Linda Wrigglesworth: Making the Case for Late Imperial Chinese Costume and Textiles
John E. Vollmer, January 2008.
The Chinese robe collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Gillian Darby, who served as tutor in decorative arts at Christie's Education in London until her recent retirement, are the reasons I met Linda Wrigglesworth. In 1974 I spent a leave of absence from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto at the V&A. This "European tour" was part of a strategy by the senior curators in the Textile Department where I was an assistant curator for me to gain experience, and undertake research toward a publication and an exhibition. They wanted to position me to take over as head of department upon their imminent retirements - something unheard of for a person under the age of thirty. At the V&A I was left mostly to my own devices, I used the time in the Far Eastern Department to examine the extensive Chinese robe collection, compiling technical notes and images of the pieces. Since some of the items had not been photographed, Gillian, the ceramics specialist who served as the Senior Museum Assistant, helped me take Polaroids. We became friends; Gillian gathered knowledge about the collection and remained my ongoing contact to the department's collection.
When Linda was just beginning her business in the late 1970s, she started searching for information about her newly-discovered passion for Chinese robes. She found the standard references of the time - the mid-1940s catalogues by Alan Priest and Helen Fernald, Schuyler Cammann's 1952 study on dragon robes and, in her first year of business, my own 1979 catalogue for the Royal Ontario Museum exhibition. Linda also decided to visit the V&A to learn more. There she was referred to Gillian, who by that time had transferred to the Education Department. Gillian took the time to get to know Linda and encouraged her, noting Linda had a great eye. Gillian let each of us know that we needed to meet each other.
Linda and I met in the early 1980s in Toronto. It was a pleasure to show Linda the Toronto collection; I was impressed with her knowledge, but even more impressed by transparencies of robes she had on offer. Over lunch I learned how Linda came to love Qing dynasty dress. Linda had studied fashion, apprenticing within fashion houses in London from the age of sixteen; but at nineteen she undertook a career change and went to work as an assistant in an antique shop on Beauchamp Place specializing in Chinese ceramics and Wedgewood. Linda had begun to study Chinese art. One day, when unpacking a shipment of Kangxi porcelains, Linda discovered Chinese robes being used as packing material. When she asked what they were, she was told they were "old Chinese clothes." But these old clothes, with their worn, but exquisite embroidery and elaborate patterns of dragons or flowers, held Linda's attention. There was an immediate connection that alerted her to the urgent need both for their preservation and for their status as artworks to be recognized. In that afternoon a career was born.
Time to change work place led to Linda's next job in the Bond Street Antiques Centre. There she met the fabulously eccentric Roberta d'Este Appleby, an opera singer, gemologist and textile expert. Among the stock of Asian textiles, Linda found the Chinese robes she so admired once again. In time she would develop this end of the business for Ms. d'Este Appleby, and not being able to pursue a joint venture with Ms. d'Este Appleby, Linda made a career move, which set her on the path she has followed for thirty years. In 1978 she decided it was time to launch her own business in a stall at the antique market in Grays Mews on Davies Mews, in Mayfair. Her success was based on hard work and an indefatigable quest for fine examples of Chinese costume and textiles. Her timing was fortuitous, although at the time it was difficult to know that the market for Chinese textiles would develop so dramatically.
In the late 1960s political events and changes in the art market coincided with an increased availability of Chinese material. During the 1960s and 1970s, Western interest in Chinese art grew. Auction houses and dealers responded by creating special sales and exhibitions. A main source of supply were the descendants of earlier generations of Western travelers, diplomats, businessmen and missionaries who had acquired Chinese art, including robes and textiles, during the early part of the twentieth century. As those individuals and their immediate descendants sought to dispose of these items auction houses and dealers, including Linda, were there to move them along into the marketplace. Over the years, Linda has dealt with an amazing array of estate textiles, ranging from the imperial robes acquired by the Italian diplomat and author Daniel Vare in Beijing during the 1920s to the materials belonging to the late nineteenth century missionary and anti-footbinding campaigner, Mrs. Archibald Little (see lot 106).
