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16 Apr 2014

Back home, antiques and art shipping soon!

Posted by James Cottrell. No Comments

I’ve been back from China over a week now and just about managed to catch up with everything here after a very successful trip. My last couple of days in Beijing gave me time to meet with one other contact there to talk about some possible projects in the future as well as to fit in a trip to Panjiayuan market to check out the usual huge selection of stalls offering ceramics, stoneware, art, jade, bronzes and just about every other Chinese artefact you could possibly imagine. The market is only open at weekends and is always packed with traders, locals looking to pick up a bargain, as well as the odd tourist. There are a few furniture suppliers with concessions around the market but most of these are aimed at the local market, offering hardwood pieces poplular with wealthy Chinese rather than antiques or elm wood furniture.

This time the market was even larger than before, having been extended out at the far end with dozens of new stalls. Amongst the usual stoneware and ceramics that is always good to top up our range of oriental accessories, I discovered a couple of new artists’ stalls including one selling some lovely original paintings. Look out for these in the coming months in our showroom and on our website. Brightly coloured and depicting various ladies at leisure, they are based on the works of the well known Chinese artist Shuai Mei and the style is a balance between classic and contempory.

From Beijing I moved on to Shanghai, where much of our production furniture is produced including our main ‘Chinese Classical’ range. This was a shorter part of the trip. As we have only just had a shipment of our furniture leave Shanghai it was mostly about catching up with the guys at the workshop and discussing future developments, but I was also able to meet with a new potential supplier for our silk wallpaper and to discuss a current project for a couple of our beautiful hand painted silk screens. As ever when I come to Shanghai, my visit also meant being treated to one or two delicious meals with the owners,  including one at their favourite little Japanese restaurant – very authentic and very tasty.

I’m delighted with the mix and selection of antique furniture that I’ve lined up for our next container and can’t wait for these pieces to arrive in the UK. We will be shipping this container in around four weeks from now (we have some production items on order to include as well) so hopefully we will receive everything towards the end of June. As usual, the vast majority of these pieces will be available to view and order on our website well before the container arrives. In fact, you can already view a small selection of these on our Facebook page and we will post more up there in the coming weeks as a sneak preview. I hope you’ll see something you like!

7 Apr 2014

Some great antiques lined up for our next shipment

Posted by James Cottrell. No Comments

My last few days in Beijing were spent selecting more Chinese antique furniture to be included on our next container, to be shipped in a month or so from now. I visited a couple of other suppliers that we regularly buy from, each of which has a certain speciality in terms of the pieces they hold or the type of finish that they carry out when restoring antiques.

The first of these has a fairly limited selection nowadays as they have moved more into hardwood reproduction furniture aimed at the Chinese market, but they still have some good quality painted armoires and cabinets from Shanxi province, as well as some nice carved furniture from Shaanxi (where the ancient capital of Xian and the terracotta warriors are located). In amongst the collection were also some now quite rare painted Mongolian pieces – with their distinctive palette of reds, blues and yellows.

The second supplier is the one that I enjoy visiting the most when I’m in Beijing. The majority of antique restoration workshops in and around the city tend to rely on other businesses that source old pieces from around China and sell them on in an unrestored state. This particular supplier prefers instead to source the antiques he restores direct from the countryside. As a result he is often able to find items that are unavailable in other warehouses – particularly old furniture from Shanxi in elm and walnut, simple in style but beautifully made. Some of the antiques he has available are of museum quality – Ming dynasty altar tables, daybeds or tapered cabinets – most of which he holds as his own private collection. However, even the mid-range pieces that he sells are often quite rare or unusual compared to the offering elsewhere. What I also like is the very natural restoration and finishing that he uses, resulting in an understated look that puts the focus on the beauty and form of the piece of furniture. Whilst there is certainly a place for the refinished, lacquered and shiny look that the majority of other suppliers tend to prefer, I think there is something about this more subtle, sympathetic finishing that really brings out the character of each original piece.

