Model of a Bactrian camel
This ancient Chinese tomb model of a camel was a gift from the archaeologist Max Mallowan (1904–78) to his wife, the crime writer Agatha Christie (1890–1976), and was displayed at their summer home, Greenway in Devon. The couple met when on an archaeological excavation in southern Iraq and married in 1930, and Christie continued to accompany her husband on excavations to Syria and Iraq. The camel is one of many animal tomb monuments discovered in the late 19th and early 20th century in northern China, and dates from the Tang dynasty (618–907). Vast numbers of ceramic figures depicting whole households and their animals were originally installed in the tombs of royal and elite members of Tang society, and were known as mingqi (spirit goods).
A sancai ('three-colour') earthenware model of a braying Bactrian camel, probably Huangye kilns, Henan province, north China, 700–56.
Striking naturalistic models of camels and horses are today regarded as the archetypal ceramic wares of China’s Tang dynasty (618–906), yet they were unknown in the West, and even in China, except to a handful of scholars and tomb raiders, until an exhibition of the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London in 1910. The animals, together with representations of court figures, Sogdian wine merchants, Turkic traders and enslaved Africans, were produced as funeral objects, known as mingqi (‘spirit utensils’). Hundreds of ceramic mingqi furnished élite tombs, recreating the deceased’s world and the essential luxuries required to maintain their lifestyle in the afterlife. The quantity of mingqi in a tomb signified a person’s wealth and status, leading to competition among courtiers. A sumptuary law in 742 restricted the number of figures by rank: for example, officials above the third rank could have only 90 figures.1 Many of the tombs were near Chang’an (Xi’an), Shaanxi province, Tang China’s most cosmopolitan city, enlivened with foreign traders and their camel caravans bringing silk, horses, musicians, gold and glass from Central Asia and the Near East. Standing four-square on a low plinth, this braying Bactrian camel, made around 700–56, is typical of these grave goods. The earthenware model was formed in moulds and assembled with liquid clay (slip), into which fine details were incised. It was covered with a white slip, followed by a transparent lead-glaze partially tinted with iron oxide, resulting in the vibrant chestnut-coloured splashes.Ceramics made using the technique, which often included a copper-green oxide, are known as sancai (‘three-colour’) wares. More ornate camels have elaborate trappings with saddles, bottles, bags and cloths, sometimes accompanied by central Asian grooms. In the 1870s railway construction in northern China unearthed many tombs, leading to the accidental discovery of mingqi. Unprovenanced finds slowly appeared on the London art market, where collectors became excited by these ‘new’ wares, resulting in the 1910 exhibition, which inspired a fresh collecting field. In 1916 Anthony Gustav de Rothschild (1887–1961), of Ascott, Buckinghamshire (NT), acquired a similar glazed camel from Gorer, dealers in Chinese art for £135.2 A rare provenanced example is a large camel and twelve other mingqi discovered in the tomb of General Liu Tingxun (c.656–728) in Luoyang, Henan province. The banker George Eumorfopoulos acquired the group sometime before 1921 and in 1936 sold it to the British Museum.3 Large quantities of mingqi arrived in Europe in the 1920s and early 1930s, before China’s National Commission for the Preservation of Antiquities restricted illegal excavations and exports. The eminent British archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan (1904–78) acquired the camel as a gift for his wife, the English crime writer Dame Agatha Christie (1890–1976). They had married in 1930, having met at Ur, the ancient capital of Mesopotamia. Christie frequently joined Mallowan, a Near Eastern specialist with a professional interest in ceramics, on his excavations in Syria and Iraq, where she reassembled many of his ceramic finds. The camel may have been a memento of their time spent in the field.4 It initially furnished their Queen Anne house in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, and later migrated to Greenway, south Devon, which they acquired in 1938. Notes 1 Tucker 2105, p. 72. 2 Krahl 1996, cat. no. 22. 3 Hobson 1921, pp. 1-7; British Museum inv. no. 1936,1012.229. 4 Christie 1977. Text adapted from Patricia F. Ferguson, Ceramics: 400 Years of British Collecting in 100 Masterpieces, London Philip Wilson Publishers, 2016.
Given by Max Mallowan to Agatha Christie; moved by them from Winterbrook House, Wallingford, to Greenway.
Dame Agatha Christie Collection, Greenway National Trust Collections
Ceramics: 400 Years of British Collecting in 100 Masterpieces, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2016, pp. 220-1.