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: Rare Collection of Chinese Gold Given in Memory of Charles Stinson Pillsbury


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The magnificent gift of Chinese Gold which has just come to the Institute from Mrs. Charles Stinson Pillsbury as a memorial to her husband constitutes a major landmark in the growth of the museum’s oriental collections. Comprising some two hundred and sixty-nine examples of gold assembled by C. T. Loo over a period of forty years, this group of jewelry and articles of personal adornment is unique. The choice of the Loo gold as a memorial to Charles Stinson Pillsbury was a happy inspiration. Apart from the fact that it represents the particular kind of beauty Mr. Pillsbury most enjoyed, it has the gay and light-hearted quality he himself possessed to an extraordinary degree. It reflects, moreover, the interest in Chinese art stimulated by the great Chinese collection of his cousin, Alfred F. Pillsbury. The fact that the collection which now bears his name present a rare, different, and universally appealing aspect of Chinese art would have pleased him enormously. The spirited character of the pieces as a whole, the imagination and superb craftsmanship that went into their making, and the merry humor that gives a special fillip to many pieces, makes this collection irresistible. For the Institute, and for students of Chinese art everywhere, it has the additional virtue of presenting in miniature a survey of Chinese art—an absorbing index of changing designs from late Chou to Chinning. Reinforced by the seven splendid examples of T’ang silver included in Mrs. Pillsbury’s gift, it offers an unparalleled opportunity for the study of an art of which almost nothing is certainly known.The paucity of information concerning ancient Chinese jewelry is not surprising in view of the fact that most of it has perished. The custom of burying jewelry with its owner, the universal desire for gold, and the Chinese bandit practice of looting tombs, have resulted in the almost total disappearance of pieces of this quality. Judging from known examples, it is apparent that the value of early Chinese jewelry, like that of Western Europe at the time of the Renaissance, lay in the quality of the goldsmith’s work and not in the use of precious stones. Of the so-called precious jewels, pearls alone occur in Chinese jewelry. Other stones, when used, included turquoise, coral, malachite, tourmaline, and jade. That jewelry was worn in abundance by women, and to a lesser extent by men, is fairly well established. But what was worn, and when and by whom, is a matter of conjecture. An aid to the attribution of various pieces may be found in Buddhist paintings and sculpture, occasionally in Han reliefs, and sometimes even in bronze vessels or mirrors. T’ang examples are fairly well established, although even these may merge into Sung or slip back to the Six Dynasties, but it is only in the Chinning pieces—because they are both more recent and more numerous—that one is on comparatively safe ground. Attributions of pieces in the Pillsbury Memorial Collection are in many cases purely tentative.The majority of the earlier examples appear to be T’ang, but four of them may belong to the Hue style period and a small group may very well be Han. A few others might fall into the late sixth century. A probable group of Sung objects is interesting because of the predominantly repoussé technique.The earliest pieces are four circular gold plaques or appliqués found at Tint’s. These are slightly domed and decorated with interlaced snakes surrounding a central motif like a starfish. The design, although more sinuous, is strongly reminiscent of that on a tui in the Eumorfopoulos Collection attributed to the Ch’in period or earlier. The Han pieces include a woven gold necklace with a dragon clasp of hollow gold, a pair of openwork appliqués with dragons executed in repoussé, four pairs of sheet gold earrings with long hooks, and two pairs of small ornaments, probably for a dress. Possibly of the late sixth century are several gold and silver inlaid plaques and appliqués. One of the plaques is decorated with a cicada formed of finely granulated gold wire. The crisply delineated form recalls a band of cicadas on a ting in the Pillsbury collection of Chinese bronzes, while the running leaf design of the border is similar to that found on some Buddhistic stele. The appliqués carry a design of finely granulated scrolls surrounding a central floral motif inlaid with turquoise and coral.Of the T’ang pieces, the gold crown fashioned of thin bands of sheet gold decorated with small rosettes is one of the most beautiful. The delicate