I’m a relentless accumulator of objects – in other words an impassioned collector, quite unable to restrain myself from acquiring new items – to the damage of my bank account, and even if I no longer have room to show them off to advantage. These objects tend to be old, often very ancient indeed, rather than being contemporary. This, despite the fact that I write very frequently about the excitements and vagaries of contemporary art.
This preference is rooted, not in one place, but in several. For example, the brutal truth is that nowadays it is usually much cheaper to buy an extremely ancient item than it is to buy one of equivalent quality from our own day. Add to this the fact that many of these ancient objects often seem both more radical and more imaginative than the supposedly avant-garde products of our own time. Add to this, again, the resonances that these items have, simply because of their age, and what they seem to tell one about how both social and aesthetic attitudes have and haven’t changed in the course of many centuries.
My approach, however, is even more atavistic than this. I was born and grew up in Jamaica. Whatever, its other attractions – the surrounding sea, the broad beaches, the sumptuous wildness of tropical nature in many parts of the island’s mountainous interior – it is not a place that has much to offer to a lover of museums. The Spaniards, the first European possessors of the place, more or less wiped out the indigenous inhabitants – Native American Tainos, who had migrated there from the mainland of South and Central America. Reporting to his royal patrons in Spain about indigenous people from the same stock encountered in the Bahamas, Columbus said:
These people have little knowledge of fighting, as Your Majesties will see from the seven I have captured to take away with us so as to teach them our language and return them, unless your Majesties’ orders are that they all be taken to Spain or held captive on the island itself, for with fifty men one could keep the whole population in subjection and make them do whatever one wanted.
The Taino of Jamaica had no resistance to the new diseases the conquerors brought with them. They took sick, they died, and they vanished from re- corded history.
The truth is that before its capture in 1655 from its Spanish garrison by a British expedition commanded by Robert Venables and William Penn, Ja- maica’s past is more or less a blank. The British conquest was a consolation prize for a failed attack in Hispaniola. The Commonwealth government was so displeased by the result that both commanders were imprisoned on their return. Most of the troops they left behind them sickened and died, as the Taino had done before them. It was only after some decades, and the import of numerous enslaved Africans via the Middle Passage, that sugar- producing Jamaica became a hugely valuable possession.
If there were no museums worthy of the name in Kingston there was at least a good library at the Institute of Jamaica. From an early age I was an avid reader, often of books one wouldn’t have expected to attract some one still in his early teens. It was there that I discovered and devoured Howard Carter’s three-volume account of his discovery and excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamen, which fired my enthusiasm for this long ago ancient civi- lization. At night I used to lie in bed, imagining I had been allowed to visit the courtyard of a marvellous eighteenth-Dynasty palace, complete with sphinxes and a pool.
When I came to live in London, immediately following the war, there was another piece of happenstance. At the far end of Sydney Street in Chelsea where my mother bought a house, there was a little, ramshackle shop, now long demolished. These were the premises occupied by K. J. Hewett. A paragraph on the website of the British Museum describes him as having ‘had a major influence on collectors of antiquities and ethnographic arte- facts from the 1950s to the 1980s’. I was soon running in and out, running errands, being allowed to handle items from his stock. From time to time I made a small purchase out of my pocket money. I remember a Roman bronze of a cormorant, which cost, I think, fifteen pounds – quite a large sum for me at the time.
The shop was a gathering place for a group, mostly much senior to myself, whom I now think of as the devotees of André Malraux’s newly invented musée imaginaire. Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury visited. So did the sculp- tor Jacob Epstein. Much closer to me in age was George Ortiz, the grand- son of the Bolivian tin king, Simón Iturri Patiño. George, short of stature and wonderfully impassioned by nature, was known to amused friends as ‘Mighty Mouse’. He hated hotels, and for a period, when I moved into the upper maisonette of the house still occupied by my mother, he took over my miniscule spare bedroom for his frequent visits to London. He was then busy building up the finest private collection of Greek, Roman and Ancient Egyptian objects to be formed in my lifetime. Some items roosted for a while amid the sheets and bathroom towels in my linen cupboard.
The idea of a musée imaginaire, of course, was largely the result of the new possibilities been offered by the art book publishing industry, as it revived after the war. Big illustrated books, with lots of colour, became easier and easier to produce. The expanded consciousness of the huge variety of dif- ferent cultures that had existed or still existed in the world was the product of this, while art books, in turn, spread the word about kinds of art, and es- pecially the ancient and ethnographic varieties of art, which until then had remained comparatively inaccessible. So too did increasing ease of travel.
