The picture shows the Portrait of Emperor Qianlong Hunting a Bear, made in the 7th year of the Qianlong period (1742). (Collection of the Palace Museum).

HONG KONG - The imperial riches of Emperor Qianlong’s secret garden are the subject of a crowd-pleasing exhibition running at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which offers an intimate look at the artistic and religious passions of the legendary Qing dynasty monarch.

Qianlong handpicked many of the murals, scroll paintings, ceramics, bronzes and screens in the garden and they form the core of the exhibition, which is called A Lofty Retreat from the Red Dust: The Secret Garden of Emperor Qianlong.

Rose Lee, the museum’s curator, says the objects reveal a different side to Qianlong’s grand, public persona. “It shows the emperor as a loving father, a hunter, and a scholar,” she says. “He was a lover, collector and patron of the arts.”

Nineteen of the 75 sets of objects on display have not left mainland China before. Among the highlights are two floor-to-ceiling trompe l’oeil murals featuring domestic scenes of women relaxing and children at play.  

Perhaps the most memorable part of the exhibition is a series of sixteen wooden screens each featuring a Buddhist arhat in shimmering inlaid jade. Given the precious stone’s unyielding nature, the level of detail achieved in the folds of the monks’ robes, crumpled sandals and wizened faces is mesmerising.

The picture shows detail of Wooden Screen with Inlaid Jade Plaques Portraying the Sixteen Luohans, which was made in the 42nd year of the Qianlong period (1777). (Collection of the Palace Museum).

Qianlong, whose reign lasted for the better part of the 18th Century, ordered the construction of the retreat on his 60th birthday as a place for his enjoyment and contemplation in retirement. But the emperor, who died at age 89, proved unwilling to cede his grip on power and never actually lived there, using it only for special occasions.

The exhibition has proven a hit for the museum, attracting 127,500 visitors since opening in June. Its success is perhaps stoked by the high prices imperial objects fetch at auction in Hong Kong, the world’s third largest auction market, as well as Qianlong’s star touch.

The actual garden, located in the northeastern corner of the Forbidden City in Beijing, is undergoing restoration work sponsored by the World Monument Fund. Once completed in 2019, it’s unlikely that Qianlong’s personal collection will go on loan again.

The exhibition runs until October 14

Katie Hunt is a Hong Kong-based journalist who writes for the BBC News website among other publications.