Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is seeing in the Chinese New Year with the first glimpse of an outstanding bequest, writes Terry Grimley.
Birmingham's art collections have been shaped over by the years by several outstanding gifts, such as J Leslie Wright's collection of English watercolours in 1953 and the Pinto collection of wooden bygones 12 years later.
Two years ago it received another with the bequest of the Franklin collection of Chinese art, consisting of almost 700 items spanning 2,000 years.
Now 70 ceramic pieces from the collection have gone on display in the bridge gallery, which apparently is to become permanently dedicated to Chinese art, under the title Aspects of China. If, like mine, your knowledge of Chinese ceramics is sketchy, it promises to be a rewarding educational opportunity.
Andrew Franklin (1914-2002), who worked in the Foreign Service from 1937 to 1974, spent his early career in China and became a connoisseur of Chinese art. His wife was born in China and spoke Sichuan and Mandarin.
It is said that during his first job interview in 1937 he was given ten minutes to choose between postings in Tokyo, Montevideo, Istanbul, Bangkok and Beijing, and chose Beijing because he had just bought the first piece in his collection - a small Chinese powder blue pot - and wanted to learn more about the civilisation which had produced it.
Eventually he amassed what Asian Antique News described as "one of the most extensive and thoughtfully put together collections of Chinese art and design", incorporating paintings, prints and scrolls as well as ceramics. He bought in the UK, throughout Europe and in America.
In May 2006, 227 items from it came up for sale at Christie's with an estimated value of £300,000, and the remainder, mainly ceramics but also including scroll paintings and antiquarian books, were gifted to Birmingham. Mr Franklin, whose daughter Anne was a student at Birmingham University and settled in the city, was a regular visitor to the museum and an admirer of its Far Eastern collections, but saw how his gift would fill a gap.
"Before we received the bequest we had about 25 scroll paintings and a small but high-quality collection of ceramics, supported by lacquer, embroidery, ivory and snuff boxes," says Fiona Slattery, curator (applied art), who has curated the exhibition.
"This is a very significant collection which enables us to present a coherent account of Chinese cultural achievement."
At first it might seem a bit difficult for the non-specialist to know where to start with this initial, attractively presented selection from the collection. You could try hunting out the earliest piece, a dancing figure which is the only representative of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), the earliest of the seven dynasties represented in the collection, and stands apart stylistically from the rest of the display.
But approaching from the main entrance you are greeted straight away by what for me is the star exhibit. This is a large (about two-feet high) vase with four sturdy handles and a stunning "sang de bouef" red glaze, a colour made familiar in the early 20th century through its revival by the Ruskin Pottery. In this case the vase is difficult to date, being identified only with the Qing dynasty, which ran from 1644 to 1911.
Here it is counterbalanced by a vase of similar scale, but contrastingly decorated with an incised pattern of peaches on a white background. This is also from the Qing dynasty, but is more precisely pinpointed to 1736-95.
As the Ruskin comparison suggests, the relationship between Chinese and European ceramics is complex. From around 1720 porcelain was being made in China specifically for Western taste, and by 1750 hundreds of thousands of items were arriving in London each year, influencing British manufacturers.
Jesuit priests introduced Christianity to China in the 16th century, and one showcase is dedicated to items with a Christian theme. As it happens, they are the dullest in the show.
Developing a pleasing link with today's multicultural Birmingham, the museum worked with the Chinese Community Centre and the Chinese Education, Cultural and Co-ordinating Project in preparing the exhibition. This means that the notes provided for visitors are able to explore the meaning of exhibits in the context of Chinese mythology and folklore, while captions have also been provided in Mandarin.
Aspects of China launches a programme of exhibitions and events at the Museum & Art Gallery throughout 2008 as part of China Now, the national festival which has been organised to coincide with the Beijing Olympics.
One which looks particularly exciting is Beijing Map Games, a groundbreaking exhibition of contemporary art and architecture from Beijing, which will have its only UK showing in Birmingham's Gas Hall (October 18-January 4) immediately after its unveiling in Beijing.
This will contain newly-commissioned artworks by artists and architects from China, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Russia, the Netherlands and the UK, inspired by the rapid changes that are influencing the appearance and map of Beijing city. It includes paintings, sculptures, photography, digital art and installation.
Before that, From Canton to Guangzhou (May 3-August 10) juxtaposes Victorian photographs of Birmingham's twin city Guangzhou (formerly Canton) by the European photographer Felice Beato in 1860, taken from the Central Library collections, with those taken over the last ten years by the contemporary Chinese photographer Xu Peiwu.
* Aspects of China is at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until February 1 2009 (MonThur, Sat 10am-5pm, Fri 10.30am-5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm; admission free). Guided tours take place at 1pm on the last Friday of every month throughout 2008.
For details of all China Now events at the museum, see www.bmag.org.uk