These developments, however, were not free of a subtle taint of coloni- alism. The assumption was that the truly refined western aesthete would always be capable of discerning what was and wasn’t a masterpiece, even if he (or she) knew next to nothing about the culture that had produced it.
Essentially this was not only the beginning of my voyage as a collector, but the start of the circuitous route that has brought me to where I now am, which has involved some drastic changes of attitude. Objects have come and gone, according to the state of my finances at the time. Some I bitterly regret having being forced to part with, but not many, there is always the pleasure of beginning again. Beginning afresh, I no longer believe one can get much from works of art while maintaining a willed ignorance of their cultural, social and historical context.
The object I have chosen to discuss here is something I wouldn’t have looked at with much interest in the old days. Now, for the moment at least, it fascinates me, for reasons that are no longer purely aesthetic. It is a life- size terracotta head of a Sogdian merchant or mercenary soldier, a forceful, almost caricatured, portrait of a recognizable individual if ever there was one. If you met him in the flesh, and you’d previously seen this head, you’d know him at once.
When I use the word ‘Sogdian’ I immediately seem to hear a murmur of ‘what?’ or ‘who?’ Sogdians are one of those lost peoples, who, like the Taino, have almost disappeared from the historical record. They were East- ern Iranians, who came from the Central Asian region around Bukhara and Samarkand. Originally Zoroastrians, many later became Buddhists, and eventually made the transition to Islam. At the time that concerns me now, that of the Tang, the greatest of all Chinese dynasties, they were the facilita- tors who ran the Silk Route, which joined East to West, overland.
There are many images of Sogdians to be found among the terracotta and (later on) glazed ceramic figures with which the Chinese elite of the Han and Tang dynasties filled their tombs. Called mingqi –‘spirit utensils’ – these aimed to provide the deceased with all the comforts and entertain- ments they had enjoyed while alive. In addition to human figures there are many representations of animals, both familiar and mythical. The mythical ones served as guardians to protect the tomb.
There are also miniature ceramic version of tools and domestic items, such as ovens. In some cases the tomb would be provided with an entire farm, complete with all the appropriate structures – a house for the farmer, plus granaries, watchtowers, even a well.
The tomb figures of this period are never life-size. The very largest, such as some examples in the collection of the British Museum, are about a metre high. The makers of these ceramic sculptors seem to have taken a particular delight in making images of non-Chinese ethnic types, which tend to be much more vividly characterized than their native Chinese counterparts.
The Sogdians portrayed in these statuettes fall into several fairly tightly re- stricted categories. There are entertainers – musicians and dancers. Some- times one finds a whole band, equipped with a conductor, waving his arms, often covered in long flowing sleeves, to keep time for the other members of his orchestra. There are merchants and their employees – camel drivers and grooms. There are soldiers, often mounted. I had never, until I came across the sculpture illustrated here, encountered a life-sized portrait of a Sogdian, unmistakably from this ethnic group both because of his distinc- tively non-Chinese facial features, and also because of the turban-like hat or cap that he wears. This distinctive headdress is can be found on all the small figures of musicians, merchants, grooms and soldiers that I have just cited.
Life-sized heads do occasionally occur amongst Chinese Han and Tang terracottas, but these are invariably bland heads of the Buddha, related to images that one also finds as carvings in stone. Where representations of individual human beings are concerned the Chinese, almost through- out what we now think of as ‘dynastic’ times, never seem to have been much interested in creating specific individualized human likenesses in three dimensions. The major exceptions to this are the life-size figures of the celebrated ‘Terracotta Army’, made for the vast mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the so-called First Emperor of China, who reigned in the third- century BC, We know the figures were made on an assembly line principle, heads, arms, legs and torsos being molded separately, then put together, and we also know that only about eight standard face moulds were used. It was clever tweaking or these archetypes that allowed the assembly line crafts- men to create images that often seem incredibly individual. However this happened nearly a millennium before my head of a Sogdian was probably made. Nobody who followed the First Emperor was able to afford quite such a lavish tomb complex, though later on the burial places of the great were often magnificent enough.
The point about my head of a Sogdian, however, is not simply its individu- ality – the fact that it brings vividly to life a person from a culture one can now scarcely imagine. It’s also that, like the book I read in my early teens about Tutankhamen’s tomb, it summons up a lost world and a dramatic story. It excites the imagination, not just the aesthetic sense. If it is in fact Tang, rather than Han (which it also might be) it offers a tenuous link to one of the greatest upheavals China ever experienced.
