The world’s finest museum collection of Chinese porcelain figurines is featured in the Pamela Cunningham Copeland Gallery at the Peabody Essex Museum. Mrs. Copeland began collecting these rare figures in 1937. During a sixty year period, she amassed more than 200 exceptional examples of one of China’s most captivating decorative arts. Mrs. Copeland made plans to bequeath her collection to the museum after developing a lasting friendship with Dr. H. A. Crosby Forbes, curator emeritus of the department of Asian export art.
“Beguiling and amusing,” as Mrs. Copeland said, these colorful animal, bird, and human figures are historically significant as tangible representations of the interplay between Eastern and Western cultures. Their designs reflect cross-cultural influences, and illuminate the Chinese perception of Western tastes. Produced mainly for export, these fragile figures were primarily made to order and destined for wealthy private collectors.
The Copeland Collection is known internationally for the superb quality and impressive variety of its many rare forms. Because of her extensive travels and research, Mrs. Copeland was respected as one of the foremost experts on the subject.Each piece she collected expresses the form, proportion, detailed decoration, and distinctive modeling that characterize the work of a master potter.
Spanning three centuries from the reign of Kangxi (1662–1722) to Daoguang (1821–50), the collection includes engaging figures of dogs, elephants, deer, and birds, as well as human forms representing both Chinese and European figures and scenes. There are carp, water buffalo, and duck water-droppers; a variety of candleholders; and containers shaped as a toad, a hawk, and a western-style shoe. Soup tureens represent ducks, a quail, a rooster, elephants, and a dramatic boar’s head with protruding tongue. Many of the pieces are one-of-a-kind, or one of very few extant.
Mrs. Copeland realized that an assemblage of this nature would never again be possible and that keeping the collection intact at a major institution was the best way to ensure its acessibility to the public. She deemed the Peabody Essex Museum, the only museum with a department devoted solely to Asian export art, as the perfect repository for her exceptional collection. Mrs. Copeland’s generosity also made possible the publication of the first comprehensive work on a collection of Asian ceramic figures.