The Emily Georgiana Kemp Collection

Every intelligent person that I have met whose good fairy has led him to the Celestial Empire has fallen under the spell of that marvellous people and marvellous land. I am fired with the ambition to cast that spell even on those who have never been there, by showing them as accurately and vividly as can, with pen and brush, what the face of China actually is.

   Emily.G. Kemp, The Face of China(1909) 

Watercolours, Emily Kemp Archive,
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Kemp Collection is one of the most extraordinary archives in the Eastern Art Department at the Ashmolean. It was created neither by an Eastern artist nor in an Eastern style. It even has a longer history than the Eastern Art Department. Offered by the British female explorer Emily Georgiana Kemp (1860-1939) in 1938, collections of watercolour paintings made by the artist herself, together with other objects illustrating Chinese life and art, were bequeathed to the Indian Institute, which is the precursor of the Eastern Art Department. This collection arrived during the re-organisation of the Museum of Asian Art and the artistic and historical value of the bequest fits perfectly with the purpose of limiting the display to objects of real artistic or historical importance. “(Kemp’s bequest) would enhance the educational value of our Museum,” The registrar of the University stressed in the letter, “and they would wish to help the university … obtain a collection of good enough quality to form the nucleus of a Chinese collection.”

Portrait Head of Miss Emily Georgiana Kemp, Chalk, 1892, Alphonse Legros (WA1940.5.5)
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Apart from the quality and subject of the collections, the artist’s beliefs and achievement enhanced the paintings to something more than a snapshot of a scene. After graduating as one of the first students of Somerville College, Oxford, Kemp started to travel around and developed a lifelong passion for East and Central Asia. As an artist, writer and explorer, Kemp published six books that covered all her well-known journeys and expressed her extensive vision about religions. She was awarded the Grande Médaille de Vermeil by the French Geographical Society because of her work in 1921, Chinese Mettle, which was an honour never granted to a woman before. In 1935, Kemp founded the Chapel of the Somerville College to provide a place where members of all religions could pray. Along with her own work, the Lancashire-born adventurer had also bequeathed a number of artworks from other artists, such as Alphonse Legros (1837-1911)’s etchings and drawings, which filled a gap in the museum collection, and are currently housed in the Western Art Department.

The archive includes over a hundred published and unpublished watercolour sketches, 19 photographs, 10 textile pieces and more than 200 lantern slides. China was one of the most mentioned areas among Kemp’s works since her younger sister and brother-in-law were  missionaries in China. She visited China several times during late nineteenth to early twentieth century. While visiting the British missionaries based in China, Kemp travelled through thirteen provinces (including Beijing, Hunan, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Shanghai). The slow passage along road and rivers allowed Kemp time to write, paint and watch China slip slowly by.  As a meticulous observer, she captured everything that caught her eye: the architecture, the landscape, or a glance of local daily life. Most of the watercolours and sketches that illustrated in her books are stored in Eastern Art archives, along with many unpublished ones. All of the artworks in the collection are in very good condition and are still as vivid as when they were made.

Kemp resided for a year in Taiyuan (capital of Shanxi province) with her missionary family members. She was deeply interested in the various local religions and the ways of practising them in a different yet harmonious manner, largely due to the fact that Shanxi has a long and prosperous history of Buddhism and Taoism. “The subject, however, was so charming that I could not waste the one chance I had of sketching.” Kemp described. She visited several monasteries and captured the beauty of the architecture from every angle. Most of the scenes still exist today.

Omi tofu, Drawing, Emily Kemp Archive
“We were interested to meet quite a new god in this region. He has three faces, and wears a large stone hat. He is carved in stone and stands by the roadside like a little milestone at intervals all along the way but frequently there are no signs of worship about him. He is called by the Buddhist formula “O mi to fu”, and is worshipped by labours to prevent their getting sore feet, so they frequently burn sandals before him, and incense sticks may be seen in front of his image” -Kemp, E. (1909). The Face of China © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

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Kemp made a remarkable group of watercolours of the faces she met during her trip. Instead of systematically studying local ways of dressing, Kemp’s work is more impressive as a commentary on the physique and behaviour of various local characters. During her time residing in China (although short), Kemp was able to make use of her and her sister’s insider knowledge to represent China from different angles. Kemp’s writing shows more freedom and diversity than the missionary writing, which was tied to a particular mission. From the westernised noble court official to the young illiterate labourer, Kemp’s pen and brush depicted a country in transformation through its people. The ardour toward people from different backgrounds was presented in her artworks with equivalent attention to detail, which she believed to represent their style of life, or, what’s more, their state of mind.  Kemp’s friendly approach towards local people always won her a delighted response. “Often the women came round and smilingly interrogated us. Then we went through an amusing dumb conversation of the most friendly sort. The subject is usually the same – feet- and they never fail to admire our English boots, if not our feet. We, on our side, express much admiration of the exquisite embroidery of their shoes, though we do not admire their feet.” All of these elements produced a unique and accurate depiction of the local culture.