In the mid-eighth century CE China was at the height of its early prosperity, while Europe, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, was just emerging from what we now call the Dark Ages. It was not till 800 that Charlemagne became the first sovereign since the Roman collapse to rule over all of what had once been the Western territories of the Empire. He was crowned in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome on Christmas Day of that year.
The Tang government held a census in 754. It showed that the Tang realm contained 1,859 cities, 321 prefectures and 1,538 counties. There are wild- ly varying estimates of the total Chinese population at that time, ranging from around one hundred million to two hundred and forty million or more. The population of Western Europe had meanwhile been sinking for some centuries. An estimate made in 2010, by Paolo Malanima, a researcher at the Institute of Studies on Mediterranean Societies, suggests it was, by the middle of the eighth century, just fifty-six million.
The Tang Emperor Xuanzong, on the throne in mid-eighth century, had for some years skilfully held the various factions at his court in balance, but he was becoming tired of the business of ruling, and increasingly preoccupied with a lover, the beautiful Yang Kuei-Fei. She had been married to one of his sons, and he took her away from him and made her his chief concubine. She was exquisite, so the sources tell us, with a voluptuous figure (reflected in the ‘court lady’ minqi figurines often found in Tang tombs), and was celebrated in poems by the greatest poet of the age, Li Bai:
She is the flowering branch of the peony,
Richly-laden with honey-dew.
Hers is the charm of the vanished fairy,
That broke the heart of the dreamer king
In the old legend of Cloud and Rain.
A problematic major personality at this time, sometimes present at Xuan- zong’s court, sometimes guarding the frontiers, was the barbarian general An Lushan, who was partly of Sogdian and partly of Turkish stock. He was treated with great favour by the Emperor, and given a magnificent property in the bustling capital Chang’an. He was a huge man, enormously fat, also rough-mannered and illiterate, a complete contrast to the refined literati scholars, picked after a gruelling series of examinations, who now ran most aspects of the imperial administration. He amused Yang Kue-Fei, who for- mally adopted him, presenting his vast form to the court all wrapped up in swaddling clothes.
The ambitious general eventually fell out with Xuanzong’s chief minis- ter, who was also Yang Kue-Fei’s cousin. In 755 he rebelled, proclaiming himself the head of a new dynasty. He took Luoyang, the second largest city in China, and moved on Chang’an. The Emperor and his entourage fled towards Chengdu in distant Sichuan. Their party didn’t get very far. At a posting station just over thirty miles from the capital their escort mu- tinied, and demanded the deaths of both the chief minister and his relative the favourite. Yang Kuei-Fei was strangled with a silken cord, supplied by the Emperor himself. The date was July 15th 755, and she was then aged thirty-seven.
In later ages, she became a legendary figure, celebrated not only in China but also in Japan. Another Tang poet, Bai Juyi, from a later phase of the dy- nasty, wrote a famous lament for her, which carried her story down through the ages:
The emperor’s green-canopied carriage
Was forced to halt,
Having left the west city gate
More than a hundred li.
There was nothing the emperor could do,
At the army’s refusal to proceed.
So she with the moth-like eyebrows
Was killed before his horses.
Her floral-patterned gilded box
Fell to the ground, abandoned and unwanted, Like her jade hair-pin
With the gold sparrow and green feathers
(Bai Juyi, Song of the Everlasting Sorrow)
An Lushan did not last long after he rebelled. He became increasingly para- noid and was assassinated by his son in 757. The rebellion, marked by more assassinations, lingered on until 763. The Tang Dynasty survived and did not finally collapse until 907, but was never the force it had once been. The revolt is said to have caused at least thirty-six million deaths. In proportion to the world’s total population at that time, this was a larger percentage loss than that caused by either of the two twentieth-century World Wars.
When I now look at my portrait of a Sogdian many thoughts run through my mind. I think, for example, of the phenomenal recent rise, both eco- nomic and in terms of political power, of the China we know today. Its swarming metropolises, Beijing and Shanghai, seem like the contempo- rary equivalents of eighth-century Chang’an and Luoyang, both huge cities in their day. Chang’an had over two million inhabitants, Luoyang over a million. I also think of that undercurrent of mistrust of all foreigners, all non-ethnic Chinese, that one sometimes senses in China, however many Chinese friends one may personally have. People trace this to the negative impact made on Chinese society in the nineteenth-century by aggressive European colonialism, the burning of the Summer Palace in 1860 by British troops has still not been forgiven. A British captain in the Engineers, present at the sack, rightly described it as ‘wretchedly demoralizing work for an army.’