Chinese Ivories: History and Craft

The Sassoon Chinese Carving and Ivories

Carved ornament 892/1095 Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign period H 3.6 cm, W 3 cm
Carved ornament 892/1095 Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign period H 3.6 cm, W 3 cm
24 FEB 2017

Ivory and Ivory Carving in China

The Chinese domestic market required items for both religious and secular purposes. Many of the figurines in this catalogue portray deities and Immortals associated with Buddhism or Daoism. Because ivory is precious, scarce and size-limited, the sculptures were not intended in the main for temples or shrines, but for individual worship. The worn surface of many pieces indicates that they were treasured items. Scenes depicting Buddhist and Daoist themes likewise feature on vessels and decorative objects.

A large proportion of pieces in this book were created for daily life, either as containers, ornamental items or personal adornment. In addition to this, a significant number were employed as tools for calligraphy and painting, part of an important genre that comprised implements for the scholar’s desk. Daily practice of painting and calligraphy were one distinguishing feature of a cultivated existence, and because of this objects used in their execution were chosen with care. Functionality was of course the first requirement, but equally important were elegance and refinement. Desk objects were constantly handled, so both visual and tactile beauty were required. Ivory supplied all the qualities desired.

A special category of ivories was manufactured solely for export during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the Sassoon collection is well represented in this genre. Such objects were made to function in European settings, and often had shapes and decorations copied from Western objects or patterns.

Carving in wood and bamboo produced objects that were often comparable in style and form to objects in more precious media, such as ivory, bronze, jade and rhino horn. However, wood and bamboo differ in that they are cheap, readily available materials, accessible to both rich and poor alike. Their value was added in the form of skilled craftsmanship, and also in perceived, culturally defined, merit. Refined wood and bamboo pieces have always been esteemed by Chinese collectors, and it is no coincidence that they are categorised together with ivory and rhino horn in modern compendia based on imperial palace collections. Many techniques developed initially in wood and bamboo carving during the seventeenth century, such as that of recessed ground and decoration in high relief, were also employed in ivory. More flamboyant styles such as high-relief openwork became commonplace in both bamboo and ivory from the eighteenth to the twentieth century.

The late Ming to the early Qing dynasty marks the first important era for both porcelain and ivory figurines, and also a time when images for the domestic market were made for devotion and prayer. The southern provinces of China, where porcelain and carvings in bamboo, wood, soapstone and ivory were produced, were strongly religious.

The second great era for the manufacture of porcelain and ivory was the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. In the case of ivory, vast amounts of the raw material were shipped into southern ports from Africa, where it was carved and either re-exported or sold to foreign residents in China and wealthy Chinese consumers. In the case of Dehua porcelain, the industry was revived when emigrant potters set up in Taiwan and Hong Kong to export ceramics both to Chinese and foreign buyers.

Text by Rose Kerr

Sir Victor Sassoon and his Chinese Ivories

Sir Victor was an important member of the wealthy Jewish Sassoon banking family who prospered as bankers and traders in the burgeoning British empire. Sir Victor’s father was a successful trader but faced difficult financial conditions after the First World War. Upon his death Victor inherited the title and became the third and final baronet.

The compiler of the catalogue was Sydney Edward Lucas and it would appear that he was the major (if not sole) collector of the ivories. Lucas was born in Islington, London, in October 1883. In 1903, at the age of 20, he left London and sailed to South Africa, where he remained for several years. Quite what he did in Africa remains unknown and the date of his departure is unrecorded. His hard work and determination allowed him to secure a position with the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China some time prior to 1915, when he arrived in China. This was the first foreign bank to open in Shanghai, in 1857, and had its offices on the Bund from 1893. Lucas claims that he was buying ivories in Beijing from 1915, and it is perfectly possible that he was based in Shanghai but made occasional visits to Beijing to meet the dealers who supplied him with ivories. A regular rail connection between the two cities was established in 1913. Lucas advanced in status and by 1921 was able to marry into the middle-class Clutterbuck family, from Hardenhuish Park in Wiltshire.

It was certainly the banking connection that brought Lucas and Sir Victor Sassoon together since both operated in Shanghai. After Lucas left Shanghai he lived a comfortable existence in London and was appointed as a trustee of the Sir Victor Sassoon Chinese Ivories Trust.

Stanley Jackson writes that Sassoon began to collect ivories upon his arrival in China and utilised the services of his friend Lucas and other agents to acquire suitable specimens.4 Jackson says that they went to different parts of China and purchased objects from impoverished Manchu families. There is probably a grain of truth in this statement as the composition of the collection reveals. Apart from the figures there are a great number of brush pots, wrist rests and table screens, suggesting acquisition from old Manchu families who were using new types of writing implements and selling outdated scholars’ accoutrements.

Quite why Sassoon developed an interest in Chinese ivories remains unclear, but it is possible that Jewish clan structure may have played some role in their acquisition. Horace Kadoorie (1902 –1995), a relative of Sassoon, was an active collector of Chinese ivories who formed a notable and extensive collection. He had business connections with Sir Victor and managed the Cathay Hotel over a period of years. It is thus possible that both Kadoorie and Sir Victor were influenced by Lucas. If this scenario is accepted it would appear that Lucas was indeed the progenitor of taste, even though he was not the most critical or learned of the three.

Sir Victor and Lucas committed themselves to publish a sumptuous catalogue of what were regarded as the most important ivories in the collection. The photography was undertaken by Lucas, as proved by the existence of a valuable and entire photographic record in Phoenix Art Gallery, Arizona. The photography and valuation were almost certainly connected with Sir Victor’s aspirations (and perhaps those of Lucas too) to have the ivories published and to make a significant donation of pieces to the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum. Only one of these projects came to fruition, and even this did not achieve what was intended.

In 1950 the truly sumptuous and monumental three-volume catalogue was preceded by an equally elaborate prospectus. The latter proclaims the ownership of the collection, and the process and period of acquisition, but Lucas is simply identified as compiler of the catalogue. Sadly for both owner and compiler, the publication failed to achieve the desired impact. After the rather poor reception of the catalogue and the failure of negotiations with the British Museum to accept the complete collection with a dedicated display room, Sir Victor had to consider other plans to ensure their preservation.

On 25 July 1955 he signed a deed of trust with Sydney Edward Lucas, Sir Alec Martin (a friend of Lucas), Elizabeth Mary Humphreys-Owen and Far Eastern Nominees (Nassau, Bahamas) Ltd. The ivories were to be held for the benefit of the citizens of the UK and for the advancement of education in art. The trustees were not given any money, but were allowed to sell pieces to improve the quality of the collection. All subsequent decisions concerning the trust were taken by Sir Victor and conveyed to the board by Lucas, with Humphreys-Owen being the most proactive trustee.

Text by Philip Allen

Rose Kerr, Philip Allen and Shih Ching-fei, Sassoon Ivories, text at the Sir Victor Sassoon Chinese Ivories Trust, 2016. Photography (except as credited otherwise in captions) at the Sir Victor Sassoon Chinese Ivories Trust, 2016.

In collaboration with Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers