China: Open Empire
In the mid-twentieth century, Canterbury-born Rewi Alley played an important role in developing relationships between New Zealand and China. Working in partnership with the then Canterbury Museum Director, Dr Roger Duff, and the Palace Museum in Beijing, Alley helped to amass the most extensive collection of Chinese art in New Zealand.
China: Open Empire celebrates the 120th anniversary of Alley’s birth, sharing some of the incredible treasures he sent home to Canterbury Museum.
The Rewi Alley Collection comprises some 1,400 objects which include ceramics, jades and bronzes as well as paintings and currency that reflect almost 4,000 years of Chinese culture. It is largely made up of donations directly from Alley and exchanges of objects between the Palace Museum in Beijing and Canterbury Museum.
Highlights of the Collection include neolithic objects discovered on the Shandan Bailie School farm where Alley was headmaster in the 1940s, Han Dynasty ceramics from the Gobi Desert, a superb collection of jade, belt buckles, snuff bottles and paintings by two important twentieth century Chinese artists.
Alley and Duff saw ceramics as the best way to illustrate the length and sophistication of Chinese cultural history and attempted to have each phase of Chinese ceramic history represented in the collection. The Collection includes furniture from the Imperial Palace Museum in Beijing given for the 1958 opening of Canterbury Museum’s Hall of Oriental Art. The permanent exhibition was the first of its kind by at least 20 years in Australasia, and early by world standards.
A Canterbury Museum touring exhibition
The exhibition is based on research undertaken by Associate Professor James Beattie (Victoria University) and Dr Richard Bullen (University of Canterbury). Thanks to Dr Xiongbo Shi.
Image: Rewi Alley and a Bronze bust of Alley by Francis A. Shurrock (1887-1977), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1939. The original bronze cast was lost in enemy action on the way to New Zealand during World War Two. The present bust was recast and donated to Canterbury Museum in 1958 by a group of Alleys’ friends, including Shurrock. It was exhibited at the opening of the Hall of Oriental Art. Photo published in The Press 25 November 1971 CM2007.63.70.
List image: Bactrian camel, Rewi Alley Collection, Canterbury Museum C1985.2.3