The Asian Collection at the Hamilton Art Gallery

Contributed by Daniel McEwan, Director, Hamilton Art Gallery, 1998-2015

The Asian Collection at the Hamilton Art Gallery

pair of Japanese vases
Kajima Ikkoku II; Japan c. 1890, Pair of Vases decorated with birds and flowers; Bronze decorated with cast and chased oxidised silver, gold, shibuichi and shakudo; Hamilton Art Gallery, Accession number 2009.006
Buddha of Compassion, China 16C; Bronze with lacquer gilding; Herbert and May Shaw Bequest; Hamilton Art Gallery, Accession number 0015

Hamilton is a relatively small town at the centre of one of the richest agricultural districts in Australia. It is 300 km west of Melbourne and, sadly, poorly served by public transport. Nonetheless, it is served by a freeway from Melbourne to Ararat and the drive from Ararat to Hamilton runs through agricultural country parallel to the spectacular Grampians range of mountains.

Hamilton Art Gallery was founded in 1961 with a bequest of some 800 items given to the Hamilton in 1957 by a local grazier Herbert Shaw. Shaw, and his wife May had formed this collection during their lifetime, partly as a consequence of their travels, and later, by Herbert, from a small group of good dealers and timely auctions in Melbourne.

Among these 800 items was a group of Chinese ceramics and other Chinese decorative arts, notable in that it had representative pieces from the all the major dynasties. In total, there were 95 ceramics, 7 bronzes, 31 hardstone carvings and 7 ivory carvings plus an assortment of some 30 additional pieces representing other media. As could be expected from someone collecting in the antipodes, some of these items have not stood the test of time, but others have come to be recognised as the treasures they are. Perhaps the most wonderful piece is a 16th century Sino-Tibetan bronze Buddha, 72 cm high and at one stage, lacquer gilt. It portrays the ‘Buddha of Compassion’ and physically, is one of the best Buddha bronzes in Australia. To this are added superb ceramics from the Han, Tang and Song dynasties. Many of these pieces were originally collected by Sir Keith Murdoch in China and were purchased by Herbert Shaw from the sale of his effects in 1947.

There were no ceramics of substance from the Ming Dynasty but one of the jade carvings of a ‘Horse with a Monkey on its back’ is from the Ming Dynasty and is the finest of the group of hardstone carvings. Shaw collected widely and he later added a range of Qing Dynasty ceramics including six pieces with imperial marks.In 2005, the Gallery started developing a collection of Japanese ceramics and metalwork. Again, this collection holds representative pieces from the major production periods with a heavy emphasis on 20th century works. In particular, there is a fine group of Kakiemon pieces, in which the familiar enamelled, blue and white and plain, white wares are all represented. The collection contains some other gems like a pair of gold Imari bowls, a superb Ai-kutani plate in blue and white as well as other 18th and 19th century Imari ware. The twentieth century starts with a group of pieces by the ceramicists nominated as ‘Artists to the Imperial Household’. Only five ceramicists were ever nominated and the Gallery holds work by four of them. Added to these pieces is a group of Sino-Japanese ceramics that were popular until the 1930s. These pieces were Japanese interpretations of classic Chinese celadons etc that are obviously Japanese but made to the same standard as Chinese Imperial wares. Finally, there is a group of post-war Japanese ceramics representing the period when Japan produced the best studio ceramics in the world. The technical and aesthetic strength of this group serve only to reinforce the significance of Japanese ceramics from this period. There is also a small group of 19thand 20th century Japanese enamels and metalware. The highlight of his group is a pair of 41 cm-high bronze vases by Kajima Ikkoku II (1846-1925) decorated with birds and flowers in silver, shakudo and shibuichi and inlaid with gold. Oxidised, silver blossoms, each with a small gold ball at its centre, cover the surface of these vases.

Hamilton Art Gallery has a large collection and sadly there are usually only a few of these pieces exhibited at any given time. Many can be can be viewed on the Gallery website (www.hamiltongallery.org). If you wish to see a specific piece it would be advisable to contact the Gallery prior to your visit.

Daniel McOwan, Director of Hamilton Art Gallery 1988-2015