The spectators stand three or four deep at each glass cabinet, jostling to take photographs. “It’s as if David Beckham was behind the glass!” chuckles Jessica Harrison-Hall, the British Museum’s visiting curator, as we watch people surge into the Passion for Porcelain exhibition in Beijing. On display: 150 masterpieces of “china” from two of the world’s oldest collections, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert, inside the world’s largest museum, the National Museum of China.
This being China, it’s all about superlatives. Everything is of staggering size, ambition and significance. Six curators have worked on the show, the first ever collaboration between the three museums; there are two curators from each.
“China to China: like taking coals to Newcastle?” I ask Luisa Mengoni, the V&A’s curator. “Not at all. The theme is China’s export ceramics, the story of trade and cultural links between Europe and China.”
Her Beijing counterpart, Geng Dongsheng, is rushing around with a camera. “These ceramics are not known here,” he exclaims. “Until now the public could only see them outside China.”
Both British museums have been nurturing links with China for more than 10 years. This is a showcase exhibition for the NMC, which this month celebrates its centenary. After major rebuilding, it reopened last year as the state museum of art and history, with three times the previous exhibition space: 48 galleries over five floors, welcoming international exhibitions, displaying a selective version of China’s own past, dressed up in a new gown of austere marble and granite, cherry wood and glass lifts. It’s magnificent, monumental and perfectly sited at the centre of power.
You could land an aircraft on the 10-lane avenue outside the museum. The Great Hall of The People is down the road, the Forbidden City on one side, Tiananmen Square opposite. I’m told the museum can hold 50,000 people on any day. In its cathedral-sized entrance hall we watch the Olympic-style opening ceremony of Passion for Porcelain: VIPs, red carpets and speeches. The exhibition comes under the umbrella of the UK Now festival, described by its organisers, the British Council, as “the biggest celebration ever in China of British arts and creative industries”.
The exhibition itself is a refuge of craftsmanship and sane research; a haven of celadon-coloured walls and classic wood and glass cabinets. It occupies a large but soothingly human-scale space, and covers four centuries of Europe’s love affair with “china”, which began with the early Ming trade in the 16th century, after the arrival of the Portuguese in China. The smooth, white, hard-paste, high-fired porcelain invented in China became highly sought-after in the grand houses of Europe, then in homes right across the world.
Every candlestick, jar, bowl, tankard, figurine, bottle, teapot, vase and dish here tells a story. The BM’s Harrison-Hall points out an exquisite blue and white bowl from about 1600, the only known piece of Chinese porcelain with European motifs (an armorial design of a seven-headed hydra) and a Latin inscription, from the collection of Portugal’s King Manuel I. Copies of this design appeared later in Holland and Iran: “So it must have left China, passed through the Middle East, been knocked up in local clay and distributed to different markets. That’s a typical trajectory of early Ming pieces and their imitations.”
A Meissen teapot from 1722 is another highlight, with chinoiserie designs showing the European fashion for exotic Asian scenes. Tea-drinking and porcelain are, of course, intimately linked. As tea from India became cheaper in the 18th century, teapots were produced. Meissen was the first European factory to discover “china’s” secret combination of firing and raw materials and began its own commercial porcelain production. In Britain, Wedgwood and Worcester followed. A gorgeous Worcester example on display is of a 1770 dish showing a phoenix and a mythical qilin in warm orange, blue and green on a white background.
A punchbowl from the 18th century also tells a great story. Manufactured during the Qing dynasty in the Jingdezhen factory in Jiangxi province – still China’s most famous ceramics centre – it sports a copy of a satirical engraving by William Hogarth. Entitled “O The Roast Beef of Old England”, it vilifies the French and the Scots and extols the English (with their roast beef) at the Gate of Calais. But the scene was painted in the Guangzhou workshops, not in England. Items like these were “special orders”, made and decorated in China with Europe’s preferred bucolic, satirical, biblical or political themes.
Chinese porcelain is today fetching unprecedented prices on the world’s art markets. The final section of the show recalls the early days of collecting: for instance, a pair of cobalt-blue Qing dynasty candlesticks made in Jingdezhen for a temple in Beijing was acquired by Stephen Bushell, an art-mad British doctor living in Beijing in the 19th century. They are now in the V&A. Two centuries later, they have come “home”.
“Cultural exchange between Britain and China has turned a new page,” the NMC’s deputy director, Dong Qi, tells me. “2012 is our centenary; it’s also a great year for Britain and we wanted to show the Chinese people something great about Britain.”
Passion for Porcelain is also about flexing British-Chinese cultural-diplomatic muscle and the message from the Chinese government couldn’t be clearer. In 2009 it launched a Cultural Industry Promotion Plan with substantial investment in the arts and creative industries and committed to at least 15 per cent growth annually. And Britain is listening to the message. The V&A and the BM are already sharing and exchanging collections and research with China. Both have Chinese-language websites. V&A director Martin Roth agrees: “if this is a political event, then it’s a cultural political event, and I’m proud of that. It’s more than an opening ... it’s a symbolic gesture that also says a lot about how we understand our national museums in the UK.”
The BM’s director Neil MacGregor dismisses my view of this show as “soft power” but waxes lyrical about creating a powerful international museum community: “The whole world now wants to shape a global citizenship and global collections like ours are a critical part of that.”