The Kirknorton Collection

This year, I have the honour of being invited to curate an exhibition from the renowned Kirknorton Collection, a selection of which was last presented and published in Brian Morgan’s Naturalism & Archaism: Chinese Jades from the Kirknorton Collection in 1995, and exhibited at Carter Fine Art Ltd. Our selection includes many previously unseen pieces of jade and bronzes, all acquired before 1993 save for one piece purchased from Knapton Rasti Asian Art Ltd. in 2006.

I find special resonance with this collection as its main theme is animal carvings, spanning almost three thousand years in date. Many of them are accompanied by their original 1970s and 1980s purchase invoices. Several pieces have also been exhibited in Art & Imitation in China, organized by the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong in 2006. 

Highlights from the collection range from the archaic period to the Qing dynasty. First is a Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE) arc-shaped pendant, or huang (no. 3), of calcified jade, its colour altered by burial and typical of this period. It is skilfully carved with elaborate, tight scrolls terminating in twin dragon heads. The Warring States (475–221 BCE) dragon-headed xi (pointed) pendant (no. 5) derives from earlier Western Zhou dynasty pendants and displays a contrasting style of incised carving rather than the raised decoration of the former piece. The two jade models of pigs (nos. 13 and 14) represent different approaches in depicting this subject during the Western and Eastern Han dynasties (206 BCE–220 CE); the former, of opaque yellow celadon and deep russet stone, is naturalistically defined, while the latter, of a more translucent celadon material, has the sharp and angular ‘eight-cut’ style. Both have a powerful presence despite the differences in carving style. 

Jade carving continued to evolve after the Han dynasty; one finds very unusual depictions of human figures, animals, and mythical beasts—often difficult to date—between the Six Dynasties and Tang periods (3rd–early 10th century). As Morgan has pointed out, there is little research of jades from the troubled times of the Six Dynasties and a limited supply of finer quality jade stones. Although we agree that caution is needed in comparing objects of differing materials, we strongly believe that similarities can be seen between a seated mythical beast (no. 16) and depictions of pottery and gilt-bronze dwarfs. 

Better quality jade material was available during the Tang dynasty (618–907) such as the hound (no. 17) worked in a gloriously translucent white stone. The piece was most likely modelled as a belt attachment or perhaps sewn onto a robe, as it has three pairs of connecting apertures to the underside. It could possibly be from the Tang to early Liao dynasty (916–1125) as opposed to comparable examples that are dated to the later Song dynasty (960–1279). As Morgan noted, the emphasis for Tang dynasty jade animals was on their simplicity and vigour rather than their technical excellence. 

There are several unpublished bronze pieces from the Kirknorton Collection, one of which is the superb Tang dynasty gilt-bronze model of a seated lion (no. 18) previously in the collection of Ip Yee. This was a period of enormous wealth and peace that allowed for great advances in art and culture. The lion travelled to China from India and is a symbol of Buddhism. Much admired for their strength and protective power, lions were often presented as tributary gifts to the Tang emperors. This piece belongs to a small group of gilt bronzes previously exhibited in the Loan Exhibition of the Arts of the T’ang Dynasty organized by the Oriental Ceramic Society, London, in 1955 and in Chinese Gold and Silver in American Collections: Tang Dynasty A.D. 618–907 at the Dayton Art Institute in 1984. Other examples of lions are more commonly seen in pottery and marble, along with representations in textiles, gold, silver, and jade.

Also from the Tang dynasty is the jade carving of a Western Asiatic tribute bearer (no. 19), first published in S. Howard Hansford’s Chinese Carved Jades in 1968 and later exhibited in Bluett & Sons’ Chinese Jades from the Mu-Fei Collection in 1990. Foreign tribute bearers travelled to the cosmopolitan Tang court bearing gifts ranging from exotic animals such as the lion above to exotic spices and other goods not found in China. This is truly an iconic piece. 

Two additional small jade figures from the period are the standing attendant (no. 20) and foreign merchant (no. 21). The first can be compared to a figure in the same stone in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing and dated to the same period, as illustrated in Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum: Jade, Vol. 5, Tang, Song, Liao, Jin and Yuan Dynasties. The second, in a paler stone, is dressed in a long cape and headdress and has large eyes, typical stylistic traits used in the Tang dynasty to depict foreigners. The vertical piercing for suspension on both is common during this period. 

The Song dynasty was a period of obvious fascination for the collector. The eagle and unicorn jade group (no. 28) most likely represents yingxiong, or ‘eagle bear’, the rebus for ‘hero’ or ‘champion’. It is this object that introduced us to the collector in 2006. Knapton Rasti Asian Art Ltd. purchased the piece in 2005 from the personal collection of Susan Chen; at that time, we had conservatively dated it to the 17th century. It was then acquired by the collector, who had stopped collecting jade since 1993 up until that point. Next is the subtly carved ring in the form of a coiled snake (no. 29); simply carved from pure white jade with russet inclusions, this is reminiscent of other Song dynasty carving with its economy of detail, but each detail of the highest quality. The clever use of the combination of colours on the pale celadon and russet jade fox (no. 30) gives the animal a yellowish hue. The delicate delineations of fur, rounded eyes, and smiling expression are from the hand of a master lapidary. The sagacious economy of detail shown in the creamy and russet jade seated tiger (no. 31), similar to the coiled snake, is yet another fine example from this period. 

Bold jade carvings from the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) are well represented. A dark-and-pale grey seated qilin (no. 36) shows a departure from earlier Song dynasty animals with its prominent features and greater detail. The upright seated stance of the animal is a favoured design of this period, and its mottled grey material places it to this date. The choice of stone for the recumbent horse (no. 38) is deliberate, with its speckled grey indicating the coat of the animal. Its large head with intensely defined eyes derives from Tang dynasty examples, but again the stone strongly indicates a Yuan dynasty dating. One of the most unusual objects is the jade pole top or, more likely, staff handle (no. 39). The meticulously carved object takes its design from Han dynasty metalwork attachments or other implements, reminiscent of the material and style in the Song dynasty ‘ewer’ from the Mu-Fei Collection shown in our 2018 exhibition Vessel. 

The selection of Ming dynasty carvings exhibits clever uses of different colours within the same stone. The recumbent tiger (no. 48) with its long tail reaching over its back, derived from earlier Song examples, has its top half in pale celadon while the bottom half is in a red-russet colour. The playful erotic monkey group shows a darker male pursuing a lighter female (no. 49). The dark-brown and grey jade blade or axe (no. 50) is a Ming dynasty interpretation of an archaic object. The two sides almost seem to be of two different objects; one has dark russet streaks covering most of the cream ground while the reverse is only slightly patched. Lastly, the white jade archer’s ring (no. 52) inscribed in raised form by Lu Zi Gang, the Suzhou painter and calligrapher, has a design of dragons and waves carved in a manner typical of the artist. 

From the Qing dynasty is a Kangxi period (1662–1722) recumbent jade model of a longma, or ‘dragon- horse’ (no. 56), large in size and skilfully and profusely carved with details in a pure white stone with russet skin and flecks. The Qianlong period (1736–95) white jade lion and cub group (no. 57) is of the finest quality in both carving and stone, which could also be said of the standing bearded sage (no. 58).

I would like to thank the collector for entrusting us with this collection, Mark French for his creative photography, and lastly the MOU for her untiring support.