Ming: 50 years that changed China at the British Museum. A review by AHA alum Will Martin

Ming is a word familiar to most of us, and tends to be synonymous with any fragile, rare Eastern pottery. We all know the trope of the Priceless Ming Vase; someone on a (usually pretty mediocre) TV show happens upon a Ming vase, and is at pains to ensure that no harm comes to it. What happens next is inevitable – one particularly clumsy character will knock it off its absurdly precarious perch, smashing the vase into a million pieces, before spending the rest of the episode frantically trying to repair it!

Longquan shrine (Yongle era, 1406). Stoneware, celadon glaze and gilding. Zhejiang province

In reality however, the Ming dynasty, also known as the Empire of the Great Ming, was the ruling house of China for around 300 years between the late 14th century and the middle of the 17th century. The influence of the Ming dynasty on the politics, art, governance and history of Asia is huge, but it is perhaps not always appreciated.
Now though, light is being shed on the dynasty through a new exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition focuses on the years 1400 to 1450 – the period in which the dynasty cemented China as a superpower in an increasingly globalised world – and brings together artefacts from various museums in China, as well as the British Museum’s collection, and pieces from other museums in the UK.

The effect of this collaboration between the various museums is a stunning array of pieces, spanning the obligatory Ming porcelain, gold, jewels, textiles, paintings and much more. A large amount of the antiquities displayed have never been seen outside of China until now, and as such, this is a rare chance to view some truly stunning Eastern artwork.

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration of lotus flowers (1426-1435). Made in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi (province), China, Ming dynasty Xuande (reign)

The exhibition starts with a brief video, providing a timeline of the five rulers of the dynasty during the 50-year span covered. Initially focusing on the Yongle emperor and his decision to move the court of the dynasty from the city of Nanjing to Beijing, the exhibition moves on to look at all parts of Ming society, examining military, religion, hunting, every day courtly life, trade, and everything in between.
There is surprisingly little porcelain given its indelible association with the word Ming, although the standout piece is a huge, polychrome cloisonné jar, covered with dragons and various other regalia. Also amongst the collection are a vastly opulent sword, whose handle takes the form of a gilded dragon, a beautiful golden Buddha, a Daoist shrine crafted from a single piece of jade, and numerous pieces of red lacquered furniture.

Cloissoné enamel jar and cover with dragons, Xuande mark and period (1426-1435)

Furthermore, adorning the final wall of the exhibition is, strangely enough, a painting by Andrea Mantegna, the northern Italian Renaissance artist. It depicts the Adoration of the Magi, but is notable for featuring a small Ming porcelain bowl, illustrating the pervading influence of the dynasty throughout the world at the time.
These are some of the very best pieces, but truth be told, almost everything in the place is a highlight – such was the quality of the artefacts on show, it took me nearly three hours to leave what is essentially a single room of pieces!
I went into this exhibition with virtually no knowledge of anything to do with the Ming dynasty, but came out feeling far better acquainted with what is a truly fascinating part of history and of art. Tickets are not cheap, but for such a brilliant exhibition, they are worth every penny.

Tickets for Ming: 50 years that changed China, are available to book online, and cost £16.50 (£13 for concessions). The exhibition is free to British Museum members. The exhibitions continues until 5 January 2015.

Copyright for all images belongs to the Trustees of the British Museum

For more information; visit www.britishmuseum.org

Behind closed doors: AHA alum and Cambridge student Catriona Grant takes us into the stored collections and study rooms of the Fitzwilliam and Ashmolean

Galleries and museums across Britain are undeniably incredible public resources. Not only do they exhibit and preserve priceless works of art for the nation, they are also repositories for the vast number of artworks that space restrictions prevent from being displayed.

I have been fortunate enough that the close study of original works of art has been central to my history of art degree so far. This has included frequent lectures in the assorted rooms of the Fitzwilliam Museum, in the centre of Cambridge, engaging in discussions about works by the likes of Renoir, Hogarth, Millais and Rodin. Lectures have taken place in front of paintings by Titian, and handling fragments of ancient Greek pots and vases.

Renoir, A Gust of Wind, c.1872

Furthermore, one of the best parts of studying my subject in a city such as Cambridge, is the artistic assets owned by the university in various guises, from the cross-section of plaster casts of ancient sculptures in the Classics Faculty, to the astonishing collections of art owned by colleges.


Cast of the Belvedere Torso


One of the greatest resources I have been able to use is the Graham Robertson Study Room in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Here I have spent time looking closely at prints, drawings and paintings by a variety of artists, in the company of peers and professors alike.


Cotman, An Overshot Mill, c.1801-2


Turner, 'The Yellow Castle', Beilstein on the Moselle, c.1839

On one occasion we looked at watercolours in the collection, observing the sketchy white paint, suggestive of falling water in Cotman’s An Overshot Mill, and the ephemeral skyline in Turner’s The Yellow Castle. On another, we compared the precision of Dürer’s woodcuts with the rapid etching of Rembrandt in various states of his work.


Durer, Melancholia I, 1514
Rembrandt, Christ driving the money changers from the Temple, 1635

Similar experiences were had in Oxford, at the Ashmolean Museum. I was able to supplement a term of studying Russian art, with looking at Natalia Goncharova’s costume designs when working with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes in Paris – her original scribbles surround the drawing, written in French, with instructions for the seamstresses. Examples of Konstantin Somov’s work, can also be seen, such as The Embrace, a sentimental, Rococo style painting that demonstrates the particular influence of the era of Louis XIV of France on the Russian Wold of Art group.

Natalia Goncharova, Design for a Ballet Costume, after 1914
Konstantin Somov, The Embrace, 1927

But of course such opportunities are not limited to these two cities. Museums across the country have similar study rooms available – anyone can ask to see works (often by appointment) – they belong to the nation after all! The British Museum allows members of the public to request to see parts of the collection not on display, and use their library. Similarly the V&A lists the various additional study rooms open to visitors, such as those for photography, architecture, ceramics, Asian art, the list goes on….


The purpose of this blog is, therefore, to raise awareness of such resources, whether for study or personal enjoyment. Apologies if this is old news, but it was certainly something I was oblivious to before my lecturers introduced me to my local collections. As a result I urge you to look up the museums in your city – chances are they’ll have similar facilities in place for the general public to engage with the nation’s cultural heritage.

(Images courtesy of the Cambridge Classics Faculty, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Ashmolean Museum’s Online Collections)