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Chinese classic wares from the Kent Collection and their impact on Australian potters

Mallet Vase, China (Zhejiang Province) Southern Song Dynasty,
1127-1279. Stoneware,
Green Glaze (Longquan Ware),
26.4 x 11.3cm DIA.
Collection National Gallery of Victoria,
Gift of Mrs H.W. Kent 1938. 3694-D3

In 1938 Herbert Wade Kent (1877-1952) presented to the National Gallery of Victoria a superb collection of 129 Chinese works of art. It consists of ceramics dating from the Neolithic period to the 18th century, with items of archaic bronze, jade, lacquer, painting and furniture. The Kent collection not only formed the nucleus of the Gallery's existing holdings of Chinese art, which began in 1867, but also elevated it to a high level of aesthetic excellence, in tune with the spirit of Chinese connoisseurship. Kent himself was very proud that his collection represented the 'Chinese taste' and contained 'no specimen made especially for the export trade'.

Kent's love of Chinese art began at an early age when he was fascinated by the decorative Chinese export wares in his own home in Melbourne. This interest inspired him to travel and live in the East. He worked for shipping companies, from 1898 to 1904 with the Orient Steam Navigation Company in Melbourne and London, and from 1905 to 1936 with Butterfield and Swire in China and Japan, where he was known as one of the leaders of the British community.

While in the East, he discovered the aesthetics of Chinese connoisseurship - the simple, unassuming, elegant taste of the Chinese scholar-official class. Endowed with impeccable taste, Kent selected his pieces for their inherent beauty. The outstanding pieces were the early ceramics, particularly those of the Tang (618-906) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, which reflected Kent's taste for pure form and color and his love of horses.

Kent wrote to Bernard Hall, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, from Japan on 23 September 1930, saying: 'I wish to emphasize that none of my pieces is an example of the rarest and most costly specimen of the ware it represents, I have been collecting for twenty-one years, and good pieces are always hard to find. Furthermore, I have always had to cut my cloth according to my means, and have never acquired a piece unless it appealed to me from the aesthetic point of view ... Several of my best pieces were lent by me to the Kyoto Museum of Far Eastern Art, by special request, for the Coronation Exhibition held in 1927 ... I am not an archaeologist, or an "expert" in any sense of the word. I am a business man, and started collecting and studying early Chinese ceramics because of their beauty and my love of color.' (Pang 1983: 486-89)

Kent returned to Melbourne in 1937. He was eager to share with his fellow Australians his love of Chinese art, which he believed to be one of the greatest expressions of the human mind and imagination. Kent, with the Trustees' support, arranged an exhibition of his collection of 129 objects at the Gallery. The exhibition, accompanied by lectures and a catalogue, generated so much interest and excitement that it was hailed by the local art critic Basil Burdett as the most stimulating and aesthetically important exhibition seen in Australia for many years.

Kent talked to visitors to his exhibition about the objects on display and told them of his interesting experiences in collecting. On one occasion he told the story of how he acquired a porcelain vase: 'Look at this lovely thing,' he said, pointing to a porcelain vase. 'I got it from a very distinguished member of the Japanese diplomatic corps, a cultured gentleman of eighty. In his lifetime he had collected only three pieces, the best he could find. He called me to his home and told me that none of his sons would appreciate the beauty of his ceramics. He would, therefore, let me have them at a price which was irresistible. Four days after I had taken them I learned that he was dead.' (Pang 1983, op cit)

Bowl, China (Henan Province),
Northern Song Dynasty, 960-1127.
Stoneware, Claire-de-lune Glaze (Jun Ware),
7.9 x 18.4cm DIA.
Collection National Gallery of Victoria,
Gift of Mrs H.W. Kent 1938. 3703-D3

Mr. and Mrs. Kent were so moved by public enthusiasm for the exhibition and their collection that they decided to present it to the people of Victoria, under the care of the National Gallery. In his letter to the then Premier of Victoria, the Hon. Albert Dunstan, Kent expressed his belief in the educational value of his collection and his hope that its presentation would stimulate the Trustees to acquire a truly representative collection of Chinese art:

`We have already expressed the hope that our collection, together with the pieces already in the National Gallery of Victoria, might form the nucleus of a really comprehensive collection The forming of such a collection, we suggest, is the duty of those responsible to embark upon with as little delay as possible, for the benefit of industry, of art students and all lovers of beauty, especially among the younger generations, and for those who have little or no prospect of going abroad to see the magnificent collections in the museums of other countries We hope our gift may stimulate the Trustees to acquire the truly representative collection of Chinese art which we should like to see in the National Gallery of our native state. The importance of such a collection, we believe, cannot be overemphasized.' (Pang 1983, op cit)

Kent's hopes and aspirations for the Chinese collection were soon realised. The fine selection of Chinese ceramics, in particular the Song dynasty (960-1279) stoneware, has played an important role as a source of inspiration to generations of studio-potters in Australia. Among them was H.R. Hughan (1893- 1987), whose interest in stoneware was inspired by his discovery of the Song dynasty wares in the Kent collection at the National Gallery of Victoria. Not only is Hughan generally regarded as the first potter to have made studio stoneware in Australia, but in 1968 he was the first ceramic artist to be honored by a major retrospective exhibition in the National Gallery of Victoria. The elegant simplicity, monumental form and subtle glaze of his ceramic wares reflect Chinese inspirations.

