Lecture Synopses

 

'The Great East India Company Adventure'

 

Just over 400 years ago the greatest commercial enterprise the world has ever seen founded its first trading post when 2 small ships of the English East India Company sailed into the port of Bantam on the North coast of Java in 1602.

For the following 250 years the 'John Company' as it became known commanded its own armies and created or shaped many of the nations of Asia. It controlled British India, having driven out the French, and increasingly became the dominant national player in trade with China. It established not only the Raj but both Singapore and Hong Kong as well as employing the notorious Captain Kidd to combat piracy!

This is the colourful tale of a very unique adventure - of a trading company that became an imperial power. From its founding in 1600 to its demise in 1857, the Honourable East India Company grew from a loose association of Elizabethan tradesmen into "the grandest society of merchants in the universe". Through a series of royal charters the company obtained rights to acquire autonomous territories, mint its own coinage, command fortresses and troops as well forming its own political alliances. It was able to make war and peace and to exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction over the territories under its control.

As a commercial enterprise it came to control half the world's trade and as a political entity it administered an embryonic empire. Without it there would have been no British India and no British Empire. The English merchants who had begun trading with Asia in the late 1500s found a sophisticated and thriving trading community. Goods were manufactured and traded on a scale never seen in Europe, and Britain discovered a wealth of materials and beautiful objects to bring home as well as finding new markets for the fruits of its own growing Industrial Revolution.

The prize in all this was the wealth created out of the import of teas, silks, spices, porcelain, lacquer, furniture and a host of other exotic and mysterious commodities needed to feed an insatiable appetite and curiosity in Britain. At its peak the company also became the largest employer in London.
Of course, there was a price to pay even in that first voyage which left behind 3 merchants in Bantam. Within a matter of months 2 had died and this proved to be typical in that for many years around a third of overseas employees died every year! However, the prosperity that many enjoyed allowed them to return home to Britain and establish sprawling estates and businesses and to obtain political power.

This new lecture not only puts all of this history into a colourful perspective but examines the decorative arts from India and China and their influence on taste in Britain, as well as looking at the lives of the many individuals involved in this trade.

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'Beautiful Porcelain for the Three Emperors'
(formerly The Pinnacle of Chinese Ceramic Art (AD1662 -1795))

 

Following the fall of the Ming dynasty in AD1644 the Manchu tribesmen from the North, who had then formed the Qing dynasty, produced a series of benign but strong rulers who expanded the Chinese empire to both its greatest size and economic power.

Early in the dynasty, the three successive Emperors of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong periods were not only successful rulers but continued the long held Chinese tradition of combining scholarship with a passion for the arts. Their patronage during this long and stable period of economic and cultural growth, as well as the artistic influence of leading Jesuit missionaries then resident at the Imperial court, resulted in the productive output and skills of the Chinese potter reaching an absolute pinnacle of technological innovation, creative flair and quality. Using rudimentary traditional methods and with little mechanisation, very large quantities of high-fired porcelain objects were made to very exacting standards to satisfy the substantial needs of the Imperial household, officials, scholars and a prosperous merchant class as well as growing export markets.

These were objects of great beauty with remarkable glazes and decoration that other countries sought for so long to reproduce. This lecture looks not only at a wide range of remarkable porcelain but also at the people, places and production techniques of the time.

Note: During the winter of 2005-6 the Royal Academy in London staged the highly successful 'Three Emperors' exhibition and this lecture really elaborates on their taste for fine ceramics.

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'The Decorative Arts of China'

 

The decorative arts of China have long been admired for their fine craftsmanship, mysterious subjects and the stylistic influence they have had on the arts of the rest of the world. Jade, bronze, silk, pottery and porcelain, cloisonné and ivory are just some of the materials that have been exploited with great skill and patience by many generations of Chinese craftsmen.

This lecture looks at how these various materials have been used in China during the past two thousand years to produce a wonderful, very diverse and exotic range of objects both for practical as well as purely decorative purposes and as fascinating objects of curiosity throughout the rest of the world.

Design motives were drawn from all of China's rich cultural tapestry, this being a blend of the Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist religions as well as popular folk mythology. Making these stunning artefacts involved a wide range of skills and stylistic influences that also had the common thread of quality and remarkable attention to detail in the search for perfection.

