The Oriental Ceramics Society: 100 Years

George Eumorfopoulos (1863-193a), first president of the OCS

The centenary exhibition, Collectors, Curators, Connoisseurs: A Century of the Oriental Ceramic Society, celebrates the story of the Society, of many of its founder and key early members and the central role it has played in making the UK the centre of East Asian, particularly Chinese, ceramic study and collecting. The exhibition examines the growth of the Oriental Ceramics Society (OCS) from a ‘coterie’ of like-minded collectors and curators, gathering after dinner in their homes to discuss ‘specimens’ to the international, high-profile organisation it is today, with its wide-ranging programme of lectures, handling sessions, field trips and regular publications and exhibitions. This is highlighted by a carefully chosen selection of over 100 objects borrowed from UK museums and from private members’ collections.

The loans have been chosen specifically by the exhibition committee to reflect the diversity of areas studied and collected by the Oriental Ceramics Society members over the century. The exhibition encompasses a range of material, not just ceramics, though these make up a large proportion; bronze, jade, lacquer, glass, painting and sculpture are also included. Objects from China form a large part but there are also examples from Korea, Japan and the Middle East.

The exhibition is divided broadly into five sections with the first four focusing on the history of the Society, its achievements and some of its historically significant members while the fifth section features loans from current members, many with connections to early members. This article introduces one aspect of the exhibition – the collectors, who were the driving force behind the OCS – and considers three (two individuals and a couple) out of a very large number who were so instrumental in forming the field of East Asian ceramic study and collecting in the UK.

George Eumorfopoulos (1863-1939)

George Eumorfopoulos, who held the post of first President from the establishment of the Oriental Ceramics Society until his death, was described as not just the ‘life and soul but also the guiding hand’ of the Society (fig 1). Born in Liverpool to a Greek family, he was a successful businessman, rising to the position of vice-president at the trading company, Ralli Brothers and was a member of the Baltic Exchange. His passion lay, however, in art and collecting and by the early decades of the 20th century, he was acquiring widely in the collecting areas that were new and emerging in Europe as a result of railway construction in China, including Han, Tang and Song dynasty ceramics, forming an outstanding collection that was ‘remarkable in its extent and representative character’.

Eumorfopolos’ collection was largely displayed in a purpose-built museum with glass cabinets in his home in 7 Chelsea Embankment. The rooms of his house were photographed in 1934; a number of bespoke albums were made as a record, one of which is included in the archive display of the centenary exhibition (fig 2). His generosity in sharing his collection was legendary and he believed that ‘the specimens were no mere possessions bought at a price, but a delight to be shared with others’. Many of the early meetings and handling sessions of the society were held in his house.

Keen Collectors of Song Ceramics

The founder members were keen collectors of Song ceramics and the centenary exhibition highlights some that were collected by Eumorfopoulos and his fellow members. The Northern Song (960-1127) celadon-glazed stoneware vase from the Yaozhou kilns, Shaanxi province, collected by Eumorfopoulos and now in the collection of the V&A, is characteristic of the celadons enjoyed by the early Oriental Ceramics Society collectors, though the exact kiln site was not yet known in Europe so they were referred to as ‘Northern celadons’. This vase was published in one of the key publications on Chinese ceramics of the early 20th century, The Art of the Chinese Potter (1923), by RL Hobson and A L Hetherington, themselves both founder members of the OCS, the former the Keeper of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, and the later the long-standing Honorary Secretary. The upcoming exhibition includes some of the original artwork from that publication, now in the collection of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

Yet another remarkable Northern Song-dynasty object included is the stoneware dish with dramatic purple splashed or painted decoration from the Jun kilns, Henan province, that was collected by Eumorfopoulos and is now in the V&A (fig 3). In addition to meeting monthly to discuss specimens and to give talks which were published from 1921 in the Society’s journal, Transactions, the founder members also made regular loans of their collections, displayed in two cabinets in the Loan Court at the V&A. This was facilitated by founder member, Bernard Rackham (1876-1964), Keeper in the Department of Ceramics at the V&A and brother of Arthur Rackham. The purpose was to ‘supplement the resources of the Museum by putting before the public carefully selected specimens of different types of Eastern ceramic art’, which had not yet entered traditional museum collections. This dish was included in an early exhibition organised by the Oriental Ceramics Society at the Loan Court at the V&A, probably in 1924-1925.

Apart from ceramics, Eumorfopoulos formed a significant group of Chinese bronzes, jades, painting, sculpture and lacquer and it was described by Hobson as a collection that ‘included every aspect of Chinese art then known to us’. Also included in this exhibition as an example of Eumorfopoulos’ wide-ranging interests is the wood sculpture of Maitreya dating to 1300-1400, which is pictured on top of one of the glass cabinets in his home and which now is in the collection of the British Museum (fig 4). In 1934, as a result of the Depression, Eumorfopoulos sold a great part of his collection to the British Museum and the V&A at preferential rates, where they remain today as key parts of the East Asian collections.

Ferdinand Schiller (1866-1938)

Section III of the centenary exhibition focuses on three key Oriental Ceramics Society collectors, Sir Percival David (1892-1964), whose world-renowned collection is represented by four objects in the exhibition; Sir Harry Garner (1891-1977), a friend and contemporary of David’s, some of whose collecting interests are indicated by loans of lacquer, a painting and an extremely rare Ruyao cup stand.

