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.