Unknown Delights from the Tianminlou Collection
The Tianminlou collection, assembled by Ko Shih Chao, better known as S.C. Ko (1911 – 1992), can be considered one of the most remarkable private assemblages of Chinese ceramics. It is most famous for porcelains from the Jingdezhen kilns of the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties and its name does first of all evoke blue-and-white porcelain – a section that is particularly strong and representative. A fine selection of its Ming and Qing porcelains was recently sold in these rooms, 3rd April 2019. S.C. Ko was not only a discerning collector, but above all had himself an excellent understanding of the subject, without which the collection could not have achieved its high standard. He was chairman of the honourable Min Chiu Society of collectors and actively involved in the affairs of all the relevant Hong Kong museums, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Fung Ping Shan Museum of Hong Kong University, and was of course a generous lender to exhibitions. The Tianminlou name became internationally known through the special exhibition of the collection at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1987, for which a superbly produced bi-lingual two-volume publication was produced, Chinese Porcelain. The S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, with contributions by John Ayers, Julian Thompson, Laurence C.S. Tam and S.C. Ko himself.
In generously subsidizing it, so that it could at the time be offered at an unusually low price, S. C. Ko assured its wide distribution. The educational aspect and the wish to share his collection with a large audience were always matters of great importance to him. He always made his pieces readily available to the scholarly community, to students as well as fellow collectors, to be physically handled, studied and discussed. The wide range of the group of ceramics offered here may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Tianminlou name, as most pieces have not been published before; but it reflects the collector’s broad interest in the subject.
It leads us through the best part of China’s ceramic history, starting with an iconic type of vessel from the early stoneware production, in the Jin dynasty (265 – 420), of the Yue kilns in Zhejiang, a chicken-head ewer. The colourful sancai wares made in north China are represented by examples from the Tang (618-907), Liao (907-1125) and Jin (1115-1234) periods. Most of the major Song (960-1279) kilns are included, with good examples of white wares from the Ding (Hebei), Huozhou (Shanxi) and Jingdezhen (Jiangxi) manufactories, celadons from Longquan (Zhejiang), Jun wares from Henan and a brown bowl from Yaozhou (Shaanxi). An exceptional piece of the Yuan dynasty is the blue-and-white spouted bowl with its lively painting of water fowl and lotus plants, striking in shape and delightful in its decoration. The Ming and Qing dynasties are represented with blue-and-white, monochrome and various polychrome styles; only three shall be mentioned here: the square wucai jar of Jiajing mark and period (1522-1566), the pair of yellow saucers of Yongzheng mark and period (1723-1735) and the pair of little lotus-bouquet dishes in blue-and-white, of Qianlong mark and period (1736-1795).
The hall name, Tianminlou, that was chosen for the collection, is deeply anchored in China’s classical literature. It can be traced to a short autobiographical piece by Tao Yuanming (365-427), one of China’s most revered poets, where he describes a ‘Mr Five Willow Trees’ as living the Daoist ideal of a poor but free life, keen to increase his knowledge, but uninterested in personal recognition, fame, or even just approval of society. In the last line of his story Tao asks ‘Is he perhaps one of Emperor Getian’s people?’ (‘Getian … min …’), Emperor Getian being a mythical ruler of a prehistoric past marked by simplicity and happiness. Ge is the modern transcription of the family name Ko and Tianminlou only makes sense in combination with this family name, lou denominates a lofty pavilion. ‘[S.C.] Ko Tianminlou’ (Getian min lou) may thus perhaps be understood as ‘The Pavilion of One of Getian’s People’.
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