Chinese porcelain collections are numerous and vary widely in their overall importance, subject matter, academic relevance, size and the criteria from which they have been built. There are literally thousands of these collections worldwide, many including important and high quality objects, some having even become well known and admired internationally.
But of all these numerous collections, only very few can be considered world class and of serious relevance to the study of the field. Even fewer dedicate themselves to a specialist area of interest having been built meticulously by knowledgeable collectors and supported by decades of rigorous research. The Butler Family Collection is not only part of this exclusive group of top world collections it is in fact unique in that no other collection in the world, whether in private hands or museums, covers the field of Chinese 17th-century export porcelain so comprehensively. It is the major and undisputed source of study for this extraordinary period of production of Chinese porcelain respected by scholars, dealers and
One of the characteristics that makes this collection so important and extraordinary is its wide scope, ranging from the highest quality and rarest of pieces to, at times, lesser and more common examples. Only a collector with vision, deep understanding of the field and the benefit of decades to source pieces, could have succeeded in bringing together such a comprehensive group. Each of the objects carefully chosen by Sir Michael Butler plays a crucial part in giving context to the overall collection and has been acquired for a particular reason, each acquisition improving the collection and increasing its relevance.
In 1998, I was entrusted with the task of editing the English version of the Dictionary of Chinese Ceramics and I begged my friend, the late Sir Edward Heath, to arrange a trip to see Sir Michael’s collection. He and I clicked immediately and spent hours discussing his collection. At this meeting, when two famous Europhiles were present, discussions of the European Union were given secondary importance. Although this must have tested the patience of the former Prime Minister, he quietly sat through the sessions after lunch and then after tea. On the journey back, the legendarily grumpy old Ted remarked simply “I never knew there was so much to say about porcelain!”. From then on Sir Michael and I became great friends for the last fifteen years of his life.
Back in 1961 , when Michael bought his first piece, I was only 5 years old. During my lifetime, Sir Michael has single-handedly built the most significant collection of 17th-century Chinese porcelain. What’s more, he is the true pioneer who brought transitional ware to the world stage. The substantial collection, together with the story scenes, is drawing more and more attention of collectors, museum curators, and academics across several continents. The joint exhibition of the Butler Collection and the Shanghai collect ion held in Shanghai Museum in 2005 opened the eyes of the native Chinese people to
this forgotten treasure trove.
Over the many years he collected, Sir Michael became one of the foremost connoisseurs of this period, who was fully aware of the challenges it presented. He managed to acquire key pieces with a keen eye to historical importance, documentary value and educational potential; and at the same time he engaged a series of top scholars in the research of these wares. He thus truly furthered our knowledge about a previously obscure area of Chinese ceramics. Through his collection and the research that resulted from it, it has been possible to demonstrate production dates as well as stylistic and qualitative evolution. It is now no longer possible to discuss Chinese ceramics of the 17th century without reference to the Butler collection. The importance of the collection, which has no par among other private or public holdings in its focus and breadth, has been acknowledged through many international exhibitions, most importantly through the highly prestigious presentation at the Shanghai Museum, which made it internationally famous. The UK used to be on the forefront of Chinese ceramic research. A large number of private collections were formed here by collectors such as Sir Michael, for whom the objects’ value to research and education was more important than their financial worth. The OCS was formed in this climate of sharing knowledge and resources, and Sir Michael was one of its long-standing supporters. He generously lent to exhibitions and always welcomed and encouraged visits to the collection and discussions of its objects. Many valuable exchanges among scholars would not have been possible without his support.
I am familiar … with very many of the world’s leading specialist collections of Chinese ceramics, past and present. Some are assembled by highly knowledgeable collectors devoted to a theme (for example David, Mottahedeh, S.C. Ko, the Zuellig brothers). Some are very ‘old chance assemblages’ whose academic importance is only appreciated long after their haphazard creation (Topkapi, Ardebil, Captain Forbes). And some were formed by rich men who enjoyed the ceramics and the thrill of acquisition, but were not really specialists (Eumorfopoulos, Franks, Hodroff).
The Butler Family Collection falls squarely into the first category. Assembled over four decades, the key objective was to focus very sharply on those interesting but unfashionable Chinese ceramics which spanned one of China’s great historical moments of social, economic and cultural transition …. Sir Michael was the second English collector to focus on a century of production which was very largely ignored by ceramic historians, especially by traditional Chinese ones. The first was Gerald Reitlinger, an English collector some 50 years earlier, whose collection (now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) lacks the academic focus of Sir Michael’s, and did not benefit from the discovery of documentary shipwreck cargoes, and the researches of a young generation of new young specialists like Ni Yibin in Shanghai….
In recent decades, almost all the new research about the great traditions of Chinese ceramics has taken place in China; at the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, at the Palace Museum, at the Shanghai Museum. It was therefore entirely logical that when the Shanghai Museum (the most academically progressive of all China’s ceramic museums) organized an exhibition unprecedented in China of ‘17th century Ceramics’, the Director asked Sir Michael to lend the major part of the display, to give the keynote speech and to co-author the catalogue. There is no other Collection on the planet which can illustrate with such clarity the vicissitudes
and re-emergence of a major Chinese industry, nor chart so fully the way in which ceramic designs, shapes and technology coped with enormous political and economic strains yet survived a major civil war to rise rapidly from the ashes of the destroyed ceramic city of Jingdezhen.
Some collections were sheltered by their owners from critical discussion by peers. Sir Michael always very actively encouraged the world’s leading curators, specialists and dealers to visit, analyse and comment on his pieces. Hence the Collection is unrivalled as a study group. It
not merely illustrates key decades in the evolution of Chinese ceramics. It even led to the discovery of in effect a completely unknown reign period, that of the Emperor Shunzhi (c.1644
–1662), and the understanding that during this crucial period there was far more ceramic continuity, and far less cataclysm, than any specialist had hitherto believed.