Connected \\ October 22, 2019
Reunited in the galleries
In February 2017, I made two rediscoveries at PEM while working as a curatorial fellow in the Asian Export Art department. Moving back to the East Coast after almost five years, I re-learned how slush could transform sidewalks into treacherous icescapes. More importantly, I found an old letter that included a list of familiar Chinese names in the department’s research files. I had come to PEM to work with curator Karina Corrigan, but also because PEM has one of the largest collections of Chinese export silverwares in the world -- with about 800 examples. These objects are the subject of my doctoral dissertation in art history at the University of California at Berkeley.
© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola
During the 19th century and earlier, exported silk, tea and porcelain were among the main commodities purchased from Chinese merchants. Yet silverwares, such as tea and coffee services, jewelry and trophies, were also made by Chinese metalworkers for Westerners. In 1975, Crosby Forbes, the first curator of Asian Export Art at PEM, published a groundbreaking study on Chinese export silverwares along with John Kernan and Ruth Wilkins, and spearheaded PEM’s collecting in the area. A silver teapot imported to London in 1682-3 is the earliest-known and documented example of export silver that still exists, and it is also in PEM’s collection.
Artists in southern China, Teapot, about 1680, Silver, Museum purchase, 1989, E82766.AB
Karina introduced me to many key objects for my research. But before I arrived, I was well-aware of one PEM object: the Coolidge trophy. It was one of the standouts in the Forbes catalogue. From a design perspective, the trophy is a seamless blend of European and Chinese form and ornament. It is a two-handled covered cup on a pedestal base, a classical shape that has a long history in Europe as a drinking vessel adapted into a trophy. Yet much of its ornament is Chinese. Its handles are sinuous dragons, and its surface is chased with auspicious ruyi clouds, as well as the Chinese decorative motif of squirrels peeking around grapevines. Under the clouds are groups of Western men pulling rowing sculls. European and American traders living in Canton (Guangzhou) livened up the monotony of the trading season by racing in the waterways of the Pearl River Delta -- apparently quite a sight to Chinese onlookers!
© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing.
The trophy also has an unusual inscription, dedicating it to a single American merchant from all of the leading Chinese merchants in Canton.
It reads” “Presented to Joseph Coolidge Esqre / as a token of respect from his friends / Houqua Mouqua Pounkeyqua. / Kingqua Linchong. Gouqua. / Mouqua. Souqua Pounhoyqua. / Samqua Thouching Quinching. / Souching & Cumvor / Hong merchants.
The letter I found contained the same list of names. The names were inscribed inside a gold filigree bracelet in possession of the writer, which was dedicated as a “token of good wishes” to Mrs. Coolidge, Joseph’s wife. Several months ago, a generous PEM supporter purchased the bracelet at auction in New York and immediately gave it to PEM, reuniting it with the Coolidge trophy.
Probably retailed by Cutshing, Active 1826–75, Guangzhou, China. Bracelet, about 1840, Gold filigree. Gift in honor and loving memory of my mother Marion McMillin Wooten by Frank McMillin Wooten 2019.11.1.
Ellen Coolidge sailed for China in July 1839 to join her husband. As a woman she had to live on the island of Macau, a Portuguese colony, while Joseph spent most of his time in the Guangzhou offices. Other women accompanied their husbands to China. But Ellen was highly-educated and adventurous, a favorite granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson. She learned to read Greek, Latin, French and Italian in part under his direction. She met Coolidge, a young Boston merchant, in 1824 when he came to stay at Monticello for several months. They were engaged when Coolidge returned to celebrate the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to Virginia, and married soon afterward.
My research so far has yielded fascinating connections between the Coolidges and the merchant communities based in the Pearl River, a social milieu in which Ellen was an active participant and observer. I have gained some insight into her life there from several letters she wrote from China, now at the Baker Library at Harvard Business School. We don’t know yet when or why the couple was presented with these gifts. It was not unusual for the Chinese security merchant contracted to load a foreign ship to present his trading partner with gifts upon the shipment’s finalization — such as the carved elephant tusk given to Salem merchant A.A. Low by the preeminent Chinese merchant Houqua.
Artists in Guangzhou, China. Carved tusk and stand, about 1839. Elephant ivory and Asian hardwood. Gift of Mrs. William Raymond, 1962. E39364. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing
But Coolidge was a contentious figure. While well-connected in the US and Europe, he was not a born businessman. He was a one-time partner in Russell & Co., who started a new firm with Augustine Heard due to his disputes with the firm’s other partners — and in large part, to compete with them by proving himself. Coolidge’s reputation in the port prompted his wife to advise him to use only Heard’s name when announcing their new enterprise, Heard & Co.
Heard himself was deeply ambivalent about their prospects within the darkening climate of Sino-British conflict, himself remaining in Massachusetts. Ellen also had a particularly dim view of politics in the port. In one of her many letters to Heard, whom she regarded as a close friend, she wrote:
We are neither at war, nor at peace, the Chinese bluster and ‘talk big,’ the English talk, talk and say nothing after all, the Portuguese are equally good in a contest of words as either of the more powerful nations by both of which they are despised and condemned. I have never had one feeling of alarm, though how many of contempt for both men and measures I dare tell only to you.
Considering her statesman-grandfather’s role in her education, her verdict of diplomatic incompetence on the brink of the first Opium War was likely warranted. She left China in April 1841 due to the rising tension.
Both objects are small, but stunning. Bringing them together at PEM gives both scholars and visitors a fuller picture of early US-China commerce — and in particular, the often-overlooked role of women in the social and political life of the trade. See these objects and follow the stories in the new Asian Export gallery at PEM, which opened this fall.
Susan Eberhard is a former Mellon Foundation curatorial fellow in the Asian Export Art department at PEM and a PhD Candidate, History of Art, University of California, Berkeley.