Chinese collection, Compton Verney, Warwickshire

Caroline Ilkin, Issue 115/09, p52, 01.09.2015
The recent redisplay of Compton Verney’s Chinese bronzes allows visitors to better appreciate this remarkable collection
Looking across the Arcadian landscape at the austere classicism of Compton Verney, it comes as something of a surprise to find one of Europe’s most significant collections of Chinese bronzes displayed within.
The collection was begun in the  1990s by Peter Moores, the founder of this Warwickshire gallery, and has been built up in succeeding years to become one of the most important groups outside China.The objects have recently been redisplayed with new cases, lighting and interpretation.

On entering the gallery, visitors are met by the hostile gaze of two of the Heavenly Kings: huge, shining bronze sentries created to protect their owner in the afterlife. The Guardian of the East glowers ferociously while the Guardian of the West raises his sword – a striking first impression and a warning that we are about to trespass into a realm beyond our own.

To those unfamiliar with Chinese history and culture, the lack of context provided might make interpreting the objects challenging. The beauty of their design and the complexity of their craftsmanship are clear to see, but the objects do not speak readily for themselves and an explanation of their purpose would help visitors understand them better.
Objects are displayed thematically and reflect the strengths of the collection as much as the stories individual works tell. For example, the Heavenly Horse is a magnificent bronze horse, prancing on open display at nearly a metre tall with lips curled and hoof raised, positioned at the centre of the gallery for maximum impact.

It is backed by an impressive showcase displaying a collection of 12 terracotta equestrian figures, symmetrically arranged on shelves encircling the Heavenly Horse, each from the same mould but individually-detailed with their own characteristics.

Other themes, such as Mirrors and Animal Patterns, seem to have been devised to accommodate aspects of the collection that are worthy of display but do not fit neatly into the other categories.

Elegant presentation

The first room is dark, with the lighting focused dramatically on the objects. The presentation is elegant and uncluttered, with a repeated circle motif used in the aperture and uplighting of cases, subtly mirroring the shape of many of the bronzes on display.

The main gallery is larger and brighter, and is divided into sections by the positioning of the showcases, allowing visitors to be tempted towards groups of objects without losing the thread of the exhibition.

The subtle grey of the walls and simple design allow the objects to dominate the room while creating a serene atmosphere in which to view them. The labelling throughout is discreet and uses silhouettes of each object for identification, accompanied by a brief descriptive text.
A short introduction to each section is given on the wall or on a panel, while more detailed object information, together with cultural and historic details, is provided in a printed gallery guide. This can be picked up from a corner of the exhibition and is worth finding as it provides essential information for appreciating the collection.

The bulk of the display comprises bronze vessels used in cooking and dining rituals to honour deceased ancestors and the vessels that have survived were buried with their owners to be used in the afterlife.

Archaeological investigations have unearthed these precious objects and the complex nature of the rituals have been established by the finds. But by separating the objects from each other it is hard to understand the context of these ritual feasts – a reconstruction would help bridge that cultural divide.
There is a group of bells on display that represent their extensive use in Chinese cultural life but, as with any musical instrument in a museum, they have little meaning without visitors being able to hear their sound. Finding a way to allow people to listen to the sounds of the bells would help them to understand the importance of music in Chinese rituals.

The exhibition does include one interactive element in the form of an iPad with images and information explaining how the bronzes were cast and decorated. This is informative and adds an extra level of interest but could be replicated in other areas of the gallery with information on archaeological investigations, modern Chinese rituals and reconstructed images of the parts played in ritual feasts by the vessels on display.
Chinese culture is placed in the context of developments in art in Greek, Egyptian, Roman and European cultures on a timeline displayed across one wall – a necessary element of interpretation – but the layout would benefit from better visual clarity, and comparisons
of time and place could be more explicit.

On leaving the gallery, visitors can enter the Discovery Room, where armchairs and beanbags invite pause for thought. A good selection of books on Chinese
art and culture offer the chance to explore the subject further. There are several books for younger readers, and children are given the opportunity to cut out and colour their own Heavenly Horse, with metallic pencils provided to give a more authentic finish.
Portable steps are available for children to use in the gallery, although most of the objects are displayed at a low enough level for young visitors, or can be easily seen through glass shelves.

The redisplay of the galleries encourages an intellectual exploration of an outstanding collection and an insight into Chinese culture. The thematic display allows visitors to appreciate the objects at their own pace and the unobtrusive design provides an elegant backdrop that accentuates the craftsmanship of individual items.
Through the provision of differing levels of interpretation, visitors can view the collection in aesthetic terms or delve deeper into the complexity of Chinese ritual and culture – either way they will leave enriched by this remarkable collection.

Caroline Ikin is a former collections manager at the National Trust and now works as a writer and researcher

Project data

Cost £190,000
Main funders DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund; Arts
Council England
Display design Schimmer Child Argent
Graphic design Victoria Bithell
Lighting Havells Sylvania
Joinery and display cases Reynolds Collcutt Furniture and Hourglass