superstructure is set in a narrow band engraved with scrolls. A fragile butterfly, attached to a fine wire spring, adorns the open back of the crown, and a thin, beaten plaque with a hammered floral pattern rises at the front. What appears to be a similar type of crown is worn by a pottery figure of a woman, dating from the second half of the sixth century, in the Eumorfopoulos Collection. A later, higher example of the same general style is worn by one of the figures in a Sung painting, after Wu T’sung-yüan, of The Five Rulers at the New Year’s Reception. A severer, and probably earlier, kind of headdress is a charming gold cap with a wave-like pattern decorating the front of the deeply grooved top. This is like the gold cap in the Eumorfopoulos Collection at the British Museum, but shallower. It suggests the contemporary pillbox hat.Adornments for crowns, phoenixes and floral sprays for headdresses, abound in the collection. A vigorous but elegant rendering of the phoenix, made of thin gold with surface designs outlined in thin gold wire, recalls the delicate hair ornaments worn by the ladies in the British Museum’s painting of Admonitions of the Imperial Preceptress. Once attributed to the third or fourth century, this painting is now generally considered to be of the T’ang period. The loveliest of the pins for the hair is the example, in the finest filigree imaginable, with a design of slender ogival panels filled with a graceful scroll and leaf pattern. Two similarly large hairpins are decorated with an openwork design of a phoenix and flowering sprays in a leaf shaped frame. Two small and very lively phoenixes in fine filigree, whose tails were once adorned with pearls or other jewels, were probably part of an elaborate crown like that in the Metropolitan Museum. The birds, and especially the phoenixes, of T’ang workmanship, are spirited and full of movement. The phoenixes of thin sheet gold in the present collection are splendid examples, closely related to the stylish bird on the upper panel of a T’ang tomb relief in the Metropolitan Museum. Less animated, but even more stylish in a haughty way, are the phoenixes decorating a silver and silver gilt bowl in the T’ang group given by Mrs. Pillsbury.In the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties, Chinese gold jewelry became more fancy, with a greater use of stones and thin wire members in the decoration. Floral sprays on quivering wire springs, engaging little landscapes, and wide-winging bats were favorite themes for the goldsmith. Despite the fact that the gold was still lightly worked in individual pieces, the general effect of large pieces, such as headdresses, was massive because of the towering nature of the structure. Almost to the end, however, Chinese jewelry preserved its charm. That its beauty and distinction can now also be savored through Mrs. Pillsbury’s magnificent gift in memory of her husband is a matter for great rejoicing.Referenced Works of ArtFrontispiece. Gold phoenix for a T’ang headdress. From the collection of Chinese gold presented by Mrs. Charles Stinson Pillsbury in memory of her husband, Charles Stinson Pillsbury.
  1. Gold appliqués with a design of interlaced snakes in the Huai style and a braided gold necklace, sheet gold earrings, and a pair of dragon plaques of the Han dynasty.
  2. Crown for an empress made of thin strips of gold decorated with small rosettes. T’ang dynasty.
  3. Gold and silver ornaments of the T’ang dynasty. The cicada is outlined with finely granulated wire and the disks are adorned with granulation and inlaid stones.
  4. Three gold T’ang hair ornaments with phoenix, floral, and leaf designs in openwork and fine filigree.
  5. T’ang gold pins and phoenixes. The birds at the top are of thin sheet gold. The filigree phoenixes, once inlaid with colored stones, are probably Yüan.
  6. Shallow silver and silver gilt bowl with a design of birds and floral forms showing Persian influence. T’ang.
  7. Gold bat with filigree body and wings, the latter formerly inlaid with colored stones. Ming.
  8. Gold pheasant grasping a pearl in its beak. The body and tail feathers were originally embedded with stones. Early Ming.
  9. Gold bat, one of a pair, probably once part of a headdress. The inlaid stones are tourmalines. Late Ming or early Ch’ing.
  10. Pair of gold ornaments, possibly for the hair, with a design of shrubs, flowers, and good luck symbols. Late Ming or early Ch’ing.
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Source: "Rare Collection of Chinese Gold Given in Memory of Charles Stinson Pillsbury," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 41, no. 9 (March, 1952): 42-51.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009