A £15m bequest from the collector who brought contemporary Chinese art home to Britain

Michael Sullivan left one of the world’s greatest archives of Oriental art to an Oxford museum

Through a quirk of fate, Michael Sullivan found himself transporting medical supplies for the International Red Cross in China in 1940. The experience would change his life. He returned to Britain married, with a passion for the country’s art that would see him devote his life to the subject and become a world authority on it.

Yesterday, it emerged that the academic bequeathed his private collection of 450 works to the Ashmolean Museum, creating “one of the greatest collections of modern and contemporary Chinese art in the world”. The Oxford museum, the oldest still operating in Britain, is currently having the collection valued, although early estimates put it at upwards of £15m.

The museum’s director, Christopher Brown, said the “extraordinary gift” made the museum “the key institution in this country for the display of modern Chinese art”. He also hopes that the bequest will help make it a “study centre for research” of the subject.

Professor Sullivan, who died in September at the age of 96, began collecting the works in the 1940s with support from his wife, Khoan. He owned pictures by some of Chinese modern art’s most important names, including Qi Baishi, Zhang Daqian and Fu Baoshi. His more recent acquisitions included Landscript by Xu Bing.

Professor Sullivan was instrumental in bringing these and other Chinese artists to the West. In 1959, he published Chinese Art in the Twentieth Century, the first book on the subject in any language. Shelagh Vainker, the curator of Chinese art at the Ashmolean, said yesterday: “As a scholar he was also groundbreaking. He was tremendously revered in China, and was a long-standing friend to the country.”

Last year, the National Art Museum of China in Beijing held an exhibition about Professor Sullivan and his collection of paintings, prompting the founding of a research centre into Chinese art in the capital.  One artist, Qui Lei, Lei said the academic was a “real scholar”. “He has dedicated both his heart and intelligence to the study of Chinese art and has introduced Chinese art to both the West and the rest of the world,” he added.

Professor Sullivan was born in Toronto in 1916 and came to Britain with his family at the age of three. After leaving Cambridge University as a conscientious objector in the 1930s, he joined a group set up to provide medical supplies for the republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

The collapse of the republican forces meant that he joined the International Red Cross instead, and went to drive trucks carrying medical supplies in China, which had been invaded by Japan several years earlier. Professor Brown said: “It was obviously the great transformative experience in his life. He fell in love with China.”

He met Khoan, a bacteriologist, and they married in 1943. “It was love at first sight. Together they had many Chinese friends. She was very outgoing, and he always said she opened doors for him,” Dr Vainker said.

He built his collection through close friends in the Chinese art world. “He maintained friendships with artists despite not being able to go back to China in the 50s and 60s,” Dr Vainker added.

Michael Sullivan has acquired an astonishing collection of modern Chinese art Michael Sullivan has acquired an astonishing collection of modern Chinese art

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence