Thursday, 26 August 2010

Chinese umbrella

This Chinese umbrella is a commemorative treasure associated with the activities of Christian missionary workers in China in the early 20th century. The strong indigenous style and choice of colours, especially the large Chinese characters embroidered in appliqué fabric round the top, might at first give the impression that this was a traditional handcrafted item for use in a religious ritual. The Chinese writing found on the colourful ribbons, however, gives us hints to the origin and purpose of this umbrella. It says on one the long ribbons, ‘西历一千九百零四年大英伦敦会会首包维廉老夫子老大人德政 which translates as ‘the year 1904, the Chief of the London Society Bao Wei Lin as a great master and a great man who demonstrates his benevolent rule'.
On another ribbon, it is written ‘西历一千九百零四年三月初十日、光绪三十年正念四日,黄冈、陂、安县各教士、执士暨教友、学友等仝敬’ meaning ‘regards from the church missionaries, ministers, members and fellows from the District church in Huang Gang, Huang Pi and Huang An on the 10th of March, 1904 (same as the 4th day of the first month in the 30th year of the reign of Emperor Guangxu). The writing on the other long ribbons has meanings about receiving blessings from the appointed church ministers in the three districts while each of the small ribbons has the name of district church members. So we can deduce that the umbrella is a gift from the London Missionary Society’s district church in Huang Gang, Huang Pi, and Huang An in Wuhan to Bao Wei Lian (William) the society senior officer who visited China on 10 March 1904.

The location of the three districts was in Hubei Province near Hangkow, where the missionary activities began to spread upon the opening of the port of Hangkow on the Yangtze River to the Western trade in 1858.

The four embroidered characters around the top of the umbrella might briefly summarise the founding principle of the London Missionary Churches in China.

Ai= Love

Yue= Agreement

Tong= Together

Hon= Backbone, core

The Chinese context for the use of such large umbrellas may shed some light on why it was chosen for the London Missionary Churches event. In China, the symbol of the traditional oilpaper umbrella represents many sons and many blessings under one roof. The phonetic pronunciation of 油紙 (oilpaper) in Chinese is similar to 有子’ (have sons), while the shape of the umbrella handle resembles the Chinese character for ‘’ (person). The umbrella’s shaft is crafted from bamboo, a material symbolising longevity while also carrying the subtext of growing tall; shooting to the sky. The open umbrella viewed from above has a circular shape, which reflects a sense of wholesomeness, unity and an all-rounded peacefulness. The virtues attached to the symbol of the umbrella therefore makes it an appropriate choice when commemorating the visit of Bao Wei Lian, as the higher ideals embodied in the spirit of an umbrella are not unlike those which the London Missionary Society sought to promote.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Mask - from Lötschental to Leeds

Even on holiday a museum curator is still a curator! When we planned to return to the beautiful and remote Lötschental valley in Switzerland (having last visited a couple of years ago) I offered to try and acquire for the Leeds museum collections an example of one of the traditional carnival masks that are peculiar to the valley. The local museum (in Kippel) has a whole gallery dedicated to the masks and examples can be seen on the outside of building in many of the villages in the valley.

The origins of the tradition seem shrouded in mystery. The valley is strongly Catholic and the masks are associated with Carnival and the end of the winter snows. Until the 2nd half of the 20th century when better roads (and tunnels) were built, the valley used to be cut off from the outside world during winter and this isolation may be behind the development and continuation of this mask culture. Traditionally the masks and costumes were worn only by unmarried men, but apparently these days anyone can join in, regardless of age, sex or marital status.

The masks are all different but all equally grotesque. Pictured is the one I bought from the workshop of Heinrich Lehner in Blatten which is now part of the Leeds collections.

Although there are a number of different craftsmen and women making masks in the valley, many make them for their own use in the Carnival celebrations rather than to sell to tourists. Heinrich Lehner does sell masks direct from his workshop (pictured) but you have to ring the door bell to get in and then summon up enough German to ask for what you want!

We stayed three nights as the Hotel Fafleralp, which also uses a mask as a symbol on its signage (and napkins!).

While walking high in this beautiful alpine landscape we also caught a glimpse of the goats who appear to have provided the hair for the mask I bought!