After two or three hours carefully viewing the collection of around a thousand restored pieces, wandering the dozens of aisles of cabinets, tables, trunks and chairs, I ended up with around 30 or 40 items for our next container. Amongst my favourites is a beautiful book cabinet from Shanxi in elm and dating from the early 19th century. The bottom section of the cabinet has two doors, mounted on the original heavy brass hinges, whilst the top section has two doors and side panels in wonderful open carving – originally designed to show off the owner’s books or prized possessions.

I also selected a beautiful pair of side chairs, also from Shanxi and in elm and with an almost art deco look despite dating from the late 19th century. These are unusual in that the curved backrest is made up of four curved posts rather than the standard single piece of curved wood, whilst the supporting struts below the seat are rounded and delicately carved.

One further highlight is a wonderful cabinet in red lacquer from Shaanxi province – the upper drawer in carved relief being typical of furniture from that region. The doors are set centrally, each in a pale lacquer and decorated with a painted figure. Four smaller figures are shown on panels either side of the doors, each in traditional dress. The cabinet dates from the early 19th century and it is unusual to find a piece like this with the original paintings and finish still intact and in relatively good condition. I’m looking forward to getting this lovely cabinet in our showroom in a couple of months from now.

We should have photos for these pieces and all others that I chose in Beijing in the next few weeks so look out for the full selection on our website in the next month or so or check out our Facebook page over the coming days for more photos of some of my favourites.

More details to follow of my final days in Beijing and Shanghai …

1 Apr 2014

First days in Beijing

Posted by James Cottrell. No Comments

First chance to sit down and draw breath after a few very busy days in Beijing! I arrived on Thursday evening and straight to work on Friday with a visit to the factory of one of our main suppliers here, who produce our beautiful Chinese Country furniture. This style is very much their speciality, using reclaimed solid woods and producing high quality finishes that show the natural character of the material. As well as the elm used for our own furniture they work with pine, poplar other woods. The wood is old and well seasoned, taken from buildings mostly around Shandong or Hebei provinces. We discussed some new projects, including some samples they had produced specifically for my visit. The results look great – well constructed but still with the character that is unique to furniture that is handcrafted rather than machine made. I look forward to developing these pieces further with a view to adding them to our range in the near future. I was also able to inspect a couple of ‘made to order’ cabinets at the woodwork stage, due to be shipped for customers in a month or so.

As is the case with the majority of factories around Beijing, this particular supplier used to deal mainly in antique restoration and export but gradually moved over to production furniture over the years as the supply of antiques has dwindled. However, the owner still has a few hundred Chinese antiques available – some of which are at the higher end of the market and which he is sensibly holding onto as part of his retirement fund. I therefore took the opportunity to pick a few items for our next container, including one or two Mongolian cabinets (rarely seen with other suppliers) and a lovely round table in walnut.

On Saturday I met up with another of our regular suppliers. This one still deals mainly in antiques, although they are also developing an ever increasing range of reproduction pieces – mostly based on ‘Gansu’ style furniture – simple in design but in colourful lacquers or with various traditional painted designs of landscapes or flowers. As well as the more traditional black and red lacquers, they also offer more ‘trendy’ colours – powder blues, pinks and purples that give a modern twist to classic designs. Their standard finish has a classic, shiny look that they do better than other workshops around Beijing and that I like to combine with the more stripped back, natural look that some of our other antique restorers specialise in.

They still have a lot of antique painted pieces that originated in Gansu and nearby Qinghai province, as well as painted armoires and sideboards from Shanxi and trunks and cabinets from the northeast region of Dongbei. Whilst a lot of these pieces are refinished in red or blue lacquers, there were also a few still with the original paintings. In all I selected around 30 antiques for our next container and also discussed some of their reproduction pieces. I hope to be able to offer much of their production furniture on our website in the future and we will hold a few of these in our showroom for viewing from later in the year.

More to follow soon…

 

26 Mar 2014

I’m heading for Beijing today

Posted by James Cottrell. No Comments

I’m leaving today for another of my regular trips to China, visiting suppliers and sourcing antiques to ship back to the UK. I’ll fly in to Beijing where I’ll stay for a few days, then travel on to Shanghai.

