Bernard Courtis 1928-2018

Reflections on his life by his daughter-in-law, Julie Courtis

My father in law Bernard Courtis was extremely proud of the Winchester Art Group, without doubt it was one of the crowning experiences of a lifetime that was filled with so many varied experiences. As those of the group who came to his funeral will know he bought that same intellectual rigour, drive and discipline,  delivered with such charm, decency and wit, that they remembered to a long and successful army career during which he travelled the world and rose to the rank of Brigadier, and to his family life. The legacy of his love of History of Art will live on in his granddaughter, Sarah, who is about to embark on a Masters in Contemporary Art and has inherited his collection of over a thousand books.

His studies at Masters level in a sense bought his life full circle in that, having spent his early years in Fujian, and then some of the happiest years of their family life as the Officer in charge of the Royal Army Transport Corps activities in Hong Kong harbour,  he decided to focus on Chinese export painted silks. In so doing he laid a sound basis for further research into not only the silks but also the power of consumers to influence design. These silks had in his words  “previously been dismissed as based on the plagiarism of European fashion and in particular the taste for Chinoiserie and beneath the notice of both European and Chinese academics and writers”. His hypothesis was that, as well as “the result of craft expertise honed over many centuries and associated with perceptions of exotic “oriental” luxury, these silks are examples of textile design with their own discreet qualities”. They were both “a part of Chinese material culture” and, being more significant in occidental consumption patterns than previously understood, their design was also heavily influenced by their consumers. The research he undertook to evidence his hypothesis was, as I am sure the members of the group who knew him would expect, of course extensive! Denied access to Chinese records of export he examined the East India Company records and he researched their consumption from a very wide range of sources including parliamentary records , contemporary correspondence and the fabrics in English country houses. Finally he undertook a detailed analysis of the silks in the Victoria and Albert Museum to determine their discreet qualities.

The knowledge and expertise he had acquired in the course of his studies and his presentation skills must have impressed those responsible for the V&As Chinese galleries because he was asked to curate the case displaying the silk robes worn by Chinese Emperors. It is testament to his skills that the case remains as he curated it whilst the gallery around them has evolved in part to avoid perpetuating the orientalist perspective that the museum has become seen as symbolic of historically. Bernard and I discussed this problematic aspect of western study of China, his own experiences overseas as well as his studies had given him a well-developed appreciation of the need to understand and celebrate different cultural perspectives, and this was a strong motivation in his studies.

I will quote a small part of the dissertation to celebrate his particular eye for the aesthetic as well as his intellectual skills, cognitive abilities he continued to take pleasure from when looking at art books with his granddaughter even to his last days when dementia had robbed him of many of his other cognitive abilities.

“As mentioned in the introduction two hangings of Chinese silks with their Chinese and French paintings are on display in the European gallery [of the V&A]. Their European paintings of the cream coloured borders have been rendered in a distinctive European rococo style whilst the Chinese paintings of the central blue coloured panels are painted in one of the Chinese export styles, namely one I defined as category five. I contend that the panels should not be displayed as examples of Chinoiserie, the central panels are “Chinese Export Painted Silks”. In this mixing of style a parallel can be drawn with the frequent  practise of European 18th century decorators in presenting a Chinoiserie décor using items of Chinese provenance.   One of the best known buildings which has Chinoiserie decors, the Brighton Pavilion, includes items made in China. For example in its Red Drawing room designed by Robert Jones the main décor of the walls were hand painted by English painters with their imagined interpretations of dragons, phoenixes and birds of paradise but twenty-six Chinese export paintings were also applied upon their surfaces. These two examples of Chinese Export Paintings, one painted as pictures on paper and the other as a decorative design upon silk in spite of being incorporated within overall European decors have retained their integrity and remain recognisably Chinese. Such a conclusion tends to bear out my contention that there was a distinct Chinese export painting style which transcended the media used.”

“All the designs of the sixty five examples of the V&A collection [of Chinese export painted silks] which I examined had Chinese botanical, ornithological and insectological subjects. Though these were rendered in a style that had strong echoes of Chinese pictorial conventions they were composed by the Chinese designers to meet perceived European decorative fashions. This trait became ever more apparent to me the longer I studied the collection and generally the Chinese export art and design of the period. What I contend is original in my analysis of the silks’ designs is my conclusion that there are certain correspondence in designs which enables them to be categorised into groups and that such categories can be used to identify Chinese Export Printed Fabrics in other collections.”

Postscript – Julie was at the V&A in July and noted that the display curated by Bernard has been altered.  Some furniture and other items have been added to the display but the information on the actual robes is what he wrote originally.