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A Chinese Collection In The Netherlands - art collection of Jean Theodore Royer
Magazine Antiques,  Sept, 2000  by Jan Van Campen

Jean Theodore Royer (1737--1807) of The Hague was a lawyer of moderate wealth and a wide variety of interests. He was an antiquarian, a print collector, a member of various learned societies, and a sinologist, which was a rarity in the Netherlands in his time. Although he never traveled to China, he managed to assemble a study collection of Chinese artifacts that demonstrated better than books what China looked like, what it produced, and how the Chinese lived. Royer's widow preserved the collection after his death, and after her death in 1814 it came into the Koninklijk Kabinet van Zeldzaamheden (Royal Cabinet of Curiosities; housed after 1821 in the Mauritshuis in The Hague). The Cabinet of Curiosities was a direct forerunner of the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology) in Leiden and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the two museums in which the Royer collection is now housed. Together with the archives of Royer's papers, the collection reveals in detail how the collector acquired objects and what his intentions were.

Royer's Chinese collection was housed in two rooms on the first floor of his house: a large room for porcelain and a small room where he stored the rest of his collection. According to a description of the estate written in February 1815, following his widow's death, the porcelain was lavishly displayed on tables and shelves, but the small room had no furniture. [1] Shelves and cupboards in which the objects must have been stored are also not mentioned. A meticulous inventory of the collection was drawn up in 1816 by Reinier Pieter van de Kasteele (1767-1845), the first director of the Royal Cabinet of Curiosities. [2] It identifies Chinese sculpture in many mediums, metalwork, writing implements, porcelain and other ceramics (both Chinese and Japanese), paintings, musical instruments, household implements, clothes, lacquerware, and medicines and other objects documenting the natural sciences.

Like many of his contemporaries, Royer was fascinated by China, but he noted that despite the large amount written about the country by missionaries and emissaries to the imperial court, there was little reliable, verifiable information. He started to learn Chinese so as to read the texts at first hand, and he began to acquire objects directly from China that would reveal more about the country than the subjective reports of travelers.

Because the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company) had been trading in Chinese goods since its foundation in 1602, Royer had access to a wide range of Chinese products in the Netherlands. However, for his studies he required increasingly specific information, for which he called on acquaintances who worked for the East India Company. Foremost among these were Ulrich Gualtherus Hemmingson (1741-1799) and Jean Paul Certon (1741-1793) at the Dutch factory in Canton. In 1775 Certon wrote Royer asking if he had any particular requests since Hemmingson was to sail with the next company fleet for the Netherlands. [3] In addition to increasing Royer's collection, Certon and Hemmingson introduced him to valuable new contacts, among them the French interpreter J. C. F. Galbert, who had lived in China for many years and spoke Chinese like a Chinese scholar. [4] Galbert offered to collect for Royer "everything you might find useful, amusing, or curious." [5]

When Royer asked Hemmingson to supply him with books that the Chinese used to learn their language, the latter turned to Carolus Wang, a Chinese convert to Christianity who had spent eight years in Naples studying for the priesthood and learning perfect Latin. Upon returning to China, Wang had not become a priest but tried to earn his living as an interpreter and trader in Canton. He collected the books Royer wanted, wrote a brief description of their contents in Latin, and sent them along. In an accompanying letter he offered to help Royer in his study of Chinese and in collecting Chinese artifacts. Although only three letters are known from Wang to Royer, [6] Wang's distinctive handwriting appears on various paintings in Royer's collection, with comments on them in Latin.

Almost all the books about China in this period discussed the appearance and dress of the Chinese. Occasionally the books were illustrated with engravings, but none could match the authenticity of the sixty-three unfired clay figures in Royer's collection. These are highly detailed and some are dressed in cloth costumes. They seem to represent a prime source of information about the dress of various ranks of Chinese officials during the Qing dynasty. Most depict members of the mandarin class, usually in pairs of man and woman, in their official dress (as illustrated in Pls. II, III) or in the clothes they wore at home.

Strict rules applied to the costume of bureaucrats and courtiers while at court. They wore a blue or black coat (pufu) that left the bottom of their long, richly embroidered gown (jifu or chao fu) exposed (see Pl. VII). Rules also applied to the shape of the winter hat, shown on the figure in Plate II, as well as to the summer hat of woven bamboo. No clear guidelines appear to have governed women's clothes, since Chinese women were not eligible to function as officials. In practice, especially when accompanying their husbands in public, women wore clothes that matched their husbands'. The figure shown in Plate III is revealed by her wide hairstyle to be a Manchu. They had ruled China since 1644 but were always a small minority among the ethnic Chinese. Only the Han Chinese bound women's feet, so this woman's are normal size.

Royer's large collection of watercolors in albums include paintings that focus on costume, as do a number of enameled plaques (see Pls. I, IV). To modern eyes the latter present idealized images, hardly a reliable reflection of Chinese society However, taken together all these objects provide an interesting view of the appearance and dress of the Chinese. The most reliable information is provided by the complete set of male and female costumes Royer had in his collection. They include underclothes, socks, jewelry and accessories. The dark blue coat in Plate VII is made of extremely thin material for summer wear. Because the same gowns were worn summer and winter, a Chinese official's wardrobe would also have included thick, lined versions of this coat. The bird embroidered in the square field on the coat (known as a mandarin square) appears to be a paradise flycatcher, indicating a bureaucrat of the ninth rank. In place of the mandarin square, the robe worn by the seated man in Plate II bears a circular embl em with floral scrolls, which had no significance as to rank.

An official's winter hat usually had a raised brim of fur with a red fringe around the crown that was, in turn, decorated with a button made of a colorful stone. Here again, the type of stone indicated the official's rank. A hat in the Royer collection (Pl. VI) is simpler, surrounded by a wool band and missing its button. Bamboo summer hats had a tassel made of red silk thread or horsehair dyed red.

Of particular interest among Royer's accessories is a complete belt. Since Chinese garments had no pockets, everything they carried was kept in small bags suspended from the belt. Royer's belt (Pl. V) has all the necessities: a pipe and its pouch, tobacco pouch, fan, knife and chopsticks in a case, and various embroidered bags without a known function.

The idea of the erudite Chinese mandarin appealed to many Europeans. The Chinese system of state exams, which all bureaucrats were required to pass, suggested a state in which power was exercised exclusively by qualified people and in which heredity and nepotism did not exist. The accuracy of this image is not at issue here. However, the fact remains that years of study of Chinese literature and a vast knowledge of Chinese arts and culture were required by those who took the state examinations. These scholars engaged in elegant pursuits such as calligraphy, painting, composing and reciting poetry, playing musical instruments, and collecting rarities. This combination of civil servant, scholar, and connoisseur would have appealed to Royer, whose way of life it paralleled in many ways.

The two enameled copper plaques shown in Plates I and IV are good examples of the way in which Royer attempted to document the life and attributes of the Chinese scholar. Both show a small group of people in an interior with views of a terrace and landscape in the distance. The Chinese painter has applied European rules of perspective, emphasizing depth by cutting out part of the copperplate in the background and backing the cutout with a watercolor landscape painted on paper and pasted onto the copperplate.

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