Beijing

Beautiful Beijing

I have lots of meetings set up and will be visiting the family-run workshops where much of our furniture is made. Many pieces are made from reclaimed elm, generally the local elm known as ‘northern elm’ (or ‘yumu’ in Chinese). It’s been used in furniture-making since the Ming era and it’s a great privilege to see our craftsmen working with it. Whilst in the workshops, I’ll also be checking out our latest pieces and talking through my ideas for future additions to the range.

As you all know, my great passion is Chinese antiques, and I have some interesting meetings arranged to look at some lovely pieces ‘in the flesh’. Although I have a schedule of visits to warehouses and workshops, I will also make time to scour the back streets and perhaps find some interesting discoveries to bring back with me.

Bronze horse

As usual, I’ll also visit some of the local markets to pick up accessories, like pottery, ceramics, stoneware, jewellery and decorative ornaments.

As it’s the Year of the Horse, I’ll be on the look out for equine-themed pieces, like this bronze Tang horse on the right which I sourced on a previous visit (and which is available on our website).

I have a list of furniture and other items which my customers have asked me to look out for: if you’re looking for something special, it’s not too late to ask! Email me now with details of what you’re after and I’ll try and hunt it down for you.

I’ll be aiming to update the blog whilst in China, so keep reading for more information on my travels, including any interesting pieces I discover while I’m there.

26 Feb 2014

A beautiful ‘nanmu’ book cabinet – furniture with its own back story

Posted by James Cottrell. No Comments

Our latest container of Chinese antique furniture arrived this week, and with it the final pieces that I selected on my last visit out to Beijing. I’m really pleased with the collection we have right now. It’s a nice mixture between stripped down, understated cabinets and tables in beautiful woods and natural finishes and more striking lacquered and painted pieces. As ever, there are one or two particular gems – rarer items in styles or materials that I don’t often come across on my visits to the many antique warehouses of Beijing or Shanghai.

Amongst the rarer pieces on this latest container is this lovely book cabinet from Shanxi province in central China that dates from around 1800. It was designed specifically to store books, which would have been stacked one of top of the other as was the custom in China rather than being stood on their ends as we tend to do in the West.  At first glance it doesn’t look that special – the original dark lacquer is quite worn and the style is a classic ‘square-cornered’ box like design. It has a set of doors at the bottom, three small drawers in the middle and an open space above with a single shelf. But there are a couple of elements that make this quite a special find.

Nanmu Book Cabinet

Nanmu Book Cabinet, Shanxi, circa 1800

Firstly, whilst the majority of furniture from Shanxi was made from elm wood, pine or sometimes walnut, this piece is made from a wood known in China as ‘nanmu’. Part of the laurel family, the wood naturally has a lovely olive brown colour, quite similar to walnut, and  has a fine, smooth texture. It grows predominantly in South-West China and is highly resistant to decay – ideal for furniture making.

As it was a rarer wood in China’s northern provinces, and because of its colour and texture, nanmu was quite highly prized and tended to be used in furniture made for the upper echelons of society. Whilst it was certainly not as valued or as expensive as the tropical hardwoods like zitan or huang-huali that were used for the court, nanmu was considered a step up from the more regular elm or other soft woods. Anyone able to commission a piece of furniture like this book cabinet would certainly have been fairly wealthy.

Secondly, the doors of the cabinet are each inscribed with two Chinese characters in red. The characters on the left essentially read ‘history books’ while those on the right very loosely refer to a ‘reading room’. So this tells us that, not only was the owner rich enough to be able to order this item in nanmu wood, but it was commissioned for a specific purpose – to store his set of books on history, and to be placed in a room that was set aside as a library. So it is possible to imagine that the owner was not only wealthy but also liked to think of himself (and for others to think of him) as something of a scholar!

