An Unrivalled Collection of Ming and Qing Furniture From One of the Grandest Country Houses in England is coming to Christie’s Hong Kong this May
The English country house, Heveningham Hall, has a number of claims to fame. It’s nestled amongst farmland and woods, 15 miles inland from the pretty seaside town of Southwold, in the quaint county of Suffolk.
Built in a Palladian style in the late 1770s for the baronet, Sir Gerald Vanneck, it was designed by Robert Taylor — who at that time also held the title of Architect to the Bank of England. The mansion boasts a frontage the best part of 300 feet long, making it almost as extensive as Buckingham Palace.
On May 28, at Christie’s in Hong Kong, another of the venue’s claims to fame is being celebrated — with the ‘Classical Chinese Furniture from Heveningham Hall’ sale. Over the past two decades, the current owner has amassed a marvellous collection of Ming- and Qing-era furniture, 25 pieces from which are being offered at auction.
Among the highlights is a folding chair known as a jiaoyi. It dates to around the middle of the 17th Century, either to the latter days of the Ming dynasty or the early days of the Qing dynasty (the changeover having happened in 1644).
That period is renowned as a peak of Chinese furniture-making, above all for the supreme elegance, clean lines and simplicity of its pieces. The finest examples — including the Heveningham Hall folding chair — were made of a precious wood called huanghuali, a member of the rosewood family with a rich grain and beautiful caramel-like colour.
It’s worth noting that the literal translation of jiaoyi is ‘person in charge’. This, like the valuable choice of wood, gives a hint that the rank of this chair’s first owner was high. As does the fact that folding chairs with round backs (as opposed to straight backs) tended to be especially highly treasured.
Only around 30 remain in existence today, most of them in public institutions in China and North America, and only a handful of them in private hands.
‘This type of chair is exceedingly rare,’ says Marco Almeida, SVP and Head of Chinese Works of Art department at Christie’s. ‘Although we don’t know precisely for whom the jiaoyi coming to auction was made, it’s safe to assume it was a person of great wealth and importance. Very probably a member of the imperial family.’
Part of what made a jiaoyi such as this so special is that it combined function and beauty. These chairs were portable: which is to say, they were folded up and taken for use on hunting excursions, diplomatic missions and other trips outside Beijing. (Like all the furniture in Heveningham Hall, it is still used to this day — albeit no longer transported over large distances. The house’s owner has the agreeable option of using it within gardens designed by the great English landscape architect of the 18th Century, Capability Brown.)
A distinctive feature about this particular jiaoyi is the scene featuring a mythological creature carved with ingenious subtlety onto the splat. The creature in question is a unicorn known as a ‘qilin’, an auspicious beast boasting a dragon-like head and a horse-like body (the latter covered with fish-like scales).
According to myth, it appeared during the reign of a virtuous ruler — and on the current chair, an example can be seen turning its gaze upwards, looking at the sun.
Interestingly, in the Ming era, the qilin appeared as an insignia on badges, denoting the wearer was a duke or an emperor’s son-in-law. This perhaps serves as another hint as to the status of the Heveningham Hall jiaoyi’s first owner.
‘As a wood, huanghuali is very durable,’ says Almeida. ‘Which is a key to the chair’s longevity. Given it is around 400 years old, it’s in remarkably good condition.’
The chair was last purchased at Christie’s in New York in 2002, and prior to that had been part of a collection in Scandinavia for the best part of a century.
Ahead of their sale at Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, the 25 lots of Heveningham Hall furniture will be available for preview at the same venue, from May 20-27.
‘It’s unusual to see so many first-rate pieces of Chinese furniture in a western collection,’ says Almeida. ‘You might normally see a few pieces at most. This is a collector who has stood out for his determination and keen eye.’
‘None of these pieces is intrusive or ostentatious. They’re beguilingly simple in design and would look good not just in an English stately home, but in any setting you care to mention.’