Thu, 18th Nov 2021 11:00

Asian Art I

  Lot 310



Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period, circa 1790.

Each depicting details relating to the production and distribution of tea, framed and glazed, 37 x 50cm. (24)

Exhibited: David Sanctuary Howard and Richard Ashton, 1997, A Tale of Three Cities: Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong, Three Centuries of Sino-British Trade in the Decorative Arts, pp 36-37, cat no 28.

Provenance: Acquired from the Qianlong Emperor on Lord Macartney’s Embassy to China 1792 – 1794, by John Crewe, 2nd Baron Crewe (1772 – 1835), thence by descent through four generations of the Crewe family to the present owners.

清乾隆約一七九零年 採茶圖一組二十四幅



Legendary works of exceptional artistic, historical and political importance, this set of 24 works embody the highest level of international commerce, diplomacy and art virtuosity. They have rarely been placed on public view, only once publicly shown in the landmark 1997 exhibition, A Tale of Three Cities: Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong, Three Centuries of Sino-British Trade in the Decorative Arts, where the catalogue describes them as ‘a remarkable set of paintings’. Much of the material from the Macartney mission passed into the public collection of Cornell University in 1918 through the Wason collection.

The complete set of paintings passed to the youngest member of the first English diplomatic mission to China, Lord Macartney’s cousin, John Crewe, 2nd Baron Crewe (1772 – 1835). John Crewe was famously painted as King Henry VIII at age 3 by Sir Joshua Reynolds on which Horace Walpole famously noted, “Is not there humour and satire in Sir Joshua's reducing Holbein's swaggering and colossal haughtiness of Henry VIII to the boyish jollity of Master Crewe?”. Despite amassing significant debts in later life, the paintings have been treasured by his descendants ever since, hanging in the historic Crewe Hall, with an inventory of 1898 noting their hanging in the Parsons Bedroom.

Having passed for two centuries through generations the Crewe family, in the 1980s after a terrible error, one of the paintings was misplaced and thought lost forever, which is why the 1997 exhibition lists only 23 remaining extant works.

By a stroke of luck the curator was contacted by an anonymous source who claimed to possess information about the whereabouts of the lost painting. In fact, the present owner of the work was said to have acquired it from a junk shop for the princely sum of £10. The claim was verified, and the family came perilously close to reuniting the complete collection. However, a bitter dispute over legal title meant that the case could not be resolved and the set remained broken up almost to the present day.

The final chapter in the story came just hours before the present catalogue went to press when a resolution was struck, meaning that the works are offered as a complete set and will be offered for public exhibition and sale in 2021 for the first time in their more than 200-year history.

The historical importance of the works stems from the momentous nature of the diplomatic trade mission they embody and derive from. The diplomatic endeavour they derive from marked a turning point in the relationship between China and the Western powers. It was Britain’s attempt to balance a massive trade deficit fuelled by its demand for tea and other Chinese products. However, the failure to establish bilateral diplomatic relations, popularly understood to have stemmed from Lord Macartney’s refusal to kowtao to the Qianlong Emperor, shaped the world economy for years to come with the Opium Wars occurring 1840-1842, and the eventual fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, arguably casting a shadow onto Chinese-UK relations today and by extension the entire world economy.

The works perfectly encapsulate the spirit of trade and industry which underpinned the Macartney initiative. They depict the production of tea with the many details of the process being illustrated. Tea was a crucial component in international trade for centuries and has come to define both British and Chinese identities. Commenting on a related, but later set, Crossman (1972) states 'These watercolours depicting crafts and manufacturing processes varied in complexity, in composition and detail, but the finest became some of the most sought after items of the export trade. The tea culture series represented all the processes from the growing of the tea bush to its final shipment and sale. Since tea was the major commodity of the trade, these watercolours found a ready market.' (The China trade; export paintings, furniture, silver & other objects, p.179).

The paintings show international connections in various ways. One scene shows a Chinese and Western trader engaging face-to-face. Another, Western style buildings in a Chinese setting – possibly one of the rare Jesuit monasteries present in China at the time.

The works are artistically significant showing a fine level of technical detail, but also details of everyday life including children sheltering from the sun in a make-shift “den” and vast imaginary mountainous landscape vistas. Whilst sets of paintings of tea preparation were common in the 19th Century, this set is exceptionally early, detailed, extensive and complete.

Sold for £175,000

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