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SOAME JENYNS AS I REMEMBER HIM by JAMES SPENCER, formerly director of Christie's London Chinese department
Life was not all roses for the most junior member of the Oriental Department at Christie's in the early 1970s. Once or twice a month, however, there was a real treat. Our consultant, Mr. Soame Jenyns, formerly of the British Museum, and of China, came on one of his regular visits.
Soame, who soon became a friend and an ally, was already a legend in the field of Oriental art and the author of some of the most definitive books on Chinese and Japanese ceramics. On his visits to Christie's he was shown any obscure or difficult objects on which a second opinion was needed. In this he excelled. His career at the British Museum, in addition to his years in China and his visits to Japan, had given him enough experience and confidence to pass judgement on almost anything Oriental that was put in front of him. As much as anyone I had ever known, Soame had an 'eye' for Oriental art, an ability to discern the good from the ordinary, the superlative from the good and the really rare from the merely uncommon.
Soame often said that he thought his former 'chief' at the British Museum, R. L. Hobson, never had a sense of beauty for things Oriental, but treated this vast subject as an intellectual exercise in dating and cataloguing. The same could never be said of Soame himself. I particularly remember him being very excited about a damaged Chinese famille rose porcelain kendi (jug), circa 1730 which he bought and later gave to the British Museum. In the last eighteen years of handling uncounted numbers of ceramics, I have never seen another example half its equal in brilliance of design and it remains for me the 'king' of all kendis.
Soame never adopted anything approaching a 'bedside manner' in dealing with visitors who came to us for appraisals of their Oriental art. His directness in giving an opinion on any object was completely unaffected by the presence or not of its owner. For this reason I quickly learned to act as an intermediary between him and the more vulnerable visitor. After Soame had seen an object downstairs and said, 'It's nothing', I was not above going back upstairs and suggesting to its hopeful owner that waiting another decade or two might improve the saleability of the beautiful but as yet unappreciated item.
Equally accurate and more significant was an opinion Soame expressed in the early 1950s to the curator of one of the most important Japanese museums. In a friendly atmosphere he had been shown around the museum by the curator and his staff and had rightly praised some of the most significant exhibits. Then they came to a superb pair of red, blue and gold-decorated Imari vases. The curator explained that these were 'national treasures' and among the finest examples of Japanese ceramic art. Soame agreed completely about their quality, then added, 'but you do realise they are Chinese don't you?' After that there was a tangible change in atmosphere, and the visit was concluded politely but quickly.
From then until the late 1960s Soame had no contact with this museum. Then a letter arrived, thanking Soame for his opinion on the Imari vases, acknowledging they now agreed with it and welcoming him to pay a return visit.
Soame's judgement of people was usually as accurate as that of art, but he readily confessed to one error which may have affected the course of Chinese history. At one time, before the war, one of Soame's tasks was to interview detainees and decide who were 'dangerous Communists' and who were not. One man who Soame interviewed he found, 'charming, not at all the Communist type,' and released him. This later proved to be one of Mao Tse Tung's closest friends and highest lieutenants.
One of the most exciting events for me in the early 1970s was paying a visit to Soame's house and seeing his own collection. I was surprised at the high proportion of his collection that was Japanese, but Soame explained that in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Japanese art was generally more affordable than Chinese in England because there were fewer collectors of it. In his collection almost everything was in one way or another rare and interesting. There was literally nothing second-rate; it must have been weeded out long ago.
Soame Jenyns was, in my view, the best type of pre-1914 Englishman and this aspect of his character was the one that came across on one's first encounter with him. However, I think there was another dimension to Soame, which some of his acquaintances never knew. He was in a sense very Oriental, not in any superficial way, but in the manner in which he dealt skilfully and kindly with certain complicated situations. It is hardly surprising he had so many Asian friends, or that he was one of the very few Westerners to be allowed to see the Chinese Imperial Collection in Taiwan, long before it went on public view at the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Perhaps Soame's most lasting monument will be his works on ceramics, not necessarily easy to read for a beginner, but essential for the serious student. Out of print, these have changed hands for over thirty times their original cost, clear proof of their enduring practical value.
Unless otherwise stated in the catalogue, all tsuba are of iron and 19th century in date, in good condition, with some general wear consistent with the age and use of the object.
A group of sword fittings from the Soame Jenyns Collection and thence by descent