Travels Through Mystery and Certainty

Chinese Bronzes at Compton Verney

When I stop to consider how or why we travel, I feel a need to define the origin of the impulse. What draws one towards the material shifting of place, or the drifting of the mind? What impetus drives the physical progress, or the sensory release? In particular, what unites each in their sense of purpose? That is, if purpose exists at all.

I believe, even in the fleeting moment of the subconscious desire, the incentive of purpose is present. We can interpret a single thought; or marshal a collection of thoughts, into a desire to wander. But in doing so, we need some sort of mental plan. We need to ascribe points of reference to our journey, to plan or steer our way. Not least we need a coalescence of places and names; a guide, a gazetteer, a map – some sort of spirit of place, a goal.

And when we travel, physically or spiritually, we do so with compass or map, we explore with guidebooks in hand, we orient ourselves, consciously or subconsciously, via these points of reference. But occasionally we drift, purposefully eschewing the signposts, the prescribed wisdom, the accepted way. We languish in a state of ignorance, alive to the intangible, the speculative, captivated by the suggestion of an unreachable truth.

Art Galleries posses their own landscapes, their own routes of passage; they require a physical and emotional investment on our behalf; a journey of both mind and body. And here, above all, those keys to senses of place and time and meaning, come to us through the eye. And when I pass through the Chinese Bronzes Gallery at Compton Verney it is the ubiquitous eye, the inscrutable ancient stare, which meets my own and holds me transfixed.

When I stand before these ancient vessels I relish the not knowing; I lose myself in the endless possibilities of meaning and function, of relevance and place. I prefer to speculate on their histories and timelines. I look into their eyes and let them tell me their stories. Perversely I shun the facts, and yet crave interpretation. Mystery and certainty fight a slow fight of attrition. I don’t want either to win.

CVCSC 0365.1-2.A (4C) Wine vessel and cover, fangjia

Late Shang Dynasty (about 1550-1050 BC): Wine vessel and cover, fangjia. Bronze. © Compton Verney, photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

So when I look at the glorious Compton Verney fangjia (see picture) I want to know more of its journey down the ages, from Anyang to Beijing; and on – to Berlin, to New York, and finally to Compton Verney. I want it to tell me of its history, to place itself in a time and culture of my understanding. And yet I guard my ignorance just as rigorously; I want to shun modern interpretations; I want to live in the imbalance of possibility and wonder. Fundamentally, I prefer not to know.

That said, when we study the map of the fangjia’s journey, we understand little of what remains. The greater part of the route is long obscured by the drifting sands of time, and the failed memories of countless generations. We know only of its discovery in Anyang, and subsequent purchase in Beijing by Otto Burchard in 1944. From there it finds its way to a private collection in New York and thence to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.

But what of the fangjia’s milestones along the way? What of its construction, its arrivals and departures; not least what of its owners, its aesthetic worth; in essence, its journey?

Let’s start at the end; let’s start with Otto Burchard. Burchard has been described as “a true mentor” who “made a significant contribution to the understanding of Chinese art.” In particular he “had the qualitative judgement which enabled him to recognise a superb piece at once.”

Otto Burchard (1892–1965) developed an interest in eastern Asia, and specifically its literature and art, at an early age. His father collected Japanese art, and at his school in Heidelberg he signed-up to visit Shanghai in order to cultivate his knowledge of the art world. By 1913–1914 he was selling an extensive collection of Chinese artefacts to the Museum of Folk Art in Leipzig; in total around 137 pieces acquired through acquaintances in China, or bought by him on personal visits.

In 1920 Burchard opened a gallery for old and modern art. Significantly, in his first year, his gallery hosted the first international Dada exhibition, displaying 174 works by, amongst others, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Ernst and Francis Picabia. In retrospect this turned out to be the peak of the Berlin Dada movement. Burchard’s personal investment ensured his place as “financier” in the annals of Dadaism.

In the early 1920s he began to make regular trips to China (travelling through Russia and Siberia). He took an interpreter with him on his visits to antique shops as he only had a limited command of the language. When his interpreter was sick, he took Charlotte, the 17 year old daughter of Werner Lu (the hotel manager), who had a good eye for art. She subsequently became his protégée.

In 1925 he was given a room in the Berlin State Museum to display his collection, and in May 1927 opened his art salon in Berlin, from where he dealt in East Asian art. His second and third exhibitions followed in 1928, where Burchard displayed “items that he has acquired in China, which Europe has not yet seen the likes of.”

The late 1920s and 1930s were the golden years for dealing in Chinese art, and perhaps the greatest time for excavations. Grave finds very quickly found their way to the big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.  At this time the most important Chinese dealer in Beijing was Huang Jun. Significantly for Burchard he spoke both English and German well.

The Compton Verney fangjia was reputedly found in Anyang shortly before 1944, and subsequently purchased by Burchard in Beijing. It dates from the late Shang dynasty (13th to 11th century BC), and is one of the rarest ritual vessels of the Bronze Age. A fangjia (literally “square vessel”) was made (we think) for use in ancestral worship or sacrificial ceremonies, and was intended to hold black millet wine that was poured directly into the ground. The Compton Verney example is particularly finely cast, and decorated with symbolic images of owls’ heads, along with other images of snakes, dragons and sun whorls. No other fangjia with this magnificent owl design appears to have been recorded. Its relatively modest size suggests a piece made for a high status individual; it appears not to be a royal or imperial piece, as these are mostly of a grander scale.

Today it sits at the centre of the Compton Verney Chinese Gallery, and silently watches as we file through, from exhibition room to exhibition room. And as we do, relatively few of us stop to look, to consider, not least to dream.

In 2015 the newly re-displayed Chinese gallery will be opened. This will enable a more inclusive view of the collection through greatly improved lighting and more accessible display. Greater care will be given to displaying the objects in context, by arranging them thematically rather than chronologically, and by providing improved interpretation. In particular the most significant objects (both historically and aesthetically) will be featured prominently, allowing those of us with limited time in the gallery to find something special and memorable. One more step on the journey will be accomplished.

But when we consider the fangjia’s long journey we lack the map that guided it; we lack any understanding of all but its final steps upon the road. Above all we lack any legend or key; those elusive pointers to the enriching truths of symbolism and meaning.

Maybe what we also miss is the fundamental truth that none of us wants to contemplate. That it is we who make the journey, we who pass through their time. These vessels witnessed our coming, and will witness our departure. We flit through their permanence like Bede’s sparrow through the banqueting hall of time into “the wintry world from which he came.”

Ultimately, all we do possess is an unwritten history, set out tantalisingly upon the blankest of pages. For the thread of memory is frayed and fragmented; the fibres decayed in the ceaseless passing of time. And whilst the stilled voice of history remains ever silent, the truth is, we may never know.

My own truth is….I never really want to.


I am grateful to Morgan Jones of Compton Verney for the benefit of his unending knowledge and enthusiasm, and for taking the time to introduce me to this outstanding collection.

And also to my daughter Phoebe, for translating the article on Otto Burchard.


Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ostasiatische Kunst, by Patrizia Jirka-Schnitz. Mitteilungen, Nr.12, Juni 1995. Pages 23–35.