During the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and raged until 1969, much of China's cultural heritage was destroyed, including that preserved in Tibetan monastery treasuries, which resulted in the dispersal of an incredible range of Chinese art onto the global art market, mostly by way of Asia's modern trade routes. While the range of textiles included early silks dating from the Tang, Song, Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties, Linda kept her focus on late Ming and Qing dynasty materials. Linda made very specific forays into this market, seeking items that made the case for Qing dress, such as the Tibetan chuba, or aristocratic man's robe, which is made from fabric for a Chinese imperial chaopao, dating from the Kangxi period (1662-1722) (lot 37).
The business grew; Linda began exhibiting at international art fairs in the United States, Europe, Australia and Hong Kong. By the mid 1980s Linda's single stall had expanded to three stands within Grays Mews. In 1989 a space at 34 Brook Street opposite the famous Claridges Hotel in Mayfair became available and Linda Wrigglesworth Ltd. took a gallery situation on the first floor. In time she would expand to the front ground floor space.
In 1982 she met Gary Dickinson, a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and now a recognized scholar in the field of Chinese textiles. Gary worked with Linda as a gallery historian, then became an independent consultant. Together they mounted exhibitions and produced a stream of informative exhibition catalogues and brochures on a variety of topics - rank badges, shoes, fans and purses, robes, imperial cushion covers - to educate their clients and the public. All have been aimed at making the case for textile and dress as important cultural and artistic statements in their own right. In 1990 Linda and Gary wrote and published the landmark study Imperial Wardrobe, which was reprinted in 2000. Several of the items offered here were published in this book, such as the rare early nineteenth century chaogua, or formal court vest of kesi, or silk tapestry weave, for a noblewoman (lot 13). She has sold internationally to Institutes, Museums and private collectors including fashion designers and celebrities.
Throughout her career, Linda's offerings have been concentrated in four broad categories. All are represented in this sale: 1) robes, both court and informal; 2) personal accessories; 3) objects related to status and rank and 4) palace furnishings. Over the years Linda has dealt in some of the most glorious eighteenth century imperial robes, including a Yongzheng period (1723-1735) emperor's robe and a superb Twelve Symbol Qianlong period (1736-1795) emperor's robe, which are both from the Daniel Vare collection and which are presently held in private collections. The Yongzheng period dragon robe had the highest asking price of any Qing dynasty garment when it was presented at the International Asian Art Fair in New York in the spring of 2004. Two surcoats dating from the Qianlong period are in the sale. These garments were designed to be worn over corresponding court robes. One with eight embroidered long dragon roundels displayed on a plain dark navy blue gauze weave ground, known as a longgua, dragon coat, was made for a high-ranking imperial consort (lot 12). It would have been worn over a yellow semiformal robe with front overlap and horsehoof cuffs of the third style assigned to high-ranking court women. These garments are illustrated in the 1759 regulations Huangchao liqi tushi. Robe and surcoat would have been decorated only with long, or five-clawed dragon, roundels. The second surcoat made of kesi resembles the second style of imperial women's semiformal court robes with roundels above a lishui, or wave and mountain border (lot 83). Here, for non-official court wear, however, the roundels contain flowers and butterflies and the midnight-blue field is scattered with flowering sprigs and butterflies. This unique example is complete with its original ermine lining. The closest parallels for imperial informal wear of this quality and type are preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. See The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace - 51 - Costume and Accessories of Emperors and Empresses of the Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong, 2005, pp. 120-129.
Important examples of nineteenth century imperial dress feature a range of dragon robes, including a rare emperor's jifu, with the Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority (lot 39). This set of imperial symbols referred to the emperor's sacral role as the Son of Heaven and dated from the Han dynasty, but they were conspicuously missing from early Qing emperor's robes. They were only reintroduced to the imperial wardrobe mid-eighteenth century when the Qianlong emperor promulgated in the Huangchao liqi tushi (Illustrated Precedents for the Ritual Paraphernalia of the [Qing] Imperial Court) edicts in 1766. This finely worked kesi robe was made for the Xianfeng emperor (1851-1861). The design emphasizes gold dragons and blue clouds against a bright yellow ground reserved for the emperor and the empress. Supernatural red flames emanating from the dragons and tiny bats, some carrying beribboned swastika-shaped wan, or 10,000, characters, offer visual contrast to the restrained color scheme. The 'five color clouds' mentioned in the Huangchao liqi tushi edicts have been rendered as small color accents throughout. Another kesi dragon robe with a similarly restrained color scheme is a tour de force of the weaver's art (lot 27). All of the details have been worked entirely in three-colored gold and silver-wrapped threads on a blue silk ground.
