Anthony Lovett’s interest in Chinese ceramics began around 30 years ago with the purchase of pieces of Qing mandarin porcelain as decoration for his first London apartment.
A chartered accountant by trade (and later the joint owner of a successful Cheshire-based tour operator), his budget was relatively limited and “although dealers’ shop windows always looked interesting, they could also be forbidding for someone just beginning to collect”.
He credits one dealership in particular with encouraging him to test the deeper waters of academic Chinese porcelain. His first tutors were Anthony Gray and Louise Guest of Guest and Grey (Grays Antique Market).
“Both were kind with their time and knowledge. Let dealers be your eyes and ears”, he counsels new collectors.
The ‘on budget’ pieces that really caught his eye were twofold.
Joining a long and rich European collecting tradition, Lovett’s passion became the so-called Transitional porcelains made in the tumultuous late Ming and early Qing era (1620-83) when court patronage of the porcelain capital of Jingdezhen all but dried up.
Instead, ceramics were made for merchants, scholars and for export with production – styles, shapes, glazes and subject matter – far more diverse than during ‘imperial’ times. Blue and white narrative decoration, often painted with episodes from China’s literary epics, remains Lovett’s favourite (he’s even read Romance of the Three Kingdoms).
Also appealing were pieces from the later years of the Kangxi (1661-1722) period made with vivid green enamels and other overglaze colours including yellow, red, blue and black.
Known in China as wucai or ‘five colours’ wares, they were christened famille verte by the French art historian Albert Jacquemart in the 1860s. The zenith of production was during a four-decade period between 1685-1725.
In the 1990s both Transitional wares and famille verte were priced quite differently than today. Something with a little damage was perhaps £300-400. Something a little better was £1000-1500.
“I was fortunate that when I started collecting Kangxi porcelain, much more was available in the market and prices could be judged to be more reasonable.
“It was their simple beauty that always attracted me. It is the free style of painting, the various shades of sapphire blue and the application of those vibrant enamels many would consider to be at their best during this period."
Lovett today continues to gain knowledge on his subject – and he’s not stopping any time soon. He made three purchases in Hong Kong when elements of the collection formed by Sir Michael Butler (1927-2013) came to market in November 2022.
Time for a change
“It’s not an obsession, it’s an illness," he quips.
Nonetheless, in the process of moving house, he is entering his own transitional period. Last year he took the decision to sell a percentage of his collection through Lee Young of Dore & Rees in Frome, whom he has known for over 20 years.
He has chosen carefully and painstakingly to select 47 pieces of Kangxi blue and white and famille verte.
It has been difficult deciding to part with pieces he says have become ‘companions’. Some are even those he calls his ‘TV pieces’ – objects of such perfect size and tactile properties that they can be held and appreciated while watching television from the sofa. “Do as much handling as you can”, is advice he preaches and practises.
Some degree of rationalisation will allow for growth in the specific field he has come to enjoy most.
“For a number of years, my collecting has become focused on Transitional and early Kangxi wares and it’s the possibility of finding and acquiring other pieces from this period that will become the basis of my future enjoyment and knowledge.”
His decision to release some of his pieces has been welcomed by a market quite different to the one he joined three decades ago. He estimates he enjoyed 15 years of collecting before Chinese collectors became active in 2008.
It’s fair to say the big players are now taking this category of wares seriously. A dozen pieces were taken to the International Antiques Fair in Hong Kong in May where they were studied, discussed and admired as much as some of the imperial porcelains on offer.
They will be on view in London as part of Asian Art in London at Asia House on October 29-31 before sale day in Somerset on November 6.
Estimates will cover a wide range from £400-30,000.