The third collector highlighted in Section III of the exhibition is Ferdinand Schiller. His family had Hungarian roots and after his education at Clifton College and St John’s College, Cambridge, he worked as a partner in his father’s bill-broking firm in Calcutta from 1888-1903. In 1904, he entered the banking world and later became manager of Credito Italiano. Schiller started collecting Chinese art around 1913/14 and was elected just after the Society was first established in 1921, as the ‘thirteenth’ member.

There do not seem to be records as to how Schiller was invited to join the OCS. However, one little documented connection, apart from the obvious common interest in Chinese art, may have been the Alpine Club. Schiller’s obituary in the journal of the Alpine Club shows that he was an active member ‘specially fond of rock climbs, on which he was neat and fast’. He made many ascents, including one at the age of sixty-three and apparently spent many summers in the Alps with his two brothers. Two of the founder members of the OCS were also members of the Alpine Club – these were SD Winkworth (died 1938) and Professor John Norman Collie (1859-1942), who were in fact uncle and nephew (fig 5). Collie, in addition to being a professor of organic chemistry and collector of Chinese art, was a keen climber, one-time president of the Alpine Club and celebrated as a ‘climber of outstanding eminence’.

As a collector, Schiller was described as one who apparently ‘acquired specimens more for their artistic merits than for their archaeological importance’. He bought widely from dealers including KK Chow, Bahr, Bluett, Boode, Franck, Loo, Sparks, Vignier, Wannieck and Yamanaka. Like many of the early Oriental Ceramics Society members, Schiller was drawn to Song ceramics, of which he had a substantial collection of around 90 objects including a selection of tea bowls. An outstanding example of Schiller’s Song pieces is the Southern Song dynasty, 13th-century stoneware dish from the Guan kilns with its soft grey-green glaze and network of crackle, on loan from the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (fig 6).

Ming and Qing Monochromes

Schiller also collected fine examples of Ming and Qing monochromes. Two outstanding monochromes from his collection are included in the current exhibition, loans from the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. A yellow-glazed Chenghua mark and period (1465-1487) dish is one of only around 20 in existence worldwide. According to imperial regulations, only the emperor, his mother and the empress were allowed to use such dishes glazed yellow on the interior and exterior, though some may have been used for diplomatic gifts. The other monochrome is a celadon-glazed Yongzheng mark and period (1723-1735) porcelain vase. Its soft glossy glaze and wide crackle is a conscious homage to the Southern Song Guan glazes.

Schiller and his brother Max (1868-1946), who was the Recorder of the City of Bristol moved to Old House, Bletchworth, Surrey, between 1930 and 1931, where their collection of European and Chinese art could be properly displayed. Some jades and Song monochromes were placed in a ‘closet’ in the dining room but the majority of the Chinese ceramics were placed upstairs in the ‘China Closet’, off the upper sitting room: ‘The China Closet was dedicated to the serious study of Chinese ceramics.’ In contrast to David and Garner, Schiller did not leave his collection to an institution but to his brother Max. In 1946, Max Schiller bequeathed his brother’s collection of around 450 objects to Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery.

Alfred Clark (1873-1950) and Ivy Clark (1890/1-1976)

Also central to the exhibition are the second generation of OCS collectors such as Alfred and Ivy Clark, who formed a significant collection of Chinese art and contributed greatly to OCS activities and exhibitions. Alfred Clark, born in New York, was a pioneer in film and sound reproduction. He started his career working for Thomas Edison, developing the phonograph and later worked with Emil Berliner, the inventor of the gramophone. In 1899, Clark moved to Paris to represent both men. He later became Chairman and first President of EMI. In 1921, he married Ivy Sanders, an author, and secretary to Lord Northcliffe, becoming a naturalised British subject as a result.

International Exhibition of Chinese Art

The Clarks started collecting in the 1920s, with Song and Ming dynasty ceramics quickly becoming areas of key interest, although they also collected Tang and Qing ceramics. The Clarks became members of the OCS in the 1930s and he served on the Council and the Management Committee of the Oriental Ceramics Society almost continually from 1934 to 1948. Borrowed for the current exhibition, is the magnificent Jiajing mark and period (1522-1566) blue and white porcelain jar painted with boys playing in a continuous landscape scene (fig 7). This had belonged to the New Zealand-born Charles Ernest Russell (1866-1960), who was part of the older generation of collectors. The Clarks lent this jar to the 1935-1936 International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy. After Clark’s death, Ivy Clark continued to lend to OCS exhibitions, including to the 1953-1954 Chinese Blue and White Porcelain, 14th to 19th Centuries, the first of a series held with the Arts Council, at their premises in St James’s Square, some photographs of which are included in the centenary exhibition.

Another of their objects in the current exhibition, lent by a current OCS member, is the Kangxi period (1662-1722) copper-red-glazed porcelain vase. This had belonged to the well-known collector WC Alexander (1840-1916) and was acquired by the Clarks at the Sotheby’s sale through Bluett & Sons, again showing the fluidity of object movement between collectors.

What is offered here is a small snapshot of a few UK-based OCS collectors, two of them founder or early members, Eumorfopoulos and Schiller, while the Clarks were part of the important second generation of collectors. They are among many that formed the heart of the Society over the course of the century, and changed the face of collecting, scholarship and museum bequests in East Asian ceramics in the UK. What is clear too, is that none of them were acting in isolation but were supported, not just by fellow collectors but also by close connections with curators, academics and dealers, all facilitated through the ‘safe space’, scholarship, and camaraderie offered by the Oriental Ceramics Society.