Linda has always loved the exuberance of later nineteenth century workmanship, which graced the informal coats and skirts of the wives and daughters of Han-Chinese merchants, whose economic power rose dramatically after 1850 (lot 94). These garments with their carefully planned contrasting patterns and colors, and meticulous assembly using satins and damasks, pipings, bindings and yards and yards of jacquard-woven silk ribbons, parallel the attention to detail, which guided the manufacture of court attire. Their carefully planned and drawn designs are executed with great skill, often on an incredibly small scale that must have delighted the eye and hand of their original owners, much as they continue to impress contemporary viewers.
The same attention to detail is evident in accessories: no item was too small or insignificant to receive the full attention of textile designers and artisans. Sets of purses, used by men, were attached to their belts. Whether retrieving a fan or pair of spectacles, the encounter with its specialized container would have offered visual delight and, commonly, a wish for success or long life, such as the pair of drawstring bags made of embroidered silk satin with variations of the wan (ten thousand) emblem, a good-luck symbol (lot 61).
Chinese imperial society was emphatically secular, drawing its definition and direction from imperial law and historical precedent. Those appointed to administer and enforce the decrees emanating from the emperor attained social recognition and enjoyed the privileges of rank. From the earliest periods of Chinese civilization, court rank was the key determinant of social status, economic stability and prestige. In the Confucian plan for government, the ruler was aided by a class of educated scholar-officials. This group held rank based on their education and ability to pass three sets of rigorous examinations based on the Confucian Classics. Those attaining the highest, or jinshi degree, were guaranteed a position in the imperial civil service. Rank and position were clearly marked and objects, which served in many contexts, declared status. For the vast majority of these civil servants and military officers the most obvious distinction was the right to wear buzi, or square badges, on the chest and back of their bufu, or court surcoats and the appropriate "jewelled" finial on their court hats, such as lot 133.
The comprehensive scheme to indicate the rank of all in attendance on the emperor as Son of Heaven dates to the Ming dynasty. Dragon insignia distinguished members of the imperial clan. Distinctions were made first by the type of dragon, then by the shape of the badge. The five-clawed dragons called long outranked the four-clawed dragons called mang. Round or circular badges outranked square badges (see lot 5). The lower ranks of nobility and military officers were assigned animal badges (lot 29). Badges with birds were assigned to civil officials (lot 16).
Qing society not only dressed themselves with garments that signaled rank, but also dressed their furniture and interiors with textiles that confirmed their status and prestige. Seating furniture would have been supplied with cushions; tables would have been draped with silk frontals (lot 150). Depending on the degree of formality, a dais would have been set on the axis with the door, here a throne would have been set on a carpet or floor covering and backed by a large ornamental screen. Among the most unusual items in the sale is an embroidered eighteenth century yellow satin panel featuring female immortals and lions in a paradise garden setting (lot 146). These rare unused lengths, which are presently sewn together, were made to be inserted in the panels of a nine-fold screen. The yellow satin ground would have announced the imperial status of the room's occupant; the informal design without dragons would have indicated a non-court function. The allusion to immortality, hence a wish for continued long life, allows us to speculate that this textile might have been created for the Qianlong emperor's mother, the Dowager Empress Xiao Sheng Xian (1669-1777), with whom he was particularly close and visited daily.
The sale touches upon most aspects of Linda's career as a leading world specialist and antique dealer of Chinese dress and fabric. Earlier this year I discussed her decision to sell up now. She has a simple answer. "After thirty years it is time to make a change and there is no better way to celebrate Linda Wrigglesworth Ltd. than a public auction where every one can take part and celebrate these wonderful costumes and textiles." On a more philosophical note she sees the business having come full circle-from discarded silks used for packing shipments from China to revered treasures, 'works of art', that are eagerly sought by mainland Chinese buyers and international markets alike. Her goal of raising awareness for the significance of robes and fabrics as worthy of our attention and as valuable items within the cultural and aesthetic history of China has been achieved. There will be other acts that follow. Among other things, including some personal goals, Linda dreams about time to work with the many smaller English and European museums with Chinese textile collections to help catalogue and document these items, hopefully discovering new things to know about Qing dynasty costume and textiles.