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'Colour for English Country Houses'

 

When the 16th century trading vessels then exploring Asia, arrived back in Europe with the first examples of Chinese porcelain it not surprisingly caused quite a sensation. This 'magical' material that was at once translucent, impervious, hard, musical and colourfully decorated was so obviously superior to the earthenware vessels then being used in Europe, that enormous status immediately attached to possessing it.

From the increasing practice of drinking tea to the gracing of dinner tables in fine houses it was a must for those that could afford it. Initially dominated by all things 'blue and white' this appetite quickly embraced the so called 'Famille Rose' and 'Famille Verte' palettes as well as 'Blanc de Chine' and other colourful themes. No matter that many of the early forms of decoration were meaningless outside of China as this only added to their sense of exotic mystery.
Then, as regular trading routes developed during the 17th and 18th centuries and the method of sending out commissions, sometimes involving armorial designs, for whole services and sets via the various trading companies like the East India Company here and the Dutch VOC, only served to fuel the fashionable wider taste for 'Chinoiserie' in general.

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'Chinese Blue and White'

 

So called 'blue and white' porcelain has long been a classical favourite of collectors and decorators throughout the world. This unique combination of an underglaze blue pigment derived from cobalt contrasting with a white body of highly refined clay and stone, both then seen through a sharp clear glaze has drawn admiration since it first appeared in China almost a thousand years ago.

Although some of the earliest forms of underglaze blue decoration originated in the Middle East (where the best sources of cobalt were to be found) there is evidence from porcelain shards of early Chinese experiments during the Tang (AD618 - 906) and Song (AD960 - 1279) dynasties. This eventually led to the emergence of underglaze blue in large quantities from the porcelain making centre of Jingdezhen during the 14th century.

The legendary achievements and production of the Ming dynasty (AD1368 - 1644) and the technological supremacy of the Qing dynasty (AD1644-1911) are also examined in this lecture, as well as the export markets that developed for these stunning objects in Europe during the 17th century and later North America.

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'From Behind the Dragon Throne': The mysterious lives and artistic tastes of the
Chinese Imperial Court during the 18th and 19th centuries.

 

Following the fall of the Ming dynasty in AD1644 the Manchu tribesmen from the North, who had then formed the Qing dynasty, produced a series of benign but strong rulers who expanded the Chinese empire to both its greatest size and economic power.

Early in the dynasty, the three successive Emperors of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong periods were not only successful rulers but continued the long held Chinese tradition of combining scholarship with a passion for the arts. Their patronage during this long and stable period of economic and cultural growth, as well as the artistic influence of leading Jesuit missionaries then resident at the Imperial court, resulted in the productive output and skills of the Chinese craftsman reaching an absolute pinnacle of technological innovation, creative flair and quality. Using rudimentary traditional methods and with little mechanisation, very large quantities of remarkable objects were made to very exacting standards to satisfy the substantial needs of the Imperial household, officials, scholars and a prosperous merchant class as well as growing export markets.

These were objects of great beauty with remarkable detail and decoration that other countries sought for so long to reproduce. This lecture looks not only at a wide range of remarkable objects made in a variety of materials from lacquer to porcelain, but also at the very exotic nature of the Chinese Imperial court.

Note: During the winter of 2005-6 the Royal Academy in London staged the highly successful 'Three Emperors' exhibition and this lecture really elaborates on their taste for fine objects.

-oOo-

 

'A Thousand Years of Beautiful Pots'

 

For almost a thousand years the potters of China led the world in the production of true high-fired porcelain, for it was in China that low-fired earthenware pottery, common throughout the world, first underwent the momentous transition to high fired stoneware and porcelain. It was also the indomitable Chinese experiments with glazes that other countries sought for so long to reproduce.

This lecture charts a course from the simple but beautiful pottery of the Song dynasty (AD960 - 1279) with its subtle monochrome glazes through the introduction of an underglaze blue pigment to create the 'blue and white' of the Yuan dynasty (AD1260 -1368) to the highly colourful and finely decorated polychrome wares of the Ming dynasty (AD1368 - 1644). Finally after the fall of the Ming dynasty the last period of Imperial rule saw a climax of technical refinement and complexity in the magnificent porcelain produced under the patronage of the early Qing emperors during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The lecture also looks at the methods of production used and the development of the porcelain producing city of Jingdezhen - also the site of the Imperial kilns. Full account is taken of the numerous stylistic influences and diversity of taste, from Chinese domestic use to the large scale export trade from the late 16th century onwards for the fine houses of Europe, and later North America.

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2017