The mask, having made it back to Leeds, is now set to go on display in Leeds City Museum later this year.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Back Home

Leeds Museums and Galleries Inlaid Patchwork came back home this week. It left Leeds over a year ago to be part of an exhibition tour that was first in Berlin, followed by Vienna then Bautzen and is now coming to Leeds Art Gallery. The Leeds inlaid patchwork hanging is on display with a further 13 examples of large hangings made using the special Inlaid technique. The exhibition has had many years of planning led by the Museum of European Cultures, National Museums in Berlin. Research started over 20 years ago in the former East Germany collating where any examples of the inlaid technique existed. With the reunification in 1989 the search was able to extend further across Europe. The curator and researchers from Berlin have today discovered over 70 examples of the technique from across Europe including Sweden, Poland, Scotland Wales and of course ours in Leeds. For the exhibition each Inlaid Patchwork is displayed in large frames which not only help to preserve the hangings but also allow visitors to be able to really appreciate each piece. The images here show the installation of the Leeds hanging. First Salwa and Christina, two conservators from Berlin, carefully place the hanging in the frame. It is secured at the top with a strip of Velcro. Once this is done then our technicians help to place the glass over the hanging. The whole frame is then lifted into position into the stand which allows the frame to sit at a slight angle, making sure there is no undue strain placed on the historic textile.

You can come and see the Inlaid Patchwork exhibition at Leeds Art gallery from 27th August until 31st October 2010.

Art, Love and Bedlinen

Les Arts, (c.1816)
Copperplate printed cotton, designed by Hippolyte Le Bas,
Manufactured by Oberkampf, Jouy en Josas, France
Ginsburg Bequest, LEEAG.2007.71.305

Today I have been documenting the textiles collection at Temple Newsam House. I came to this French, printed cotton, designed by Hippolyte Le Bas and manufactured at Christophe Oberkampf’s factory at Jouy-en-Josas in about 1816. It is because of this famous factory that we get the generally used term “Toile de Jouy”, which we use to refer to textiles printed with jolly, rural scenes.

On this cotton, the disciplines of sculpture, drawing, music and architecture are represented through depictions of a series of famous stories from classical antiquity.
Music is represented through the tragic story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was blessed with the ability to charm anyone with his lute. He even charmed the keepers of the kingdom of death into granting him permission to retrieve his wife. They imposed one condition that he must not look at her until he reaches the outside world. As they approached their exit he felt her hand loosen in his grip. In that terrible, panicked moment Orpheus turned round and saw her face, thus banishing her to the underworld forever.

Drawing is represented by the myth of Dibutades, the daughter of a Corinthian potter. She was distraught that her boyfriend would be leaving the city. Desperate to find some way of keeping him, or a memory of him with her, she traced the outline of his silhouette in the flickering light. In this moment of desapir and longing, the art of drawing was invented.

Sculpture is represented by the story of the sculptor Pygmalion, who created a statue of a woman so beautiful that he fell in love with it. He prayed to the goddess Venus to grant him a wife as beautiful as the statue. Dear Venus did even better, by sending to her son Cupid to kiss its hand. As his lips met the carved ivory form the statue changed, transforming into a beautiful woman called Galatea, who became Pygmalion’s wife.

I find these ancient stories rather moving and powerful or maybe I am just a hopeless romantic. There is something rather beautiful about how the French saw Love and Art as two sides of the same coin. Philisophers and art theorists at the time the cotton was made, wrote huge essays about the mutual inspiration of love and art. They used stories from the ancient past to demonstrate this closeness. Put more simply, paintings, music and sculpture can fill one with passion and emotion. An aesthetic experience can be a little like falling in love. For Dibutades love inspired art, moving her to scrape charcoal across a wall.

The cotton would have probably been used in a bedroom, perhaps furnishing the ceiling and curtains of a canopied bed. The hope being, of course, that in this case, art would inspire love.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Elephant Bird Egg

Imagine you arrive on Madagascar with the first European settlers in 1500 and find yourself face to face with the largest bird that ever lived. The Elephant Bird was a flightless and extremely large bird, weighing in at close to a ton (400kg) and reaching heights of over 3m in adulthood. It inhabited Madagascar for over 60 million years until human colonisation of the island caused it to become extinct around the 17th century, sadly the bird was not adapted to such intense predation. Its reproductive rate would have also been reduced dramatically around this time as humans, and introduced rats and dogs, all preyed upon its eggs.

The remains of Elephant Bird skeletons and their eggs have been found across Madagascar, indicating that the bird was widespread across the island. However very few remain intact. Leeds City Museum is lucky enough to have an undamaged egg as part of its natural history collection.

Obviously such a giant bird produced a giant egg, a whole twenty-seven pounds of it to be precise. The Elephant Bird egg is technically the largest single-cell to have ever existed on Earth. It is even thought to be twice as big as the largest dinosaur egg ever found! Some eggs have a circumference of over metre with an estimated holding capacity of 7.5litres. It is 160 times larger than a chicken egg. Imagine dipping your toast soldiers in that!

Are you thinking about how you like your eggs?… too!


Posted by Clare but written and researched by Kim Jennings (biology intern, Spring 2010) who worked diligently on the wonderful herbarium and shell collections held at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre.