As lamented in the previous entry of this blog, my claim to fame, as far as Gusu Beauties was concerned, was shaken. However, it has recently been given an enormous boost from a most unexpected object.
A few months ago I was contacted by Staffan Haegermark, a major Swedish collector of Dalecarlian traditional wooden horses, who told me he had in his possession a marine chest which might interest me. Not so much the chest, but what was pasted inside the lid: a print of Gusu Beauty No. 8. Not only was this a unique placement for a Gusu Beauty print, or any eighteenth-century Chinese print for that matter (to my knowledge, I should add), but it was also the missing print of a group of nine.
The chest has a modern auction history and an older story, unfortunately vague and undocumented. It was acquired by Staffan from a man who bought it at auction in Åmål some four years previously. The vendor at this auction had in his turn bought the chest in the middle of the 1990s at an estate auction of the Reuter sisters in Långserud in the province of Värmland. According to a not so old typewritten note in the chest it had been in the possession of the Hall family in Gothenburg, among whom John Hall the Elder was a very prominent figure.
John Hall the Elder, merchant and entrepreneur, was the richest man in Gothenburg when, in 1778, he bought the old Gunnebo Castle at Mölndal near Gothenburg. What is more interesting for us in this context is that his father-in-law was Anders Gothén (1719-1794), A Supercargo in the Swedish East India Company. Gothén made numerous travels to China and East India as Supercargo on the ships of the Swedish company, no less than 10 journeys between 1743 and 1780, more than any other known individual. [Comment 2016-06-05: It has not been possible to find any evidence that this chest ever was in the possession of John Hall the Elder. There is no record of it in any inventory list or other documentation.]
On ships of the Swedish East India Company (1731–1813), the Supercargo represented the company and was in charge of all matters related to trade, while the captain was in charge of navigation, loading and unloading of cargo as well as the maintenance of the ship. Having the highest rank aboard the ship, the Supercargo also received the highest salary. In addition to this he received six percent of the value of the cargo the ship brought home. Every person onboard had the right to buy, bring home goods and sell them back in Sweden. The amount of goods permitted was regulated by the person’s rank aboard the ship and his financial means. At the top of this list was the Supercargo. According to a decree of 1753 the clerks could fill the chests in their cabins with their own goods and the remaining space in the cabin up to 3 feet. There is no mention on how many chests an individual was allowed, but presumably one each. The Supercargo, having high and privileged rank, was certainly allowed more than one chest.
The chest itself is of a type called Hallandskista, manufactured in the southwestern province of Halland, and typical of its kind – a bevelled lid with gable pieces protruding beyond the body of chest and iron hinges mounted inside the lid. The chest tapers slightly towards the bottom, with a protruding base. The wood is pine, painted and marbled. The joints are interlocking and the lid has wooden pegs instead of iron nails. The support underneath the base are two wooden skids across the length. Perhaps this facilitated the moving and transport of a heavy chest. Between the skids can be seen a punched-in a cross, perhaps a protection against thieves or bad spirits?
The dimensions, in cm, are: length 120, width 59, height 66, 53 without the skids. The lid measures 127×63 cm on the outside, and 118×61 on the inside. The original key and lock is now lost, and was replaced or enforced by an iron sleeve for a padlock at some later time.
The chest was manufactured around 1750 or slightly later, to judge by the rococo decorative pattern on the front of the chest. We see a crest with two Fs as a mirrored monogram in red and surrounded by a laurel wreath with red berries and tulips, and a bow knot as a finial to the wreath. The crest is framed by a rocaille-pattern.
This crest can not be attributed to a particular family, but was a common decorative motif for chests in general. This information kindly contributed by Ulla-Karin Warberg, curator at the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm.
My initial reaction, when seeing the monogram, was the similarity to the logo of the Dutch East India Company, VOC, but I am now certain that there is no relation.
Disregarding the purported origin and previous history of the chest, the fact remains that someone at some point pasted a Chinese woodblock print inside the lid of a Swedish chest, either for decorative purposes or for practical reasons: to keep dust out.
The print is known from other examples in Château de Filières and the Small China Salon at Esterhàzy Palace so we know that other copies of this particular print were shipped to Europe. Previously in this blog I have described this print and named it as Gusu Beauty No. 8.
There are two main highlights of this print: the freshness of the colours (obviously it has never been exposed to light for any length of time), and its format.
This is the only print, again to my knowledge, that has some margins of the paper sheet left intact, all other extant prints have been cut down to or within the picture border. The upper margin here measures between 60-63 mm and the right margin 20 mm, but this latter might have been cut down to fit inside the lid.
The left margin protruded beyond the body of the chest and most of it has been worn away. The bottom part of the print has been torn away and we do not know the measurements of the bottom margin, but in accordance to Chinese proportions, this margin was probably smaller than the upper margin. The print was never lined or backed, so we can see that the original paper is of a rather thick and sturdy quality. Further detailed study of the paper is required.
Although the print is much damaged due to use of the chest (for example the protruding hinges which were once covered by the print are now visible), it is an important testimony to the usage and attraction it once received. I will continue to research the chest and its possible ancestry.
I am very pleased to now have in my collection all nine known prints in the series of Gusu Beauties. My claim to fame is restored! At least until a future discovery shatters it.