Culture Visual Arts: Rewarding Aspects on 2,000 Years of Chinese Art; Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery Is Seeing in the Chinese New Year with the First Glimpse of an Outstanding Bequest, Writes Terry Grimley

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Byline: Terry Grimley

Birmingham's art collections have been shaped over by the years by several outstanding gifts, such as J Leslie Wright's collection of English watercolours in 1953 and the Pinto collection of wooden bygones 12 years later.

Two years ago it received another with the bequest of the Franklin collection of Chinese art, consisting of almost 700 items spanning 2,000 years.

Now 70 ceramic pieces from the collection have gone on display in the bridge gallery, which apparently is to become permanently dedicated to Chinese art, under the title Aspects of China. If, like mine, your knowledge of Chinese ceramics is sketchy, it promises to be a rewarding educational opportunity.

Andrew Franklin (1914-2002), who worked in the Foreign Service from 1937 to 1974, spent his early career in China and became a connoisseur of Chinese art. His wife was born in China and spoke Sichuan and Mandarin.

It is said that during his first job interview in 1937 he was given ten minutes to choose between postings in Tokyo, Montevideo, Istanbul, Bangkok and Beijing, and chose Beijing because he had just bought the first piece in his collection - a small Chinese powder blue pot - and wanted to learn more about the civilisation which had produced it.

Eventually he amassed what Asian Antique News described as "one of the most extensive and thoughtfully put together collections of Chinese art and design", incorporating paintings, prints and scrolls as well as ceramics. He bought in the UK, throughout Europe and in America.

In May 2006, 227 items from it came up for sale at Christie's with an estimated value of pounds 300,000, and the remainder, mainly ceramics but also including scroll paintings and antiquarian books, were gifted to Birmingham. Mr Franklin, whose daughter Anne was a student at Birmingham University and settled in the city, was a regular visitor to the museum and an admirer of its Far Eastern collections, but saw how his gift would fill a gap.

"Before we received the bequest we had about 25 scroll paintings and a small but highquality collection of ceramics, supported by lacquer, embroidery, ivory and snuff boxes," says Fiona Slattery, curator (applied art), who has curated the exhibition.

"This is a very significant collection which enables us to present a coherent account of Chinese cultural achievement."

At first it might seem a bit difficult for the non-specialist to know where to start with this initial, attractively presented selection from the collection. You could try hunting out the earliest piece, a dancing figure which is the only representative of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), the earliest of the seven dynasties represented in the collection, and stands apart stylistically from the rest of the display.

But approaching from the main entrance you are greeted straight away by what for me is the star exhibit. This is a large (about two-feet high) vase with four sturdy handles and a stunning "sang de bouef" red glaze, a colour made familiar in the early 20th century through its revival by the Ruskin Pottery. …