The Phoenix at the Fall of Empire: Three Empresses of China and the Fate of the Imperial Art Collection
Lecturer: Anne Haworth
Location: DESY Auditorium
A phoenix depicted in a book of legendary creatures by FJ Bertuch (1747–1822). Friedrich Justin Bertuch, Bilderbuch für Kinder, 1790-1830 (Eigenbesitz), Fabelwesen.
In Ancient China, the phoenix, a bird of myth and legend, symbolised the Empress, consort to the Dragon Emperor. The lecture focuses on three Empresses who lived in the Forbidden City from the 18th Century to the end of Empire in 1911. Empress Xiaoxian was consort to the Qianlong Emperor, one of China’s greatest art collectors. The formidable Dowager Empress Cixi ruled the Empire ‘from behind the curtain’ during the 19th Century. Empress Wanrong, known as Elizabeth, married Puyi, the last Emperor of China. She was beautiful and received a Western education yet died an opium addict in war-torn China.
Their history reaches back to a golden age of art patronage and expansion of the vast Imperial collection, through the opium wars and twilight days of Empire, to the Warlord era of the 20th century, when the art collection was plundered by Palace eunuchs.
In this lecture, the phoenix is also the Imperial art collection itself, which was reborn from the ashes of Empire and civil war. After the 1949 Communist victory, Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek and his charismatic Shanghainese wife, Soong May Ling, described as China’s ‘Last Empress’, brought thousands of crates of treasures to Taiwan.
The former Imperial collection is now housed in China, Taiwan and in museums and private collections in the West.
Anne Haworth is a lecturer at the V&A and a guide for private tours of the State Rooms and The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace. She is a lecturer in British Painting for American students resident in London.
In Autumn 2002, she catalogued a collection of Chinese porcelain at Kensington Palace. From 2002 to 2005, she was a committee member of the French Porcelain Society. From 1995 to 2002, she was resident in Shanghai, China, and visited ancient kiln sites and lectured to expatriate groups. From 1981 to 1995, she trained and became a senior ceramics specialist at Christie's and Bonhams head offices.
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