Another Australian artist inspired by the Kent collection is Gwyn Hanssen Pigott. As a Fine Arts student at the University of Melbourne in the early 1950s, Hanssen Pigott passed through the displays of the Kent Collection of Chinese ceramics during her regular visits to the European Paintings galleries at the National Gallery of Victoria. Also inspired by the works of Harold Hughan, she chose contemporary Australian pottery as a research topic for her final year university thesis. The research began her artistic devotion to ceramics during the last five decades.

Among Kent's ceramic collection it is the green-glazed high-fired ware that has inspired Harold Hughan and Gwyn Hanssen Piggot. The green-glaze ware has come to be known in the West as 'celadon'. (It is often believed that the name celadon comes from a character in a 17th century French play in which the shepherd Celadon was always dressed in a grayish-green costume: but it is more probably a corruption of Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt who sent 40 celadon wares to Nur-ed-din, Sultan of Damascus, in 1171 CE.) Chinese celadon wares not only gained the patronage of discerning connoisseurs among the wealthy and powerful in China, but have long also been admired in the other parts of the world.

Bowl, China (Zhejiang Provice), Northern Song Dynasty,
11th Century. Stoneware, Green Glaze (Yue Ware),
7.5 x 14.8cm DIA.
Collection National Gallery of Victoria,
Gift of Mrs H.W. Kent 1952. 275-D5

For generations, images of nature were used by Chinese poets and connoisseurs to eulogise the beauty of the green wares: ice, clouds and mist, moon, green moss and jade. Jade, a beautiful hard stone, has been used and revered in China since late Neolithic times. The pure white form is the most highly valued, but it varies in translucency and colour to include many nuances of green, brown and black. Jade is visually unassuming, its tranquil colours imbued with veins and crackles. Cool and smooth to the touch, it calms the spirit and emits a musical note when struck.

Ultimately, in the words of the Tang dynasty (618-906) poet, the green colour of the Yue ware surpassed those of nature:

In full autumn wind and dew the kilns of Yue open; And a thousand peaks are despoiled of their halcyon-green ...

The Herbert Wade Kent collection of Chinese ceramics reflects Kent's love of art and nature. Among the classic Song Dynasty (960-1279) celadon wares, the bowl with olive green glaze (1) is very organic in form, almost like a lotus leaf. It was the potter Harold Hughan's favorite piece in the Chinese ceramic collection. A celadon mallet vase (2) is covered with a different shade of green glaze. A thick, ethereal, bluish-green glaze emulates jade in its soft, translucent colour and cool smooth texture. Even the accidental crackles in the glaze resemble the inner markings of jade. The bluish-green colour of the glaze also closely resembles the smoky-green leaves of the Australian eucalyptus or gum tree. Also in the Kent collection, a high-fired ware with an opalescent sky-blue or claire-de-lune glaze is a Song Jun bowl (3). The colours of Jun glaze have been compared by the Chinese to the sky, to the moon, and even to fish-bellies. The opalescent blue glaze of Jun wares is reminiscent of the colour of Australian opals.

Inspired by the Kent collection of Chinese ceramics, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott shares with Kent and the Chinese a spiritual connection with nature. Her vases and bowls are reminiscent of the mountain ranges of Australia and the eucalyptus trees. Her bluish glazes are evocative of the subtle nuance of the luminous lights of the blue sky and the sea, which are elusive and continuously changing - a distillation of nature. Both Kent and Hanssen Piggot also share the spirit of Chinese connoisseurship, the unassuming, simple and refined taste of the Chinese scholars. Her rhythmic ceramic compositions have a stillness that is tranquil and meditative.

Dr Mae Anna Pang
Senior Curator of Asian Art
National Gallery of Victoria International

Dr Mae Anna Pang is Senior Curator of Asian Art at the National Gallery of Victoria International. Gwyn Hanssen Pigott: a survey of works 1955-2005, curated by Jason Smith, Curator of Contemporary Art, is at the National Gallery of Victoria from 4 November 2005-19 March 2006.

This article was first published in TAASA Review, the quarterly journal of The Asian Arts Society of Australia, Vol.14/4, December 2005.
For further information, visit www.taasa.org.au