T his November in London, Sotheby’s Important Chinese Art sale presents an exciting selection of early ceramics, Imperial porcelains, Buddhist figures and works of art ranging from early dynastic periods to the 20th century. It also features the superb collection of Dr Kenneth Lawley (1937-2023), a long time member of the Oriental Ceramic Society who since the 1960s, amassed a wonderful collection of cloisonne enamels, Song ceramics, and other works of art.
I first visited Kenneth Lawley at his spacious ground floor flat in Edinburgh, in 1996. He was a softly-spoken man with a dry sense of humour, and very correct in his demeanour. He had a slight Edinburgh accent, the fruit of his many years teaching chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. He lived in that city for most of his life, although he came from the English home counties.
His flat at 19 London Street had an imposing black-painted front door, which gave the impression that Dr Lawley actually owned the entire house. It opened into a well proportioned hall where, in later years, one was greeted by an impressive cloisonné vase of hu shape. The drawing room was large, with a high ceiling. Two of the walls had bookcases, the lower ones providing an extensive display area, with further plinths behind the two sofas. Kenneth would put on display a careful selection of objects to interest his visitors. Other pieces could be seen in his study, which overlooked a garden. On the walls were large abstract paintings. To the right of the entrance hall, a small workshop could be seen.
I visited Kenneth several times over the next two decades. He was always an attentive host. One time, we visited the National Museum of Scotland together to examine the Chinese lacquers given to the museum by Sammy Yukkan Lee. And in 2016, he kindly agreed to my request that he might allow a group of members of the Oriental Ceramic Society, to visit and handle pieces from his collection.
This collection had started way back in the early 1960s when Kenneth Lawley made one of his first purchases of Chinese ceramics, on 26th September 1964, a green Jun saucer for £95. He sold it a few months later to Herman Herzog Levy the great benefactor of the Royal Ontario Museum, for £175.
For the first twenty five years of a collecting career that was to last for the rest of his long life, Kenneth Lawley made the majority of his purchases from Davies Street gallery of Bluett and Sons. Bluett’s most important supplier was Dr Cheng Te-K’un (1907–2001), later to be Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology at the Cambridge University. By the end of the 1950s, long distance air travel made it possible for London dealers to visit the Far East without the leisurely timetable of an ocean voyage. Bluett's Brian Morgan - a distinguished potter himself - made a number of trips to Japan, Hong Kong and Korea in the 1960s and 1970s to purchase stock. Working within a fairly small budget – Lawley had a small private income as well as his emoluments from the University of Edinburgh – he often sold pieces back to the firm to finance more expensive purchases.
He was a regular visitor to Bluett’s stand at the Grosvenor House Fair in the 1970s and attended many of the firm’s exhibitions of private collections. In June 1971, at the first exhibition of ceramics from the Collection of Lord Cunliffe (1899–1963), he purchased a black glazed Tang ewer and ten years later, he bought two pieces from the Collection of Dr H.A. Treble (1907–1981), a regular customer of Bluett’s from the 1940s until the 1970s, a green Jun dish (lot 48) and a Korean celadon cup and stand.
During these 25 years, Kenneth Lawley had concentrated on early Asian ceramics. By the early 1990s, the Asian art market in London was undergoing significant changes. Many of the long-established dealers had closed and the trade was spread among a number of smaller dealers in Mayfair and St James’s. Kenneth’s finances had improved, and he spread his wings in this new community. From one of the few older dealers who continued to thrive, S. Marchant and Son, he bought a number of finely carved jade plaques of the 17th and 18th centuries. Metalwork clearly had an appeal.
A small collection of bronze handwarmers was made, and another of Tibetan gilt-iron vessels. His interest in ceramics had not abated and he continued to buy early wares from a wide range of dealers, including John Berwald and David Priestley. Perhaps a little surprisingly, he acquired a small group of blanc de chine vessels, two of them formerly in the Collection of Dr Carl Kempe (lots 72, 73). But the most significant of his new interests was cloisonné enamel of the 16th and 17th centuries. These passions are what we can see in this richly-textured and learned collection, quietly honed over the years and cherished with a vivid passion and dedication.