Every morning at five o’clock, the entrepreneur and philanthropist Herbert Irving awoke to ‘commune’ with his art. The Fifth Avenue apartment that he and and his wife Florence had transformed into a spectacular gallery housed art from all of the major cultures of East and South Asia, spanning ancient to contemporary, and with a focus on the four materials in particular: lacquer, jade, bronze and ink. ‘We don't have a house, we have a warehouse,’ Herbert once said. ‘If I have it, I want to see it.’
Herbert and Florence were born in Brooklyn, in 1917 and 1920 respectively. They both had modest upbringings and developed a keen interest in art, culture and history, with the galleries of the Brooklyn Museum becoming like a second home. They married in 1941 and after returning from active service in the Second World War, Herbert went on to found a hugely successful frozen foods distribution company.
In the autumn of 1967, the Irvings embarked on a life-changing trip to Japan during which they met the celebrated Asian art dealer Alice Boney. ‘She was like a mother,’ Florence Irving recalled. ‘She really introduced us to Oriental art.’ Boney sold the Irvings their first substantive Asian work of art — a Chinese jade pillow — and the couple subsequently asked her to help them grow their collection.
As their knowledge and collection expanded, the Irvings extended their network, forging relationships with the world's foremost Asian art scholars. ‘We don't collect artefacts, we collect people,’ Herbert would say of the academics he came to call his friends. Florence also enrolled at Columbia University where she studied Chinese art, ceramics and furniture, and began attending lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Florence and Herbert Irving had an unwavering faith in the civic power of art, and a conviction that it should be shared with the public. In the 1980s they began to donate works of art to the Metropolitan Museum, which they could see from their apartment window. For the next 30 years the Irvings were extraordinarily generous benefactors to the museum, donating more than 1,300 objects and over $100 million.
‘In every collector there is a wish to own and a wish to share that are not necessarily incompatible,’ Florence Irving once said. ‘We wanted to share our collection with the greatest number of people, and for that, there’s no place like the Met.’ The museum recognised this support by unveiling the Florence and Herbert Irving Asian Wing in 2004.
Regarded as one of New York City’s most generous philanthropists, Herbert Irving passed away in 2016, followed by Florence two years later. In March, Christie’s in New York will auction a selection of the Irvings’ most cherished Asian artworks — those that they chose to live with — across four different materials. Below are some of the highlights.
The tradition of lacquerware — a supremely labour-intensive and time-consuming process married to exquisite craftsmanship — is shared by the major cultures of China, Korea and Japan.
In China, two main decorative traditions came to dominate. The first involved carving through thick layers of lacquer to create a three-dimensional and luxurious effect, as illustrated by the sumptuous 16th-century mallet-form vase, decorated with overlapping peony blossoms, pictured above left.
The other consisted of painted, gilded or inlaid mother-of-pearl surface decoration. Japanese lacquerware both imitated the Chinese carved lacquer styles and innovated within the tradition of surface-decorated lacquer — as, for example, demonstrated by the Meiji-period tray above, decorated in gold, silver, red, black and yellow hiramaki-e and takamaki-e, by the artist Shibata Zeshin.
The reverence for jade in Chinese culture reaches back thousands of years to the Neolithic Period, with jade carvings from the period revealing a high degree of skill and artistry. The mineral came to be associated with human virtue. Confucius is said to have remarked, ‘Anciently superior men found the likeness of all excellent qualities in jade.’
In the 18th century the Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736-95) commissioned jade reproductions of ancient bronze artefacts, such as the extremely rare ‘Twin Fish’ washer pictured above, which has a 40-character poem composed by the emperor incised on its base. Part of it reads: ‘Gradually returning to antiquity / There is no need to hasten towards modernity’.
While Asian cultures have produced a range of bronze-working traditions as diverse as the continent itself, one of the most universal applications of the material was in the creation of bronze Buddhist sculptures.
Bronze had the advantage of being durable and portable — small bronze statues of Buddha were disseminated across Asia by wandering monks, pilgrims and merchants. Hollow-cast bronze figures could also be sealed with sacred relics and scriptures.
The style of the multi-armed Guanyin sculpture pictured above left indicates that it was produced in the Dali Kingdom (AD 937-1253), an independent state in southwestern China that was coeval with China’s Song dynasty (AD 907-1279), covering a territory which approximates to present-day Yunnan province. Dali sculptures are rare: the large scale — it is just under 15 inches high — multiple arms, and unusual position in which this figure sits make this an especially important example.
In East Asian art, ink is regarded as both a profoundly simple and a sublimely expressive material. Its use dates back to Neolithic times, when a combination of pine soot, glue and water is known to have been painted on the sides of earthenware bowls used in burials.
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The masters of China’s ink-painting tradition were scholar-officials. Their compositions reflected their emotions and character — hills and rivers painted with dark tones and short, staccato brushstrokes suggested an energetic and outgoing man; pale washes and long, string-like strokes indicated a quiet and contemplative spirit.
Led by masters such as China’s Wu Guangzhong — whose Waterfall, above, is among the works being offered on 20 March — East Asian artists of the past century have pushed the tradition of ink painting in new directions.
Wu studied in Paris for three years in the late 1940s, and his landscapes ultimately fused Western and Asian artistic traditions. It’s often said that the artist combined a sense of colour and composition from Western oil painting with the spirit, lightness of touch and tonal variation of Chinese ink-wash painting.
Lacquer, Jade, Bronze, Ink: The Irving Collection is on preview at Christie's in New York from 14-20 March, before being sold in two dedicated sales on 20 and 21 March