Are you a fan of ancient Chinese ceramics? Recently a Chinese intern at Leeds Museums and Galleries, Rane Pike, made a selection from the generous bequest of more than 270 rare Chinese ceramics by Frank Savery, for a display in the Collector’s Cabinet gallery at Leeds City Museum. Now her display is on show, allowing visitors to Leeds city centre to see 42 pieces from this collection, which is also on show at Lotherton Hall, near Aberford, to the northeast of Leeds. The Savery bequest came to Leeds in 1966, after many years of collaboration between the collector and the city’s Art Gallery service. Born in Huddersfield, Savery gradually built up his collection whilst working for the Foreign Office. He was the Consul General in Warsaw for many years until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, and then served in the exiled Polish embassy in London. He mainly acquired his pieces by purchase from the London antique dealers, Bluett and Sons. Unusually for the time, Savery had a deep interest in early Chinese ceramics, rather than the better known blue and white porcelains, or later multi-colored enamels.
Located next to a large introductory text panel with a map of the main kiln sites in China, the ceramics are neatly arranged in a four-shelved glass cupboard. The text panel discusses the four topics chosen for display, from celadons on the top shelf, sancai or three colour glazes on the next, then chazhan (tea bowls), and finally a range of different techiques on the bottom shelf. This selection came out of an in depth review of the collection as a whole, picking up on previous display strengths and the personal interest of the intern guiding the preparations. It should appeal to both the general visitors and those already converted to an appreciation of early Chinese ceramics.
The display is very carefully arranged and uses some of the original Chinese silk covered gift boxes to vary and increase the height of presentation on each shelf (as here with two of the tea bowls). This was an issue as many of the ceramics are quite small and might otherwise not attract much attention. The intern and curator had to plan carefully which shelf to use for which selection, and the tea bowls with their delicate internal patterning are most easily visible on the third shelf. It is a little harder to appreciate the range of watery greens of the celadons on the top shelf.
Among the different ceramics shown, there is a sancai vase which captured my attention immediately. The vase is brilliant, with three lively colors combining evenly – brown, green and yellow. Also the shape is beautiful – a flat mouth, a narrow neck, a round body mimicking a melon, followed by a base which expands outwards. Personally I love sancai (its other name is Tang sancai as it was so popular in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). It demonstrates the vibrant history of China, as the ceramic technique of applying and mixing these glazes was so amazingly advanced at the time. I also think its origin is intriguing, as the sancai ceramics were mainly, if not all, found in tombs, where they were placed to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. Related to death, the vase shows another side of life and leads me to think about the many issues of life and death.
In the future the display could maybe be improved by introducing a few angled mirrors to enable more details of particular ceramics to be visible to the visitor, by reflecting the image downwards. Perhaps some of the very lovely details on the tea bowls could be emphasised by photographic enlargements placed nearby. And maybe it would be good to have a glimpse of the other Savery pieces on show at Lotherton Hall by having a digital slide show on a small screen inside the case. Many visitors might like to know a bit more about the popular tea culture in China, both in the Song dynasty and now, and this could be presented in the format of a Find Out More A4 information sheet, as elsewhere in the City Museum. To conclude, I enjoyed the exhibition very much, and it gives a good impression of this wide ranging Chinese ceramics collection. Some pices I have never even seen in my home country as well. It is definitely worth a visit!