A Chinese art sale at Christie’s in London next month is to include a fascinating collection of previously unseen prints and drawings that were assembled in China in the Forties by a young man who was later to become one of Britain’s most influential contemporary art magazine editors. Peter Townsend (1919-2006) was the editor first of Studio International from 1965-75, and then Art Monthly from 1976-1992, both highly regarded critical organs. His archives from those years now belong to the Tate and are the subject of serious academic research.
However, knowing Townsend as an editor, as I did in the Eighties and Nineties, one soon discovered that his interests were not restricted to contemporary art. His huge, rambling collection also embraced African masks, 18th- and 19th-century British and European drawings and watercolours, and Japanese prints.
An incurable collector, not even his family knew the extent of his collections because they were never displayed as such. His daughter, Catherine, remembers living in a large house where one room was full of boxes, cluttered shelves and picture stacks, and kept under lock and key. He knew what things were worth and occasionally sold when times were hard. After he died, Catherine found things hidden in books, or in bin bags full of shoes.
And then there was China. Having left Oxford University as a conscientious objector, and with a working knowledge of Mandarin, he went there in 1941 with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit. But if he thought he had escaped war, he was mistaken because he landed up in the middle of the Sino-Japanese war. Here he worked for the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives, a model of communal labour and living that he was later to draw on in the formation of the SPACE artists’ studios in London. He made friends with Zhou Enlai, who became the first premier of the People’s Republic of China. Zhou gave him his first revolutionary Chinese print and encouraged him to collect. In 1946 he met Mao Tse-tung.
But it is only with this sale that the extent of his involvement in Chinese cultural history is revealed. Coming from an artistic family, Townsend naturally befriended artists on his travels, and many of the works in the sale are tokens of friendship.
No doubt the eminent calligraphic artist Guo Moruo shared Townsend’s love of fine wines. In the work he gave and dedicated to him (£35,000 to £50,000), the inscription explains that calligraphy is like wine, and best appreciated by the cognoscenti.
But the majority of artists Townsend met and collected were those who had studied Western techniques in Paris. Returning home to support the war effort against Japan they triggered a wave of Western-style realism in Chinese art. There are three works by Han Leran, for instance, who returned to China in 1937 and became a key contributor to the National Cultural Revival.
Then there are a dozen portraits by Chang Shuhong, known as “the guardian of the caves of Dunhuang”, most of whose work was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In 1943, Townsend travelled to Dunhuang, in western China, where a network of caves containing Buddhist art going back to the 3rd century AD had been found. He was instrumental in enlisting the support of the British Council in their preservation. Chang had returned from France and was recording life at Dunhuang when Townsend visited, and these works (worth an estimated £10,000 for a group of three) were given to him in gratitude.
The most valuable work, though, is a small mid-20th-century pen-and-ink drawing of a horse by one of China’s most revered artists, Xu Beihong. Xu’s work has recently fetched as much as £27 million at auction in Beijing for a large coloured ink panoramic landscape of 1951. The Townsend horse, at £50,000 to £60,000, therefore looks comparatively inexpensive.
Townsend returned to Britain in 1951. Catherine says that, although these Chinese works were not of significant value for most of her father’s life, he always believed they would be one day.
“The collection is rare and important,” says Cherrei Tian of Christie’s, “partly because it’s a personal collection that reflects the culture of the time when Chinese artists were absorbing influences from the West, and partly because so much work from that time has since been lost or destroyed. Also, the market for Chinese art has been transformed in the last 10 years.”
Just how much his collection is worth now, Townsend would have been as intrigued as anyone to find out.