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William Lever’s collecting of Famille Noire porcelain - page 4

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Fig. 4 Bronze-shaped Famille Noire beaker with blossoming flowers, left: Catalogue Nr. 19, in Gorer and Blacker (eds.) Chinese porcelains and hardstones, Vol. II, London 1911;, © National Museums Liverpool

The above object, for example, bought from the Bennett sale and now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery's collection was considered unique to Gorer, and he classified it as a Ming piece, although there is no evidence presented as to what led him to this assumption. Again, a very shiny black ground was achieved in this piece and the whole composition is untypical for a Kangxi piece. The shape originally derived from an ancient bronze gu and although this form was reproduced in the Kangxi reign, the whole object does not appear convincing, due to its shiny glaze, repetitive motifs and crowded surface.

Many more objects of Famille Noire in different shapes were purchased from the Bennett sale, and at one point Lever was asked by Gorer to return to him a vase for selling it on to another buyer. Letter from Gorer to Lever, on 16th of March 1914:

…Dear Sir William,

Possibly you have heard that whilst in New York this year I sold the entire collection of my Black porcelains to Mr. Rockefeller. He, of course, was greatly interested in the Bennett catalogue, particularly observing the Black Vase with dragon which I sold to you, ...

I am therefore writing to enquire if you will do me the real service of selling me this vase, as it means more to me than the actual transaction. I know you have one that somehow balances it, but it is not really a pair, and no doubt you would find that you could use your original one as a centrepiece with other vases. If you will agree to help me in this direction I shall take it as a very great condescension on your part, and shall be prepared on all occasions to show my appreciation... 32

Lever answered him on the 17th March 1914, stating that he was pleased for Gorer about his successful visit to New York, but:

…You will readily understand that it is not possible for me to sell any of the pieces out of my collection. I thank you all the same for writing me and giving me the opportunity of considering the matter … 33

If nothing else, this correspondence reveals again the growing curiosity of this type of ware in America after 1910 and it can also be proof of the assumption that art and antiques dealers had their share in this development, in promoting certain porcelains that had become fashionable in Britain to the American market.

Fig. 5 Baluster shaped Famille Noire vase with clawed dragons amongst clouds, LL6733,34 © National Museums Liverpool

It is possibly this baluster-shaped vase Gorer was referring to, which leads to another interesting point regarding the authenticity of Famille Noire. The original trumpet was in all likelihood reduced in this vase and it might have been the case that the original Kangxi ground (presumably blue and white) was skinned in order to apply a new decoration with a black ground.

If we compare this vase to fig. 2, we can observe that the baluster shape in fig. 5 is much more in proportion. We must therefore introduce a new category, namely that of objects being ground in order to coat it with the black ground enamel. This procedure has most likely happened in the saucer-shaped dish in fig. 3 as well, and the result of the washed-out green colour might have resulted from that re-application of a new layer of enamels and glaze.

Because of the desire to feed a continuing and buoyant American market with Famille Noire, a similar incident occurred between Lever and Frank Partridge early in 1910. In a letter of 14th February 1910, Partridge asked if Lever was inclined to dispose of some of his 'Black Chinese porcelain' for an American client. The following day Lever answered:

In reply to yours of the 14th inst. I should not be willing to dispose of my black Chinese vases except at such extreme prices as I feel confident would make you unwilling to entertain the purchase. … 35

It is apparent that the craze for those wares had started in America and that American clients were willing to pay high prices in order to obtain the popular and highly esteemed Famille Noire.

Lever's purchases of Famille Noire continued over the years until 1920 when a majority of pieces came from Frank Partridge, whom he not only considered a dealer but an adviser to his collection.

Fig. 6 Square Famille Noire vase with straight sides, with flowers of the fours seasons, LL6728, © National Museums Liverpool

This object is a square vase with tapering sides and it displays flowers of the four seasons - lotus, peony, chrysanthemum and prunus. Objects such as this one are most difficult to place, because the shape existed in the Kangxi period. The fake examples however tend to be more conical in shape. In this vase, the colours seem fairly pale again and the outlines are blurred, which should not occur in an authentic Kangxi piece.

Generally speaking, the whole work of art evokes a 'wallpaper' effect rather than a balanced composition. The author therefore suggests this piece is a complete invention of the late 19th century, such as figures 1, 2 and 4, which can also be classified as 'revival' pieces of a Kangxi style, but fabricated in the 19th Century. Lever bought the object from Partridge in 1920 for the amount of £2,500, which was high for the British market, but considerably low still if compared to the prices paid in the United States about a year earlier.36

There are a few more pieces acquired through Partridge; in 1915 Lever bought a bowl and a square bottle together for only £44. 1s 0d, which are of a different type.

Fig. 7 Pair of Famille Noire bottles with straight sides, decorated with paeony and chrysanthemum scrolls in Famille Rose, LLAG 6735 & 6736, © National Museums Liverpool

This pair of bottles is very different in style in comparison to the ones seen before. First of all they are much smaller in shape, and their decoration includes the Famille Rose palette. In addition, the foliage which covers the whole ground is an indicator for a later date, namely the Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795) periods. Famille Noire wares continued to be produced after the Kangxi, and this type is a representative authentic example of its form in a later period.

Owing to the circumstance that the vases display stylistic features of the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods, they consequently cannot be classified as 'fakes', and they belong to a different category altogether. This aspect is also reflected in their low price of £44. 1s. 0d in comparison to the alleged Kangxi pieces.

The purchase of Famille Noire seems to have ceased in 1920, when Lever expressed his thoughts also in a letter to Partridge, who advised him on another black object. On the 28th of December 1920, Lever wrote to Partridge that with regard to the black vase he would endeavour to arrange a visit, …but I am not at all in a buying humour at present. …37

He explained this by stating that at the present position of finances, all his funds were required in business. With this letter, Lever's acquisitions of Famille Noire came more or less to an end.


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  1. Letter from Edgar Gorer to William Lever on the 16th of March 1914, file LLAG 4691

  2. Answer Letter from W. Lever to E. Gorer on the 17th of March 1914, file LLAG 4691

  3. This piece was also exhibited in Gorer and Blacker, 1911, pl. 18

  4. LLAG file 3959 Partridge correspondence, 1904 - 1915

  5. See LLAG invoice file 99 in the Lady Lever Art Gallery archive

  6. See LLAG file 3959, Partridge correspondence 1919-1922