Chinese Works of Art

Sir Joseph Hotung

By Regina Krahl

T ruly great art collections reflect truly great personalities. Sir Joseph Hotung assembled a large family of art works from different places, periods and media that lived in his residence in congenial harmony. They share a rare quality and beauty, an unassuming nobility and an unquestionable eminence and as such are simply material witnesses of Sir Joseph’s character, discernment and style. The opposite of ostentatious, Sir Joseph was a naturally impressive personality, who radiated a dignity that made conversations stop when he entered a room.

Sir Joseph Hotung

The works he selected surrounded him in his daily life. English furniture and French silver went with Impressionist art, where he was particularly drawn to Édouard Vuillard; Ming hardwood furniture was juxtaposed with Chinese ink paintings, with a favourite spot reserved for a small Yuan-style album leaf with melons. His own background obviously made him receptive of Chinese works of art, but he could also fall in love with a Degas painting or a Giacometti drawing, be fascinated by Persian and Syrian works, or galvanized by a Sri Lankan gilt-bronze goddess and a Benin bronze head, but only if they had an exceptional presence. In two areas, he went deeper.

left: Robert H. Ellsworth in his New York City apartment, 1995; right: Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995.

His search for Chinese works of art began in the late 1970s with Qing jades. Encouraged by Robert H. (Bob) Ellsworth, it soon grew to cover the full jade story, from the earliest beginnings in the Neolithic onwards, a period he came to admire greatly. By the time Jessica Rawson published over three hundred of his jades (Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995) on the occasion of their exhibition at the British Museum, they formed a world-class collection.

His second major love in art, very different from the first, started in 1994 with a coup de foudre. Here, no guide was necessary, it was an object that managed to speak to him directly. His fascination with a jar of Yuan blue-and-white porcelain depicting a scene from the drama San guo yan yi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) he later described thus: “At the time we bought the San guo jar it evoked memories of my youth when I was mesmerised by tales of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms which inspired me with stories of valour, honour and loyalty. The purchase of this piece led to an interest in Yuan dynasty wares. I was struck by the power and strength of the pieces and this led to the formation of the collection.” A bit over a decade later, Sir Joseph had built up an unmatched assemblage of some of the best pieces there are.

A blue and white 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' jar, Yuan dynasty

His own quest to learn about the art he collected led to his museum patronage, but his philanthropy had started much earlier and went much further. He himself described his focus as “human rights, health, education and the arts”. He participated in a think-tank to foster peace in the Middle East and established a Chair to that end at the School of Law, SOAS, London University. Of the various research projects he funded at St George’s University Hospital, London, which he endowed with two Chairs, one led to promising progress in the prevention of HIV transmission. Besides several other universities in the US, the UK and in Hong Kong he supported, he was instrumental in setting up the pre-university Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education. Classical music at the London Philharmonic Orchestra benefitted from his arts patronage, although the bulk was directed towards the visual arts, foremost at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Asia Society, New York, and the British Museum, London, all of whom won him as Trustee, but also at the Shanghai Museum, where the jade gallery bears his name. Besides his many financial donations, he gave generously of his time, in spite of a busy professional life, advising both financial and cultural institutions as a board member.

The Queen with Sir Joseph Hotung © Benedict Johnson

The British Museum benefitted particularly and in many ways from his generosity, most notably through the establishment of The Joseph E. Hotung Gallery of Oriental Antiquities, refurbished through his patronage in 1992, and renamed after another complete renovation in 2017 The Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia, both times opened by Her Majesty The Queen. When the future of the Percival David collection in London hung in the balance, Sir Joseph fervently lobbied for a transfer to the British Museum, against much opposition, even though he offered the funding. The Sir Joseph Hotung Centre for Ceramic Studies, which includes a fabulous gallery for the David collection, opened in 2009. According to his wishes, the largest part of his collections of Chinese jades and early blue-and-white porcelains is going to the British Museum.

The Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia at the British Museum

Philanthropy is not simply a question of distributing money; philanthropy is an art in itself. Sir Joseph Hotung mastered this art to perfection. He had a keen interest in improving lives and circumstances, to make changes for the better, but went about it in such a modest, low-key manner, that even friends could not know the full story and his obituaries tended only to skim the surface. He was little interested in, not to say irritated by, the notoriety and fame his various activities entailed, but he enjoyed the ensuing exchanges with noted academics, with whom he even took educational trips, particularly to the Middle East and the Arab world. He was the dream donor; once he had decided that a project was worthwhile and the persons in charge were capable, he attentively followed their progress, but never interfered. In 1993 he was knighted for his charitable activities.

AN IMPORTANT AND OUTSTANDING BRONZE MALE CHIMERA, BIXIE, HAN DYNASTY | ESTIMATE 6,000,000-8,000,000 HKD

As a collector – and not only there – Sir Joseph was a totally independent mind. Pieces had to strike a chord with him, they had to be inhabited with a bold energy, a vitality that made them come alive and revealed the hand of a master; if they did, he could pursue them with unambiguous verve, if not, nothing and nobody could persuade him that a piece was worth acquiring. He had an unfailing instinct to choose great art, independent of fashions and market considerations, and the collection bears his distinct imprint. His personality, connoisseurship and his style will make ‘The Sir Joseph Hotung Collection’ one of the coveted provenances for works of art, like those of the great British collectors of the early 20th century, no matter whether the items will end up in museums or in private hands.

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