Trifles, also known as loot

Still they seep out, items ‘from the Emperor’s Summer Palace’, the Yuanmingyuan. This is the long, long-established euphemism for material looted during the sacking of the Summer Palace by British and French soldiery ‘wild for plunder’ in the days before the complex was burned down by British forces on 18 October 1860. The context was the hard-fought North China Campaign, British and French forces slogging across the plain from the mouth of the Beihai river, avenging bloody defeat at the hands of the Qing at the Dagu forts on 25 July 1859, and the seizure and ill-treatment of Allied envoys by the Chinese. Civilisation and its virtues were reasserted by the destruction of the complex of buildings and gardens northeast of Beijing, the beauty of which had left observers stunned for words.

Lot 516 at today’s sale at Chorley’s, ‘Gloucester’s Fine Auctioneers’ is outlined as ‘An Interesting collection of items relating to General Sir John Hart Dunne KCB’. Then a Captain, Dunne served with the 99th Regiment of Foot. He seized one of the five Pekinese dogs found abandoned in the royal quarters, the one in fact that was presented to Queen Victoria, charmingly renamed ‘Looty’. Sarah Cheang has written nicely about this. Material relating to Dunne’s career was on view at an exhibition in sunny Sidmouth in the summer of 2018.

There are photographs in the lot of Looty, a negative of Dunne and a woman dressed in, presumably, clothing seized from the same place, ‘a filigree work bodkin case of cylinder form, the inner sleeve inscribed ‘A Trifle from the Emperor’s Summer Palace Gen John Hart Dunne'” and more.

Loot, and in fact fake loot, began circulating almost immediately after the days of plunder. Taipans rushed north to pick up what they could from antiques markets around Beijing, any savvy vendor of Chinese objets, or clothing, quickly ran up watertight provenance for their wares, all material now tracing its origins back to the Yuanmingyuan. The ‘fate’ of loot has been tracked by James Hevia, and by others.

And so still they circulate, in this instance ‘a trifle’, or two, and a record of others: relics of the entangled and violent history of British-China relations, items that pepper the collections of British museums and galleries, spoils of war all in plain sight. The photographs here come from the auction catalogue, and I have also edited the negative to reveal more clearly the figure of John Hart Dunne, all dressed in loot.

For more on the campaign and its legacies see my The Scramble for China: Foreign devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (Penguin). I am grateful to Dr Stephen Lloyd, Curator of the Derby Collection, at Knowsley Hall, for drawing the sale to my attention.

And for dog-lovers: here’s Looty in colour, painted by Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl, courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust website.

Dagu Forts, 1859: First round to the Qing

CKS1185_SaleCatp113An upcoming Christie’s sale in London, of the Hanshan Tang Reserve Collection, includes (lot no. 96), a gorgeously illustrated copy of an album of handpainted scenes of battles in the Second Opium, or Arrow, War. This is described on p.63 of the catalogue, from which the illustrations reproduced here are taken. As it was completed before the Anglo-French assualt on north China in the autumn of 1860, it concludes on a triumphal note with the allied defeat at the Dagu Forts on 25 June 1859. Well it might, for this was a comprehensive victory for the Qing, and a complete disaster for the British forces.

CKS1185_SaleCatp63The British were attempting to force their way to Beijing to secure ratification of the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin, and thought the forts, which guarded the entrance to the Beihe, would be a pushover, not least as the forts had been captured a year earlier without a struggle. Then, the garrisons had simply fled. In the interim, however, the defenders had been improving their discipline, their weaponry, their defences, and their artillery targetting. The progress made was revealed, with considerable effect on 25 June.  So confident was the British belief in Qing incompetence and cowardice, however, and so hysterical was the response to the drubbing received, that the only explanation many Britons accepted was that the Russians were behind it all, and must have equipped and trained the Chinese forces, if not helped out in the fighting.

Four hundred Bitish soldiers and sailors were killed, many cut down as they waded across mudflats towards the forts in a frontal assualt, and tried to negotiate pallisades. Four ships were lost. The British retreated from north China. Qing officials who opposed compromise gained the upper hand in discussions about what to do about the foreigners. Everybody settled down to coninue the war.

Felice Beato, Scene

Felice Beato, Scene inside the Dagu forts, August 1860

The Dagu forts are best known, visually, through Felice Beato’s war photography. That might serve to counterpoint the colourful images of Qing victory, for unfortunately for the Manchus, and the garrisons at Dagu, the British and French came back in August 1860, and they took the forts from the landward side. Then they marched on Beijing. Behind them they left the death and devastation caused by their more advanced weaponry, including the new Armstrong Guns that they were testing in action. Ahead of them lay the Yuanmingyuan – the Old Summer Palace. The destruction of the complex later that year by the British was one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism of the nineteenth century. Partly driving that act, aside from the sheer difficulty of the fight in 1860, and the killing and maltreatment of allied prisoners, was a desire for revenge, not least for the bitter defeat of June 1859.