A Touch of the Orient

Auctioneer Jeremy Thornton looks at the boom in fine art from China – and its impact on our region

Now is surely the ideal time to acknowledge the influence of Chinese culture on British design and the growing power of the country in today’s auction world. The emergence over the last decade of China as an economic and world power is a factor, as is its people’s desire to buy back lost cultural objects. But I think equally important is the wider appreciation of quality and detail that characterises the finest Chinese objects and an understanding of the influence on Western designs.


There have been a few stunning lots over the last year or two, where prices have astounded even the most worldly-wise experts – the Bainbridge auction of a vase from a deceased estate selling for £43 million being the find of all time. With this level of money in the market prices across the board are going to increase. Sales rooms have seen a rise in all things Chinese as I have experienced first-hand. Jade is considered the ‘imperial gem’, its special significance making it comparable with gold and diamonds in the West. It is therefore highly sought after in China. A Chinese jade and seed pearl pendant staggered bidders and auction staff alike recently as it realised £15,000. Similarly, a Qing Dynasty Chinese jade bi disc exceeded its modest pre-sale estimate of between £100 and £200 and sold for £11,000. In the Midlands, one of the more subtle influences of Chinese art was on the beautiful ceramics made by Howson Taylor at the Smethwick-based Ruskin Pottery. Its founder Edward Taylor was a leading figure in the Arts and Craft movement and head of the Birmingham School of Art.


Taylor set up a small kiln in his garden in Edgbaston and with the help of his son Howson experimented with glaze effects. In 1898 he opened a small pottery on Oldbury Road, Smethwick. It has been said that Howson was the greatest potter since the Ming Dynasty, mimicking the depth of colour and variety of Chinese glazes from the 13th to 17th century. These included Souffle, Flambe (High Fired) glaze, Crystalline and Lustre – each being achieved by employing similar techniques as used by Chinese potters. We have one or two Ruskin vases for sale in the New Year, with modest pre-sale estimates of between £100 and £250. Not on par with the Bainbridge auction of course, but if they surprise us a fraction as much as the Chinese Jade, I for one will be very happy.


Biddle and Webb have been auctioneers in the West Midlands for over 50 years. For more information visit www.biddleandwebb.co.uk