So who did loot those French-Italian animal heads?
Posted By: Richard Spencer at Feb 25, 2009 at 09:04:13 [General]
Posted in: Foreign Correspondents
Tags:Pierre Berge, Summer Palace, Yves St Laurent Collection
Not surprisingly, the Chinese government and people have been unable to persuade the French or Christie’s to stop the sale of two bronze animal heads looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.
The heads – the rabbit and the rat – are part of the Yves St Laurent collection, being sold by his former lover and business partner, Pierre Berge. They go under the hammer later today (that’s Wednesday).
But this is part of a long-running saga whose chapters have come to follow predictable lines. As the 12 heads are put up for auction, there is an outcry that items stolen by the British and French imperialists are being put on sale rather than simply being returned whence they came.
The outcry has no effect – the looting of the Summer Palace in 1860, at the end of the Second Opium War, is too long ago to be affected by treaties and legislation about the return of stolen goods. Western powers look nervously at the other contents of their museums and collections, and the world in general has a chance to remind itself of the evils of imperialism.
Then some wealthy Chinese philanthropist steps in and buys the head for the nation.
There’s no denying that the burning of the Summer Palace was an atrocity: it caused huge outrage even in the Europe of the time. But it is odd and perhaps unfortunate that attention has come to focus on these particular relics. State media, while particularly sensitive to the European insult, are often rather careful to avoid hyping these items up as examples of high Chinese culture: for good reason, as they are not really Chinese, and the whole story of the fountain of which they are part is shrouded in ambiguity.
There is in fact no certainty that the heads were looted by the French or British at all (as I read it) – even though it is always written (including by me) that they were.
My source for this information is my friend Jasper Becker’s scintillating oral history of Beijing, City of Heavenly Tranquillity, which I have written about before. Geremie Barme, perhaps the leading contemporary overseas historian of Beijing’s palaces, has also described some of the background to this, though he doesn’t go into the details of the stealing of these particular bronzes.
(The piece linked to contains a fantastically terrible account of the looting, by the way).
The European nature of these bronzes is well known to those who write about such matters. Jeremiah Jenne, at Jottings from the Granite Studio, gives a good summary of the debate so far, and I hope he reads this blogpost as it encroaches on his territory and I’d be interested to know what he thinks, since he’s also an expert.
First, you have to know that by the time the fountain was erected, during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor in the 18th century, the Summer Palace had become an extraordinary sort of plaything, in which scenes from China and the Heavens were reconstructed for the emperor’s amusement (including a fully operational market, where actors bought and sold goods to each other and even pickpocketed each other). It was a sort of Windows of the World of its day. Qianlong, who had a coteries of European Jesuits at court who were allowed to do little by way of proselytising and thus had time on their hands, were put to work building a series of European-style palaces. These have since become the best-known aspects of the Summer Palace, though they took up a relatively small part of the gardens and were not actually inhabited by the court.
Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian, was the master planner – he also painted now famous portraits of the court – and Father Michel Benoist, a Frenchman no less, designed the enormous water fountain with the 12 animal heads. The animals spouted water, each one for the two hours corresponding to the time of day for which he was responsible. All 12 went off at noon.
The heads themselves, though, were probably designed by Castiglione himself.
That much is agreed. It gets more interesting though.
There were (according to Barme) always doubts in the Chinese imperial mind about this fountain: it offended the laws of nature, since the water was shot upwards rather than flowing downhill as it ought. Then, when Father Benoist died (and the remaining Jesuits were expelled), knowledge of the complex hydraulics which operated the fountain died with him. It could not be repaired when it went wrong, and so eventually the only way to work it was for eunuchs to bring buckets and reload from the top, which even the emperor could see was a bit of a waste of effort.
Eventually, the copper piping was deemed too valuable an asset to waste, so it was dug up and the fountain decayed from underneath.
According to Becker, quoting the British writer Hope Danby who visited in the 1930s, studied the site and spoke to descendants of the contractors who built the fountain (among other researches), the empress of the Daoguang emperor took such a passionate dislike to the fountain (whose heads are, in fact, rather crude in my view, and not as fine as genuinely Chinese bronzes of that or any other period) that she had the animals torn down around 1840.
That of course doesn’t answer the question of what happened after that or how they got out of China. The obvious guess is that they were stored somewhere in the Palace gardens, and were indeed looted after the Palace was set on fire. Danby thought they had been melted down – though that is clearly wrong.
So what happened between 1840, and the 1880s, when an inventory was taken of what was left of the Summer Palace, in which the heads do not appear? Well, the absolute answer is that we don’t know.
Barme told me today that he doubted Danby’s tale. He reckoned it would have been unforgivable lese-ancestral-majeste to destroy anything erected by Qianlong, Daoguang’s grandfather. He says there are no contemporary records saying this happened – but also that there is no other evidence for what happened to the heads.
The looting in 1860 was undeniably thorough – the soldiers went through the warehouses. At one stage there was some sort of auction of goods. But the records are also clear that local Chinese happily joined in the looting – perhaps because the imperial court was Manchu rather than Han Chinese, there was less sense of patriotic solidarity than there clearly is now.
The Chinese also periodically continued to loot the remains for decades (indeed a century) afterwards. Despite the fire, the palaces were by no means entirely destroyed; they could have been repaired, and indeed the Western palaces were offered to the invading powers to reopen as their embassies (the powers refused, taking over what became the Legation Quarter of central Beijing instead).
The destruction of the Old Summer Palace was really completed when the New Summer Palace was rebuilt, as what could be taken away was salvaged and reused. The site was then used by Beijing residents as a quarry, with Hope Danby witnessing marble blocks being hauled away for building projects in the 1930s. There was more damage in the Cultural Revolution.
But what happened to the heads in all of this is unknown. If there is provenance of the rabbit and rat dating back to when they were taken, Christie’s have not chosen to make it public. Seven have so far turned up abroad or in Hong Kong at auction; that would immediately suggest that they had been taken overseas – perhaps by French or British soldiers. But it is also possible they were sold on by Chinese looters later – a lot of Chinese art disappeared abroad over the years in this way. One head ended up in a swimming pool in Beverley Hills.
None of this of course excuses what the British and French did. “This marvel has disappeared,” wrote Victor Hugo. “One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. The one pillaged, the other burned. Victory is a thief…
“We Europeans, we are the civilised, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians, but look what civilisation has done to the barbarians.”
Yet moral niceties (hypocrisies, some would say) were still part of the discussion, just as they are today. The pillaging of the Summer Palace was a conscious punishment for the behaviour of the Qing (Manchu) court, who had tortured and killed the peace emissaries sent by the allies to Beijing – 18 were mutilated and murdered, including The Times correspondent, while the two leading British officials were found half-starved.
The French general, Baron Gros, wanted to retaliate by destroying the Forbidden City and the city of Beijing: the Summer Palace, he said, was merely a “maison de plaisance” and thus useless. But Lord Elgin, the British general, distinguished (as we do today, do we not) between the people and the government: only the emperor and his officials, not the (Han) Chinese people, should suffer, he said.
So they destroyed the Summer Palace, and the Chinese joined in.