Fantastic art find is Chinese puzzle

04 Nov 2010

An album of 20 beautiful eighteenth century Chinese prints, found by a University of Manchester historian, has been hailed as the UK’s finest example of Qing dynasty art.

The qing dynasty album
The qing dynasty album

However, the collection of poster-sized prints, discovered at the University’s John Rylands Library, contains a mysterious unfinished colour painting .

The 250-year-old views of summer palaces were found by Dr Yangwen Zheng while researching material for a book to be published next year.

No other complete set of these prints known as ‘Twenty views of the European palaces in the Garden of Perfect Brightness’ are thought to exist in the UK.

Estimating their value is difficult, says Dr Zheng, though a figure of up to half a million pounds is possible, she adds.

“The figure is a far cry from the cost of these lovely works when they were sold for £5 in the 1870s - probably to Lord Crawford, “said Dr Zheng.

“Enriqueta Rylands purchased them for the Library in 1901 – ever since they have been  part of the renowned Crawford Collection of over 6000 manuscripts and books from around the world.

“But their significance has not been recognised until now.”

According to Dr Zheng, a Qing dynasty specialist, they provide a unique depiction of European palaces designed and built in the mid eighteenth century by French Jesuits missionaries for the Qianlong Emperor. One of the prints even shows a Western style street.

The European palaces and an entire 350 square kilometre garden were looted and burned by British, French, American and Russian forces which marched into Beijing at the end the Second Opium War in 1860.

There is now little trace of Chinese architecture’s European influences.

Dr Zheng is Research Director at The University’s Centres for Chinese studies. She said: “This is a sensational find – and raises our understanding of the importance of the John Rylands Chinese collections immensely.

“The images are very important as they help to dispel the myth that China was closed to the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

“In fact, partly because of the French Jesuit missionaries influence as architects and painters, the Chinese knew more about Europe than the Europeans knew about China.”

Elizabeth Gow, John Rylands Library Manuscript Curator and Assistant Archivist said: “As we are not aware of any other complete set of prints in the UK, British scholars will now have a place to freely study these important works.

“At this stage we don’t know very much about the origins of the intriguing colour painting but it’s certainly unusual.

“French jottings on the edges translated as “it has just begun to be coloured" and "example for colouring” give us some clues- but it’s still a mystery.”

The prints will be used to illustrate Dr Zheng’s book about foreign trade called ‘China on the Sea’ published next year by Brill.

Notes for editors

Images of the prints are available, however external photography is not permitted.

Dr Zhen is available for interview

For media enquiries contact:
Mike Addelman
Media Relations
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567