Scrolling through history

17th November 2021

Six Chinese paintings, that were gifted to Louis Mountbatten’s predecessor as Viceroy of India, have sold for an incredible £688,250 at auction in Salisbury.

Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell, 1st Earl Wavell was one of the great commanders of the Second World War, leading his troops to early victory against the Italians in North and East Africa – a victory that renewed hope in the Allies after a string of disastrous defeats. He served as Commander-in-Chief to India from 1941 and was made Governor-General and Viceroy in 1943 – a position he held until Prime Minister Clement Atlee replaced him with Admiral Louis Mountbatten in 1947.

The paintings were gifted to Wavell by senior Chinese Generals during 1942 and 1943, while Wavell worked alongside officials in the Far East during the defence of Burma. During this time Wavell sanctioned the ‘Chindits’ who, among other operations, worked on sabotaging roads and railways used by the invading Japanese forces. After remaining in the family since the Field Marshal’s death in 1950, they are now coming onto the market at Woolley and Wallis salerooms.

“It is a privilege to be asked to sell these paintings, which were carefully selected diplomatic gifts for one of Britain’s most senior war officials,” said Chinese Paintings specialist, Freya Yuan-Richards. “The name of Wavell was significant enough to feature in Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen, and he had a full military funeral at Westminster Abbey, being later buried in the old medieval cloister at Winchester Cathedral.”

One painting by Chen Zhifo depicts mandarin ducks in a pond with waterlilies and was given to Wavell by General He Yingqin in March 1943. He Yingqin served as Chief of Staff during the Second Sino-Japanese war. Zhifo is known for his depictions of birds and flowers, enriching traditional painting with Japanese influences, making the gift somewhat ironic at the time. The metre long scroll painting sold to a collector for £281,250.

Two paintings were gifts for Wavell’s 60th birthday on 5th May 1943 from General Yu Dawei – one having been deferred from the previous year as Dawei and Wavell had been unable to meet in 1942. One scroll is by the early 18th century artist Jiang Tingxi and depicts squirrels on fruiting grapevine above a pond of goldfish. It sold for £25,000.

 “The other painting gifted by General Yu Daiwei has a particular poignance and was our top lot of the sale,” continued Yuan-Richards. “The artist, Xu Beihong, was a friend of the General and an inscription on the scroll details how the war horse depicted is neighing in sadness because he is being stopped from fighting when he wants to. It possibly reflects Wavell’s own situation in the spring of 1943 as British troops were being forced to withdraw rather than stand and fight the Japanese.”

The painting far exceeded its modest £20,000 starting price to sell to a private Chinese collector for £343,750.

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