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Alfred Morrison, Victorian Maecenas
Alfred Morrison (1821-1897) (fig. 1) was the second son of the millionaire textile merchant James Morrison, probably the richest commoner in the 19th century. As a young man, James (born 1789) had left his small Hampshire village where his father had been innkeeper, to seek his fortune in London. Alfred, however, grew up in considerable luxury, enjoying the comforts of a town house in Harley Street and country estates at Fonthill in Wiltshire and Basildon in Berkshire. He attended Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities, travelled regularly on the continent and spent over three years criss-crossing North America on behalf of his father's merchant bank. While travelling with him in 1842, his elder brother Charles wrote home: 'I have been observing Alfred - & do not think he will become a working man of business... I think that nothing but necessity will induce him to become the inmate of a countinghouse... [he] does not value money & does like his ease' (private collection).
Fortunately for Alfred he would never be forced to become the 'inmate of a countinghouse'. When his father died in 1857, Alfred inherited the Fonthill estate and £750,000 in stocks and shares. His country home was called the Pavillion (fig. 2); it was the surviving wing of William Beckford's Fonthill Splendens (the ruins of the famous Abbey were close by). And like Beckford, Alfred would use his inheritance to amass an extraordinary collection of art treasures. He began by collecting engravings and Chinese art, the latter often acquired from Henry Durlacher. However, a significant proportion of the Chinese ceramics and enamel on metal were purchased in 1861 from Lord Loch of Drylaw (1827-1900). The latter had brought them to Britain from China following the sack of the Imperial Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) in Beijing in 1860.* Alfred commissioned the internationally famous architect Owen Jones to design a room at Fonthill especially for the Chinese objects 'in the Cinque-cento style....The chimney-piece and fittings [made by Jackson and Graham] are entirely of ebony, inlaid with ivory, and the ceiling is of wood panelled and inlaid, the mouldings being black and gold' (The Builder, 9 May 1874, p.385).
While work was proceeding in Wiltshire, Alfred acquired the lease, in 1865, to 16 Carlton House Terrace; Jones, Jackson and Graham proceeded to create for him a palace of art behind the dull stucco exterior. 'Pass through this heavy doorway, and in an instant every fair clime surrounds you, every region lavishes its sentiment; you are the heir of all the ages... There is no sham in this house - no wood pretending to be metal, and no iron affecting to be marble... We may ascend the magnificent stairway, past the globes of light upheld by bronze candelabra rising seven feet from the floor, and as we go from story to story find good, painstaking work meeting us everywhere.' The house was a riot of colour, pattern and texture; inlaid woodwork; coffered geometrical ceilings; walls hung with rich Lyons silks. 'It makes the chief palaces of Northern Europe vulgar' (Moncure Conway, Travels in South Kensington, London, 1882, pp.154-159).
Alfred filled his homes with paintings and sculpture, Persian carpets, tapestries, lace and embroidery, coins and medals, Greek antiquities, autographs and letters, as well as Chinese porcelain, adding three top-lit galleries to Fonthill in the 1880s (fig. 3). He bought work by contemporary artists including Frederic Leighton and John Brett , but he also 'loved to be the Maecenas' of contemporary craftsmen, commissioning exquisite and priceless pieces from the Spanish metalworker Placido Zuloaga, the French enamellists Charles Lepec and Fernand Thesmar, and the goldsmith Lucien Falize.
Perhaps Alfred was inspired by William Beckford. A description of Fonthill Splendens written early in the century could as easily have been applied to his own achievements in his London and Wiltshire homes: 'an astonishing splendour is shown here, combined with the finest taste, and one can say without exaggerating that those who are in the business of decorating for the great and rich, to perfect their art would find in Fonthill the most excellent examples' (C.A.G.Goede, England, Wales and Ireland, Dresden, 1805, vol.5, p.116).
