Sir Joseph Hotung

Sir Joseph Hotung

T he celebrated name ‘Hotung’ holds a special resonance in Hong Kong where Sir Joseph’s grandfather, Sir Robert, made the family’s fortunes as the most successful citizen of his day. Friend of George Bernard Shaw among other luminaries, he was knighted twice in 1915 and 1955. Sir Robert himself was a collector and his donation on his death of a part of his collection to the city of Hong Kong, when allied with that of Sir Catchick Paul Chater, allowed the formation of the City’s own collection that has grown to become the seminal Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Sir Robert Hotung, grandfather of Sir Joseph Hotung
Sir Robert Hotung with George Bernard Shaw

The philanthropic gene surfaced particularly strongly in Sir Joseph whose interests spanned art, education, medicine and human rights. While his interest and engagement was impactful in each, he kept the different worlds very separate and while his support was deeply valued and opinion regularly sought, those with whom he engaged rarely knew much of his other passions. His patronage of the British Museum, in particular, has been long and profound, resulting in the beautiful Asian galleries that we see today. His donation to that museum of his two focussed ‘public’ collections will be seminal in its history of representing Chinese art. The collection of early Chinese blue and white porcelain (a field in which China lead the world by several centuries) adds to an already strong collection of Chinese porcelain at the museum. That of jades through the ages renders the museum collection one of the strongest in the world in that field. The book authored by Prof. Dame Jessica Rawson is a seminal work in the study of Chinese jade. He himself also followed his grandfather’s support of Hong Kong when he took up the role of first Chairman of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council in 1994. He was also a generous donor towards the new Shanghai Museum opened in 1996 to much fanfare and a gallery in that museum still bears his name.

However, there was also a side to his collecting that was more personal and more specifically aesthetic in its focus, creating in his beautiful London home a deep sense of Sir Joseph himself, his character revealed and enhanced through the art with which he chose to surround himself. The classical surroundings of an 18th century London town house provides rooms of warmth and yet supreme elegance. Basing his decorative scheme on his own eye and sense of beauty, Sir Joseph juxtaposed 18th century English furniture, naturally at home in the surroundings of the building, with 16th and 17th century Chinese furniture made from the celebrated Huang Huali wood beloved of scholars and wealthy individuals of that burgeoning period in Chinese social history. The patinas of the woods from two such disparate cultures, match and meld together in an incredibly harmonious whole, particularly when interspersed with paintings by Vuillard, Degas and Matisse, blue and white porcelain, and unique works of art from China’s ancient history. The result is an elegant blend of a scholarly mind with the aesthetic of an English gentleman that might be said to describe Sir Joseph himself in life.

Bue and White Porcelain in Sir Joseph Hotung's Study
Always with a mind on the provenance of the piece and a respect for its previous existence, he took his position as a custodian of great art to be treasured and maintained for future generations of humanity very seriously.

A gilt-bronze seated figure of Avalokiteshvara, Acuoye Guanyin, Dali Kingdom, 11-12th Century in Sir Joseph Hotung's home

His focus on buying pieces from some of the best collections is particularly visible in the European furniture and works of art that are steeped in distinguished history, for example: the pair of silver candelabra, designed as part of a set of four by Robert-Joseph Auguste (1723-1805) and which were ordered by George III, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, for his electoral palace in Hanover; or the set of ten figured walnut dining chairs once in the collection of the Dukes of Leeds at Hornby Castle; the striking pair of neo-classical torcheres by Mayhew and Ince supplied to the Earls of Kerry for their London house on Portman Square; or the pair of mahogany stools commissioned by Thomas Chippendale’s great patron, Sir Edward Knatchbull which have been reunited in Sir Joseph’s collection. In the field of Chinese art he purchased the bronze dragon support and the inlaid silver corner piece that came from one of the greatest European palaces of art, Palais Stoclet, the collection of Baron Adolphe Stoclet, the banker; and the beautiful seated gilt-bronze Avalokitesvara from the Dali Kingdom in the 12th Century which was one of the most important pieces in the collection of Xintian Jicang (also known in Japan as ‘Nitta’) the Chinese collector of great buddhist art who spent most of his life in Japan, but a large portion of whose collection now rests in the Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taiwan.

Frans Hals and Studio, Portrait of a man in Sir Joseph Hotung's home

Among the Old Master Paintings in the collection is the Portrait of a man by Frans Hals and Studio, painted circa 1634-35, when Hals was at the height of his career and demand for his work was ever increasing. The confidence of the deft brushwork in the man’s head exemplifies Hals’ innovative approach to portraiture. It was precisely the nature of this ‘spontaneous expression’ that attracted Sir Joseph Hotung to the portrait, a fact well known by the family with whom he shared his fascination.

The collection is strong in works of late 19th century French painting which possesses a rich seam of intimate connections between the artists and their subjects, many of which are portraits of friends and family. For Sir Joseph these portraits represented so much more than likenesses, they reveal the history of the painters’ social and artistic milieu from a different perspective. These range from Degas’ masterful depictions of Eugene Manet, Jules Perrot and the artist’s sister Marguerite to the avant-garde portraits on paper by Matisse and Giacometti. The insight Sir Joseph sought from looking at his collection was most fascinatingly provided by Vuillard, whose works provided wholly original and unique viewpoints of social gatherings, sumptuous interiors, and in the case of his portrait of Yvette Guillbert in Le Divan Japonais a literally ‘over-the-shoulder’ view of a Paris cabaret, which initially dazzles the casual viewer with its scintillating palette of orange, red and yellow until the singer’s extraordinary profile is brought into focus.

A huanghuali folding horseshoe-back armchair, jiaoyi, Ming Dynasty in Sir Joseph Hotung's home
'There are people who go through their whole lives without art, I nearly did. But their lives are perhaps not as dimensional or as full of colour as it could be’
- Sir Joseph Hotung

It is the collection that is the result of this philosophy that Sotheby’s is proud and honoured to present in this series of auctions, showing to the world for the first time, the true taste and sophistication of this most private and self-effacing of gentlemen.

Qi Baishi, Bodhidharma Meditating Under the Bodhi Tree in Sir Joseph Hotung's home

Chinese Works of Art

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