Letter: Silk scroll's journey

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The Independent Culture
Sir: You refer ("Museum is charging hidden fees", 11 March) to a 14th-century Chinese scroll painting on silk at the British Museum.

Since this painting was acquired through the generosity of the National Art-Collections Fund, after the Heritage Lottery Fund turned down an application, your readers may be interested to learn why this work is of outstanding national interest.

As the one who first recognised, dated, identified and published the painting (with a full-size facsimile reproduction), and who urged its acquisition by the British Museum, I am most grateful to the National Art-Collections Fund.

It is a little more than 20 years since the scroll was brought to me for opinion by its owner, the late Philip Robinson. Not only did its style, title, calligraphy and other inscriptions tally perfectly with the signature and date, 1321, of an otherwise unknown master, the mounting bore the signature of its first English owner, W Butler, and the date, 1797. Two centuries ago, this was almost certainly the very first Chinese painting of note and distinction to come to this country.

There is no clue as to how the scroll came to this country, but a section of the published reproduction is exhibited in the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, Beijing, with the suggestion that it could have been given to Lord Macartney, whose embassy to the Chinese Emperor journeyed to Peking in 1792 to 1793.

The subject is well matched to the vicissitudes of its history: a single toad, a lizard and all kinds of insects prey on each other amid plants and flowers of stunning beauty, in veiled reference to the political disorder of the time.

Paintings of this calibre are rare even in China, and of this particular style almost non-existent.


Percival David Professor of Chinese Art

School of Oriental and African Studies

University of London