A VISIONARY SCHOLAR
Ellsworth’s transformative vision and passionate expertise impacted every facet of his life’s work. Consequently, he is responsible for breakthrough scholarship in the field of Asian art during the 20th century, his publications not only advancing knowledge but opening new arenas of study and collecting. His landmark texts include his 1971 volume Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch’ing Dynasties, which sparked new interest in this previously neglected field and inspired succeeding generations of younger scholars to take up the cause. In 1987, Ellsworth channeled the results of decades of research into Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: 1800-1950, a groundbreaking multi-volume project. Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy energized an entire art historical period, shedding new light on works that had previously been ignored by curators and collectors.
A BENEFACTOR AND PATRON
Ellsworth’s abundant generosity was evident not only in the friendships he fostered throughout the course of his life, but also in his philanthropic gifts. After Brooke Astor funded a new Chinese courtyard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1977, Ellsworth supplied two hardwood wardrobes, a three-drawer alter coffer and four chairs incised with calligraphy to the new space; curators described the works as “masterpieces of functional simplicity and elegance.” Later, in 1985, Ellsworth donated some 471 works of later Chinese painting and calligraphy to the Met, a testament to the collector’s belief that his source material should be available to the public. In 1997, he made a significant gift of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth calligraphies to the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art, which is the United States’ national museum of Asian art; the gift enriched the collection and expanded exhibition possibilities. Over the years Ellsworth also made significant gifts of Chinese art to the art museums at Harvard and Yale universities.
A CHAMPION OF CULTURAL HERITAGE
Later in his career, Ellsworth came to build a reputation as a passionate preservationist of some of China’s most important cultural heritage sites.
In 1992, the collector made his first visit to Huangshan, an area in the Anhui province some 750 miles south of Beijing. A historic trade center and site of profound natural beauty, Huangshan was made famous by the ink paintings of Song, Yuan, and Ming artists. Upon his arrival there, Ellsworth found dilapidated buildings where he expected to find historic residences and magnificent temples. Devastating flooding of the nearby Shinyang River had caused significant damage to local structures, with most of the government’s recovery funding allocated to road and infrastructure repair. Ellsworth understood that the region’s historic properties, many of them centuries old, needed saving. In fact, Ellsworth was the first to recognize those building for what they are—virtually unique, original buildings from the Ming dynasty that not only had survived but had been little altered over the centuries. Without the immediate attention that Bob gave them, however, they might have disappeared, whether through decrepitude and collapse or through razing to make way for new structures.
Among the most beautiful – and decaying – of Huangshan's buildings was Baolunge, an imposing ancestral temple in the village of Chengkan. While villagers and craftsmen had long taken it upon themselves to conserve and restore local structures, flooding and financial shortfalls eventually exacerbated the deterioration of Baolunge and its surroundings.
Ellsworth made a promise to restore the temple to its former glory. In 1993, he established the Chinese Heritage Art Foundation in Hong Kong to support not only the restoration of Baolunge, but future heritage projects across the country; within a few years, the collector had raised more than $1 million for the organization. Ellsworth recognized the importance of continued preservation efforts throughout China, and became a staunch advocate for the many cultural heritage sites under threat from development and degradation. The collector was made an honorary citizen of China in recognition of his scholarship and philanthropy, and was named an honorary member of China’s Cultural Properties Bureau as well as an honorary consultant and curator of the Beijing History Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Hefei, near Huangshan.