*The current sale is the third major sale of important Chinese art from Morrison's Fonthill Heirlooms Collection at Christie's. The first took place on 31 May 1965, when the famous Xuande cloisonné enamel jar and cover now in the Uldry Collection was among the pieces sold. The second sale was on 18 October 1971, which included fine Qing cloisonné and porcelains.
Caroline Dakers is writing a study of the Morrison family to be published by Yale University
Qing Enamels on Porcelain and Metal
Rosemary E. Scott
Senior Academic Consultant to the Asian Art Department
The collection of Chinese works of art amassed by Alfred Morrison contains exceptionally fine examples of Qing dynasty enamelled porcelains (Lot 47), Beijing (Lot 21) and Canton enamels on metal (Lot 18), and also cloisonné enamels (Lot 49). Research and development of the techniques used to produce these pieces was specifically encouraged by the three great Qing emperors - Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-35), and Qianlong 1736-95). Indeed the works of art made for the Qing emperors in the late 17th and 18th centuries were some of the most personally monitored by their monarchs in all of China's long history of imperial patronage. This close imperial involvement was greatly facilitated by the Kangxi emperor's establishment of specialist ateliers within the palace during the latter part of the 17th century.
The imperial ateliers were largely set up to research and develop skills in order to produce the kind of objects that had been introduced into China from the West in greater numbers following the lifting of the ban on foreign trade in the 23rd year of Kangxi's reign (1684). The ateliers were initially on a relatively small scale. However, encouraged by what he was told by the French Jesuit missionary Bouvet of the establishment of the French Royal Academy of Sciences to encourage developments in science and the arts, the Kangxi emperor expanded the Chinese imperial ateliers in the 29th year of his reign (1690) and provided them with administrative assistance. The ateliers continued to expand in line with the emperor's particular interests and at length there were fourteen workshops specialising in areas such as scientific instruments, clocks and watches, cartography, glass-making and the production of enamels on copper. In the 57th year of his reign (1718) the enamel workshop was transferred from the Wuyingdian (Hall of Military Eminence) to the Yingxindian (Hall of Mental Cultivation) in the Qixianggong (Palace of Initiating Auspiciousness), and at the same time an official of higher rank was appointed to supervise the work.
The ateliers were administered by the Zaobanchu (Office of Imperial Manufacture), which was part of the Imperial Household Department, but the Kangxi emperor also required the European missionaries at his court to co-operate with, among other things, the development of enamels of the sort imported from Europe. Indeed it is recorded that the emperor instructed officials to watch the activities of the European missionaries in China, not only to curb their proselytizing but also to see if any of them demonstrated interesting technical or artistic skills. If they did, they would be required to attend the emperor at court, where their talents could be put to good use.
The European enamels admired by the emperor were painted on metal, and of a type not previously produced in China. Initially the emperor summoned certain porcelain painters from the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, to come to Beijing to try painting in enamel on metal. Later, in 1716, more enamel painters, this time from Guangzhou, were commanded to come and work in the Beijing imperial ateliers. In 1711 the emperor tried to coerce the European Jesuit Fathers Matteo Ripa and Giuseppe Castiglione to paint with enamels in the ateliers. They claimed that they did not have the necessary skills and painted so badly that, to their relief, the emperor dismissed them. The emperor was not to be thwarted, however, and he demanded that a competent enameller be sent from Europe. Thus, in 1719, an experienced enamel painter from France, Jean Baptiste Gravereau, was seconded to the imperial workshop to teach European enamel painting.
It was significant that a new glass workshop had been set up in the palace in 1696 under the supervision of a German Jesuit, Kilian Stumpf. This was important both for the development of glass and enamels, and also because Kangxi commanded that the designs being applied to copper should also be applied to glass wares and to plain white porcelains sent from the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. It is probable that the so-called falang enamels were not successfully fired onto porcelain at the imperial atelier until the last few years of Kangxi's long reign, probably not until around 1720. It is from this year that a very curt communication was sent by the Kangxi emperor to Cao Fu, then the director of the imperial textile factory in Nanjing, complaining about the shortfall of porcelains sent to the court and noting that these porcelains were not allowed to be sent for enamelling until the emperor had personally inspected them.
