Collection of Dr. Henry Spencer Houghton, director of the Peking Union Medical College, Beijing (by 1928).
Collection of a Minnesota Collector.
The present set of chairs is extremely rare on a number of counts. While low armchairs with hexagonal seats and stretchers are rare, with few examples published or offered at auction, they are nearly all of the form illustrated in Grace Wu Bruce, Living with Ming - The Lu Ming Shi Collection, 2000, no. 2, pp 52-53. Of that model, none appear to be of zitan. A huanghuali hexagonal chair of related form, attributed to the Ming dynasty, with a splat divided into three registers, like the present examples, is illustrated in Tian Jiaqing, 'Appraisal of Ming Furniture', Chinese Furniture, Selected Articles from Orientations 1984-1994, Hong Kong, 1996, fig. 4, p. 139.
In contrast, the form of the present chairs, with a quatrelobe seat over a hexagonal base with open apron stretchers, does not appear to have been published or offered at auction. It is also rare to encounter sets of zitan armchairs, as the dense, luxurious wood would have been reserved for only the highest levels of society, and it is said that by the Qianlong period, there was an informal understanding that all zitan was to be reserved for the Imperial court. Over the succeeding centuries, such existing sets would be naturally diminished by attrition and the vicissitudes of time.
The simplicity and elegance of the present chairs would have appealed to those who aspire to the scholarly ideal. To have commissioned such chairs -- with spindles and turned, curved members inspired by bamboo furniture -- one would have both appreciated their sober simplicity (suggestive of the plain black-lacquered furnishings of the scholar's studio) and also indulged in the luxuriousness of furniture constructed of such a rare and costly timber. In addition to their inherent rarity, the desirability of the present chairs is further amplified by their provenance, dating back to the early decades of the 20th century.
The set of chairs was acquired in China by Dr. Henry Spencer Houghton, who was sponsored in his first trip to China in 1906 by the Methodist Episcopal Board of Foreign Missions. He was later appointed to positions in Wuhu, Shanghai and Beijing. Following the First World War he worked under the Rockefeller Foundation to establish the Peking Union Medical College, where he served as director from 1921 - 1928. During this time he acquired many works of art, including this set of chairs, purportedly given to him in appreciation of his service, by a senior Chinese government official or a member of the Imperial household.
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