in Hyde Park, and since that time a number of specimens have found their way into Europe. The specimens to which I allude have the enamel on copper, beautifully coloured and enlivened with figures of flowers, birds, and other animals. The colouring is certainly most chaste and effective, and well worth the attention of artists in this country. According to the testimony of the Chinese, this manufacture is of a very early period; no good specimens have been made for the last six or eight hundred years. 

Ancient Vase enamelled on Metal.

Ancient Vase enamelled on Metal.

In the province of Fokien I met with some ancient bronzes, beautifully inlaid with white metal or silver. These were rarely seen in any other part of China. The lines of metal are small and delicate, and are made to represent flowers, trees, animals of various kinds, and sometimes Chinese characters. Some fine bronzes, inlaid with gold, are met with in this province. As a general rule, Chinese bronzes are more remarkable for their peculiar, and certainly not very handsome, form than for anything else. There are, however, many exceptions to this rule. 

The curiosity-shops, which are met with in all rich cities, as well as the cabinets of collectors, are generally rich in fine specimens of the jade-stone cut into many different forms. The clear white and green specimens are most prized by collectors. 

Considering the hardness of this stone, it is quite surprising how it is cut and carved by Chinese workmen, whose tools are generally of the rudest description. Fine specimens of rock-crystal, carved into figures, cups, and vases, are met with in the curiosity-shops of Foo-chow-foo. Some of these specimens are white, others golden-yellow, and others again blue and black. One kind looks as if human hair was thrown in and crystallized. Imitations of this stone are common in Canton made into snuff-bottles, such as are commonly used by the Chinese. 

Amongst other stones and minerals which are found amongst the Chinese are lapis-lazuli, malachites, magnetic iron, and numerous other samples of the rarer productions of the country. But the most curious and most expensive of all is what is called gold-stone. This is an article of great beauty, and very different from the imitation kinds which are made in France, and largely exported to India. Samples of the imitation frequently find their way to Canton, but are little valued by the natives. Most of the Chinese, learned in such matters, with whom I came in contact, affirmed the true gold-stone to be a natural production, and said it came from the islands of Japan. It is very rare in China; I have not met with it in India; and whether it be a natural production or a work of art, it is certainly extremely beautiful. My friend Mr. Beale, of Shanghae, who has some fine specimens, presented one to me for the purpose of having it examined in London, but I have not yet had time. 

Specimens of red lacquer, deeply carved with figures of birds, flowers, &c., and generally made in the form of trays, boxes, and sometimes vases, are met with in the more northern Chinese towns, and are much and justly prized. What is called "old gold japan" lacquer is also esteemed by Chinese connoisseurs, and the specimens of this are comparatively rare in the country at the present day. 

These are a few of the principal ancient works of art met with in the cabinets of the Chinese and in the old curiosity-shops which we find in all large towns. 

According to the united testimony of my Chinese friends, most of the porcelain I have noticed is of a date much more ancient than those bottles which have been found from time to time in Egyptian tombs. I have in my possession examples of these bottles found in China — generally in doctors' shops — identical in form, no doubt of the same age, and having the same inscriptions on them as those found in Egypt, and from all that I can learn they are not older than the Ming dynasty. An article on the proceedings of the "China branch of the Royal Asiatic Society," by W. H. Medhurst, Esq., her Majesty's Consul at Foo-chow-foo, proves this most satisfactorily, by showing that the inscriptions are portions of poetical stanzas by standard and celebrated Chinese authors who flourished about that time. As the concluding part of Mr. Medhurst's paper bears somewhat upon the matters I have been discussing, I shall take the liberty of introducing it in this place. 

"I have not been able to ascertain anything equally satisfactory regarding the discovery of porcelain. The earliest notice of its existence, as a ware, that I can find, occurs in a poem by one Tsow-yang, a worthy who lived in the reign of Wan-te, of the Han dynasty, 175-151 B.C.; but it is only casually mentioned as 'green porcelain.' 

Pan-yŏ, a writer of the reign of Tae-che, of the Tsin dynasty, A.D. 260-268, speaks of 'pouring wine into many-coloured porcelain cups;' and the biography of Ho-chow, an eminent character of the Suy dynasty, A.D. 608-622, tells us that its hero restored the art, then long lost in China, of making Lew-le, a sort of vitreous glaze, by constructing it of porcelain. Writers of the Tang and Sung dynasties mention it oftener, its use having perhaps become more general in their time. I should, therefore, infer that the manufacture was not known previously to the first-mentioned date, as it is not probable that so useful and valuable a ware would have escaped historical or casual notice, had it existed in sufficient quantity to allow of its being applied to the manufacture of common bottles. 

"I need only add that I have trusted in no instance to hearsay evidence in bringing forward the information I have herein collected, but have carefully examined each authority myself previously to recording it upon paper; and perhaps it may not be out of place for me to remark in conclusion, that my teacher scouts the idea of associating these bottles with the Pharaonic epoch as utterly visionary and absurd, it being impossible, he says, that vessels composed of a ware universally acknowledged to be no older than the Han dynasty, and inscribed with quotations from verses that cannot, if the history of Chinese poetry be true, have been written before the Tang dynasty, could have found their way into tombs which were contemporary with the earliest recorded events of Chinese chronology. He is, on the contrary, decidedly of opinion that the bottles in question were manufactured during the Ming dynasty."

Bottle, same as found in Egyptian Tombs.

Bottle, same as found in Egyptian Tombs.

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