Nanmu Daybed

Nanmu Daybed, Shanxi circa 1800

One other piece in nanmu wood that is currently on display in our showroom is a beautiful, low daybed, also from Shanxi and dating from the same period. While the majority of daybeds I’ve seen are quite rustic in appearance – made from elm with large, chunky frames – this one is much more elegant. Narrower than most daybeds, it has some fine carving around the aprons and beautifully shaped little cabriole legs. Again, this is not an item that the common man in China would ever be able to afford, but would certainly have belonged to a well-to-do family.

For more details about nanmu and other of the more unusual materials used in Chinese furniture, take a look at our information site at www.chinesefurniture.co.uk

12 Feb 2014

What does the horse mean for you?

Posted by James Cottrell. No Comments

Year of the HorseThe year of the horse is well underway and is expected to bring powerful and dynamic energy. Of course, this power must be harnessed in the right way to bring success, and the year of the horse may bring unpredictable results. But, according to Chinese experts, what does it mean for you?

Those born in the year of the horse (check here) are considered energetic, bright and intelligent. However, if that’s you, 2014 may bring friction and fluctuation: you are entering your birth year and offending Taisui, the god of fortune. This might mean instability in your financial fortunes and suggests keeping a low profile at work may be wise. At least you’re in good company: Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney and Genghis Khan are/were all horses.

For the rest of us, the year ahead ushers in health and prosperity. It will be an excellent time to travel: you should take the opportunity to mingle with the locals, savour authentic cuisine and discover new cultures. You might enjoy reading these predictions by the Feng Shui Society, based on your own animal sign and how it interacts with the horse.

The twelve year cycle of animals which make up the Chinese zodiac interact with the five elements: wood, metal, fire, water and earth. 2014 is the year of the wood horse, taking over from the year of the water snake. Wood is seen as providing fuel for the energetic horse sign, meaning a fast year with the possibility of conflict. The later part of the year is ‘yin fire’, increasing the potential for clashes even more.

If you have a business involving wood or fire you will do well. Property and financial companies won’t be so lucky, and as the horse is a galloper, the potential is for prices and markets to gallop up and down through the year. Oh, and strong fire energy may mean countries in the southern hemisphere, like Australia and South America may experience heat from gunfire as well as volcanoes.

In Chinese culture, horses have always been significant. Terracotta statues of horses were considered a key part of the ‘mingqi’ or models of their possessions with which noblemen were buried. Many of the finest horse statues were created during the Tang dynasty (the ‘golden age’ of Chinese art). Fashioned in bronze or glazed in green, brown or cream, these graceful figures were created with great attention to detail with flaring nostrils and powerful arched necks.

The horse was thought to possess magical powers by the early Chinese and was second only in significance to the dragon. The horse carried the deceased through to the afterlife and the number of horses owned by an individual guaranteed his ongoing status in the next life.

Shimu stocks a number of stone, bronze and ceramic horses of all sizes, and you can see some of them here. If you’re looking for a particular piece, just get in touch for some advice.

With thanks to Travel China GuideIB Times and The Independent.

31 Jan 2014

An amazing spectacle – Chinese New Year!

Posted by James Cottrell. No Comments

Chinese New YearThis week tools will be downed in our Shanghai and Beijing workshops as our committed team clock-off for the biggest celebration of the year.

The festivities start today – the first day of the lunar month – and continue until the fifteenth, when the moon is brightest.

London will see the biggest celebrations outside Asia, as hundreds of thousands of people descend on the West End to mark the occasion. A colourful New Year’s Parade will pass through the city to Chinatown, with dragons, acrobats, dancers and singers. An official opening ceremony will take place tonight in Trafalgar Square.

In China, people traditionally spring clean their houses before the start of the festivities to sweep away any bad luck. On New Year’s Eve, all brooms and brushes are put in cupboards so that good luck cannot be swept away. Houses are decorated with paper garlands and scrolls with lucky phrases like ‘Happiness’ and ‘Wealth’.

On New Year’s Eve, families normally gather together for a festive meal. Depending on the part of China, they may enjoy djiaozi – a steamed dumpling – or in the south, nian gao – a sweet and sticky rice pudding.

