Several years ago I went to an exhibition at the V&A featuring the Imperial Chinese Robes worn during the Qing dynasty at the Forbidden Palace. I found the designs and the intricate social distinctions they conferred fascinating. I therefore knew that I had to make sure I saw the recent Ming exhibition at the British Museum to continue filling the gap in my knowledge. The exhibition was very well structured so that even someone who knew very little, such as myself, could follow the chronology and understand why they had focused on the particular years involved. The Ming dynasty actually lasted for several centuries but the reigns of several emperors particularly encouraged a flourishing of cultural patronage. Elaborate pots were made using a technique of metal wires and enamel, huge scrolls were delicately decorated like bamboo in the moonlight and rugs, china and silk were made to fill the palaces of the imperial family.
Without a doubt my favourite object at the exhibition was the red lacquer table as the dedicated craftsmanship which this piece of furniture required was overwhelming. Not only was the table covered entirely with the most intricate carvings of dragons, plants and other depictions which might have taken me hours to disentangle but creating the lacquered finish itself was a time consuming business. The lacquer coating had to first be made from a poisonous plant extract before being applied to the table. Each coating could take up to 24 hours to dry and a table of this quality could be coated in up to 100 layers. I can only imagine how impressive the table would have been, before our age of smoothly and easily finished plastics, to one who was aware of the extreme luxuries involved. I definitely will now appreciate the appearance of lacquered objects in fiction to a greater extent.
However, although there were a great number of luxurious objects in the exhibitions there were some that appeared particularly modern in their simplicity. For example, the minimalistic detailing on a pair of golden chopsticks would not have looked out of place in a modern home despite the fact that they were found in the tomb of a 15th century Chinese princess. They almost looked as if they had been used the day before to eat dimsum. I learnt a great deal about the range of Ming culture from the exhibition as it exploded with colour in one moment and radiated serene calm the next. This variety created a balance between the objects so there was no risk of becoming overwhelmed or bored with what you could see.
Sadly the exhibition is now over but there is still some excellent information on their website here and some of the exhibits will return to their home museums around London and so can be seen for free, including the lacquer table! This is a great motivation to explore some of the treasures which fill the permanent collections of the city’s museums as they can be visited again and again, often without the crowds of the more popular exhibitions.