The glass atelier no doubt had an important part to play in both the enamels used to paint designs on metal and porcelain and the colours used on cloisonne enamels. Analysis has shown, for example, that the cobalt blue overglaze enamel that began to appear on porcelain in the Kangxi reign, was of similar composition (lead-alkali-silicate) to that already found on cloisonné enamels from the first half of the 17th century. Research has also shown that the three key colours of the famille rose palette that appeared in the last years of the Kangxi reign, pink, white and opaque yellow were also of similar lead-alkali-silicate composition (as opposed to the simple lead-silicate of the previous overglaze enamels) to those found on cloisonné enamels and used the same colorants. It is also interesting to note that the rose pink seen on enamelled porcelains (Lot 46) and cloisonné enamels (Lot 26), seems to enter the palettes of both technologies at about the same time - c. 1720.
As late as 1720, however, a surviving letter from the Jesuit Father de Mailla still notes the shortage of appropriate enamels. It was not until the reign of the Yongzheng emperor (1723-35) that the palace glass atelier finally managed to produce a palette of nine good-quality new enamel colours. This was reported in the sixth year of the reign (1728). Until that time the craftsmen had to use a mixture of colours imported from Europe, those brought from Guangzhou and those prepared in the imperial ateliers in Beijing. Although he retained an intrinsic distrust of westerners, the Yongzheng emperor was, nevertheless, an admirer of falang enamels and evinced a personal interest in production, as recorded in various documents from the palace archives. The emperor also put his favourite, and very able, younger brother, prince Yixiang (1686-1730) in charge of the ateliers. The same memorandum of 1728 which innumerated the enamel colours and suggested making the colours up in 300 cattie (approximately 400 lb.) batches also noted that the foreigners used duo'ermen oil (toluene) as a solvent for enamels and suggested checking the Essence Storage Room in the Wuyingdian to see if any was available. It was at this date that records also note that enamels were sent from the Beijing ateliers to Nian Xiyao, the director of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen.
The second half of the Yongzheng reign was thus the period when falang enamels reached their point of complete development and a wealth of especially skilled painters were employed to paint the designs. It is also interesting to note that the Yongzheng emperor occasionally, as in 1729, ordered that glass vessels should be made copying porcelain pieces that particularly pleased him. This link between the fine enamelled porcelains and fine glass wares continued into the Qianlong reign (1736-95), as did imperial fascination with these objects, as well as with both painted (Lot 19) and cloisonné (Lot 49) enamels on metal. In 1739 the Qianlong emperor had new painters from Guangzhou brought to the imperial ateliers to work on both enamels on metal and enamels on porcelain. They brought with them styles characterised by a more vivid use of colour than those popular in the Yongzheng reign, and these new colourful styles found considerable favour with the Qianlong emperor. The use of coloured grounds on painted enamels was also much favoured by the emperor - not only the intense colours used to such dramatic effect in the Kangxi reign, but pastel shades like the pale turquoise seen on the pair of vases in the current sale (Lot 59). The Qianlong coloured grounds also sometimes bore incised scrolling designs as on the pale pink ground of the Morrison moonflask (Lot 47).
Qianlong continued to take a close interest in the enamelled wares made for his court throughout his long reign. Both porcelains and metalwork demonstrate the influence of his particular interests. Among these interests was antiquarianism, and many fine items owe the style of their decoration to the emperor's admiration for ancient bronzes. This can be clearly seen on two cloisonné vessels in the current sale (Lots 49 and 45). Both the form and the decoration of the xu and zun vessels have been influenced by ancient bronze, but the skilful Qing craftsmen have succeeded in adapting them to create spectacular cloisonné pieces.