Revellers will stay up until after midnight, setting off fireworks. The colour red is really important at New Year, as it symbolises fire, which will scare away evil spirits. People dress from head to toe in red clothing, red decorations are everywhere, and children are given red envelopes of ‘lucky’ money.

The new year ends with the lantern festival on the fifteenth day of the month. People hang glowing lanterns at the windows of their houses and carry lanterns under the light of the full moon. A dragon dance often takes places with a dragon made of paper, silk and bamboo.

We’ll be celebrating in a more low key way at Shimu, but we’re certainly looking forward to welcoming the year of the horse. More about that on the blog next week!

17 Dec 2013

Christmas Celebrations in China

Posted by James Cottrell. No Comments

Christmas is hardly the main event in China – you’ll all know that Chinese New Year is the big one. Only a tiny percentage of China’s population are practicing Christians, and even though Christmas has its roots in the pagan festival of Midwinter, it is still seen as a predominately Christian festival.

However, even though Christmas is not an official holiday (apart from in Hong Kong), you will find more than a scattering of the festive spirit around China, particularly in the big cities. Younger people especially regard it as a fashionable day to celebrate.

Department stores really get into the seasonal groove, and Christmas trees (known as Trees of Light) are decorated with lanterns, paper chains and conventional festive decorations. It’s not uncommon to see Santa (called Dun Che Lao Ren, literally translated as ‘Christmas Old Man’) in large shopping centres.

In the home, some families choose to have a small Christmas tree and a few have Christmas lights strung up outside. Shopping sprees in the run up to the big day are popular and some Chinese celebrate on Christmas Eve by eating Christmas dinner with friends. Particularly in urban areas, some even exchange cards and small gifts. In some homes, children hang up muslin stockings in the hope that Santa will visit and leave gifts. Bowls of oranges and tangerines, symbolizing wealth and good fortune, are often displayed.

For full-on Christmas celebrations, head to the Western theme parks in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Tourist Board sponsors Winterfest, an annual Christmas wonderland with an authentic Christmas village, fireworks, aerial acrobatics and even an Ocean Santa!

With its colonial history and a larger Christian population, Christmas is a much more important holiday in Hong Kong, as well as in neighbouring Macao (once governed by Catholic Portugal). Cards, gifts and all the commercial trappings of a modern Christmas in the West are common, as are other traditions such as the office party. One of the more embarrassing memories of my years in Hong Kong was a Christmas party game that had everyone in hysterics at the expense of the Managing Director and myself – the only two westerners working there at the time. Provided with headphones and made to listen to the latest ‘Canto Pop’, we had to simultaneously sing along so that teams could guess the song title from our pathetic attempts at tuneful Cantonese. Perhaps tame compared to some of the office parties that will have been taking place across the UK in the last couple of weeks, but not an experience I will forget!

Happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year to all our blog readers!

James

(Thanks to about.com/chineseculture)

27 Nov 2013

Painted furniture and a favourite piece

Posted by James Cottrell. No Comments

This week I wanted to talk about one of my favourite features of antique Chinese furniture – the beautiful decorative paintings often found on pieces from central and western provinces such as Shanxi and Qinghai.

Pieces generally have a base coat of black or red, with hand-painting in gold and other colours. This ‘gold-painting’ technique is known as ‘miao jin’ and reached the height of its popularity during the Ming dynasty. Good examples of original miao jin are becoming increasingly hard to find, due to poor conservation, daily wear and tear and over enthusiastic ‘restoration’.

The red sideboard pictured below was found on a recent trip to China. It’s dated around 1900 and is from the western province of Qinghai. It’s typical of the type of furniture I would expect to find here: usually in red or black lacquer and brightly painted.

Antique red sideboard

The flower vases, bronzes and books painted on the doors are fairly standard designs for this type of piece and were supposed to denote the importance or ‘scholarly’ status of the owner. The butterflies around the frame are symbols for long life and marital happiness and are also fairly typical. The figures on the bottom apron are much more unusual – I’m not entirely sure what they represent and would be happy to hear the knowledge of any readers on this!

I loved this particular sideboard so much that we took many of the images from the paintings to create a series of limited edition prints, available on the website.

