I’ve just returned from another one of my regular trips to China, where I’ve been catching up with our suppliers in Shanghai and Beijing and selecting chinese antique furniture to ship with our next consignment. It was a bit of a whistle stop tour this time but I managed to pack everything in that I wanted and have some wonderful new pieces lined up that I can’t wait to share with you on our website. The first set of antiques should be up on the site in the next couple of weeks and there will be plenty more to come – about 70 items of furniture in total as well as plenty of interesting and unusual accessories. All being well, the vast majority of these pieces will arrive with us in a couple of months from now.
I’ve pictured just a few of my favourites from this time around. First up is a tall, elegantly shaped ’round cornered’ cabinet from Shanxi province in central China. This style of armoire was common throughout northern China and has an ingenious design, with doors mounted on rounded dowels that slot straight into the top and bottom frame of the cabinet. This means that no metal hinges are needed, resulting in a beautiful, sleek, simple look made even more elegant by a taper from bottom to top. Taller cabinets that have long, full length doors rather than drawers at the bottom tend to be more highly valued and this is one is a lovely example. It has the old fixed shelf with two drawers inside and the bottom apron still has the original open carvings intact, showing heavenly dragons.
Also from Shanxi but very different in style is a lovely little red lacquer cabinet – small enough to be used as a bedside table. Like the armoire, the finish is entirely original, a muted red that shows the ravages of its near 200 years of life. When it was first made the red finish would have been deep and lustrous and the paintings, now very faded but still visible, would have been in shining, bright gold leaf. This decorative technique was known as ‘Miao Jin’ and was seen on the more refined furniture of Shanxi. It reached its peak of popularity in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, used to decorate what were effectively luxury goods for the upper classes. These days it is rare to find an item of furniture with the Miao Jin paintings in their original state – they are almost always retouched. The more stable black base below the gold leaf tends to survive better than the gold and other lighter colours, as is evident in this case where the gold has largely faded away leaving subtle, dark outlines.
Another piece that stood out for me was a lovely desk, with a lattice shelf at the base in the familiar ‘cracked ice’ pattern that was commonly seen in window panels and dividing walls throughout China. Also from Shanxi, the desk still has its original dark finish and beautifully carved spandrels on all four sides. The carvings depict scrolling dragons – a sure sign that this piece would have been produced for a customer of considerable importance. The four legs each end with a scrolling foot, a motif that was common in the early Qing dynasty.
Some of my favourite Chinese antiques come from Shaanxi province (not to be confused with neighbouring Shanxi which lies to the North East). These are usually highly distinctive, with heavy, ornate carvings and iron hardware. Furniture from this part of China includes decorative coffers with drawers and cabinets with beautifully carved spandrels. These pieces are becoming more difficult to find and good quality, well preserved pieces have increased considerably in price over recent years. The table shown here is a lovely example, with heavily carved drawers and still with traces of the original, once highly colourful lacquer. It is made from elm wood and dates from the beginning of he 19th century. The deep carvings on the drawers include stylised dragons and a central good luck symbol on the lower drawer. This is a stunning piece in a highly original condition that, along with the other items here, I’m looking forward to getting over to our showroom in a few months from now.
Over the next few weeks we will be adding these antiques onto our website along with dozens of others so keep an eye out for more details. You may also want to check our Facebook page for a few more sneak previews of what’s coming. More about my recent trip to follow soon …
James Cottrell, Director, Shimu