Tibetan cabinet

 

Another favourite whose paintings also feature in our prints was this beautiful cabinet from Tibet. Because there was virtually no consumer class in Tibet during the 19th century to demand luxury goods such as fine furniture, almost all pieces from the region originated in the monasteries, made by and for the monks.

Tibetan furniture is usually made from pine – the most readily available material – and the pieces have a distinctive style, being brightly painted with designs usually including flowers or religious imagery. The paintings were produced using natural pigments, which tend to fade over time.

Tibetan furniture in its original state, without any retouching to the paintings, is now becoming quite rare and as a result these pieces are becoming more and more expensive. You’ll find some pieces on our website at shimu.co.uk (both the pieces featured here have been sold).

13 Nov 2013

Some rare Tibetan and Mongolian Furniture on our next shipment of Chinese antiques

Posted by James Cottrell. No Comments

Each time I go to China to source antiques I find that furniture from particular regions and certain styles are becoming less and less prevalent, and the price of the these pieces is going up and up as they become more difficult to find. For example, good quality painted armoires and cabinets from Shanxi province in central China – ones with their original finish and paintings – are far harder to come by these days, whereas ten or fifteen years ago there seemed to be a ready supply. There are still warehouses that have plenty of furniture from Shanxi available, but this now tends to be refinished or touched up in some way, or often even reproduction furniture in the same style. As a result when I do find a truly authentic piece the price is usually double or even triple what it would have been when I first started in this business over ten years ago.

Chief amongst these increasingly rare pieces is furniture from Tibet and, to a slightly lesser extent, Mongolia. Part of the reason for this is that fewer pieces were produced in these parts of the world as there was less demand for furniture amongst the local nomadic population. Unlike furniture from Shanxi or other areas where tastes were more refined, the pieces that were made were quite crude – produced from cheaper materials and without the advanced joinery or lacquering techniques that helped prolong the life of cabinets and chests from central and eastern China. In short these pieces were not built to last and so a style that was already limited in number quickly fell into disuse, disrepair or destruction.

There is still Tibetan furniture available in China, indeed I have visited one or two suppliers that entirely specialise in this style. However, despite what they may try to tell you, their selection nowadays is made up almost entirely of reproduction furniture, with perhaps a few pieces being old but completely repainted.

I was therefore very pleased to be able to source a few genuinely old Tibetan and Mongolian trunks with their original finish on my last visit to Beijing in September. These are now up on our website and will be shipping in the next week or so with our latest container of Chinese antiques, arriving in the UK around the end of December. They were held for many years by Mr Zhu, one of our main suppliers in Beijing, and were items that I had seen and admired on previous visits but which at the time did not make sense to ship without a buyer in mind. With Mr Zhu looking to clear some of his older stock including even some of the rarer pieces, the opportunity to buy these this time around was too much to resist.

Both Tibetan and Mongolian furniture is quite rudimentary in style, but brightly painted with vivid colours. In these regions there was no real consumer class as there was in Beijing or other great cities like Xian, Pingyao or Tianjin. Furniture was therefore made to be serviceable, basic in design and construction compared to the fine workmanship and joinery that developed further east. In Tibet most of this furniture was made by and for the monks, with the cabinets and trunks that were needed often produced by unskilled apprentices. The material used was normally pine, which was readily available, rather than the more attractive elm or walnut that could be found elsewhere.

Perhaps to make up for their quite crude design and construction, trunks and chests would be brightly decorated with distinctive patterns using natural pigments. The decoration normally showed flowers, sometimes birds and animals in the case of Mongolian pieces, or religious figures and artefacts. In the case of Tibetan furniture the colours used were normally vivid yellows, greens, reds, blues and blacks. Mongolian furniture tended to show a less expansive palette, with yellow, green and red being the main three colours used.

The blanket chests and trunks we are shipping this time are great examples of this type of furniture and we are unlikely to be able to find anything similar in the future – particularly in the case of the Tibetan chests. Full of character, these are very much collection pieces and ones that are only likely to increase in value over the coming years.

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