Kemp also visited Miao tribes in Guizhou, which were rarely explored by tourists at that time. The Miao lived in a village which was located in the deep valleys of the province, and was described by Kemp as “Almost inaccessible to the outside world and are only penetrated by missionaries”. Kemp used a chapter to describe the Miao in her book Chinese Mettle, which generally covers the different Miao tribes living around the province and their embroideries, languages and religions.  Apart from watercolours and photos, the Kemp Archive also houses a pair of Miao sandals. 

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Hua Miao, Photograpy, Emily Kemp Archive,
“The Wha Miao (Hua Miao, flowery Miao) are so called because of the colour of their dress, which is dyed blue and red by an ingenious method of stenciling the cloth, using beeswax to make the design….The women, when married, wear their hair erected into a horn, which sticks out from the side of the head; but as soon as they have children the horn is erected straight up from the top.” -Kemp, E. (1921). Chinese Mettle
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Kemp also spared no effort to speak highly of the spread of women’s education and welfare in China under the influence of English missionaries. She celebrated the policies issued by warlord Yan Xishan, the governor of Shanxi Provice, who encouraged girls to enrol into colleges. The Kemp collection includes some very precious photos and a sketch of the opening of the Edward’s Memorial Institute at Taiyuan (EMIT), which was to commemorate the work of Kemp’s sister, Edwards’s wife S. Florence Edwards (Known as ‘living Buddha’ to the local for her generous, loving personality).  The Institute housed about 200 students, including governor Yan Xishan’s wives. Kemp was also a friend of Zeng Baosun (曾寶蓀), a Chinese pioneer feminist, historian and Christian educator, and was invited to visit the first Christian University for women in China founded by her, the I-Fang Girls’ Collegiate School.

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Zeng Baosun,
Slide, Emily Kemp Archive
Zeng Baosun (曾寶蓀), the great-granddaughter of Zeng Guofan. After received teaching training at Oxford and Cambridge, Zeng returned to China and founded I-Fang Girls’ Collegiate School in 1918, Changsha (Hunan), where anti-Christian and anti-foreign riots erupted constantly during the late 1980’s. Zeng’s work was very highly regarded by Kemp: “When I reflect on the state of unrest which existed during the birth of this school and the masterly way in which Miss Tseng(Zeng) has overcome all the difficulties of the situation, I find no words adequate to express my admiration. ”
-Kemp, E. (1921). Chinese Mettle
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Kemp Collection is a varied collection which provides remarkable resources for different subjects. Her involvement and awareness of the culture and people allowed for a new complex image of China to emerge. All items in the collection are available in The Jameel Centre for the Study of Eastern Art for viewings by appointment. Click HERE from more information.

Bright, R. M. (2008). China as I see it: The resident writing of British women in China, 1890–1940. Temple University.
Kaiser, A. T. (2016). The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Kemp, E. (1909). The face of China : Travels in east, north, central and western China. London: Chatto & Windus.
Kemp, E. (1919). Reminiscences of a sister, S. Florence Edwards, of Taiyuanfu. London: Carey press.
Kemp, E. (1921). Chinese mettle. London ; New York [etc.: Hodder and Stoughton.
Somerville College Chapel Blog. (2017). Emily Georgiana Kemp. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 May. 2017].
Williamson, H. R. (1957). British baptists in China, 1845-1952. Carey Kingsgate Press.


Yi Wu is an archive assistant and a local history student with a background in paper conservation. She currently volunteers for the Eastern Art Department, Ashmolean Museum and works at the Bodleian K B Chen China Centre Library.

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Temporary Display: Ding Yi’s ’70 circles’

16 May 2017 –28 May 2017

Gallery 10 | Admission Free

Artist Ding Yi in front of his album “70 circles”on diplay at the Ashmolean Museum in May 2017.

Abstract artist Ding Yi came to visit the Ashmolean Museum on the 17th of May 2017 for an “In conversation” event with Chinese painting expert Professor Shane McCausland from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

70 circles (detail), 2013, accordion book, pencil and acrylic on rice paper, 35 x 648cm © Ding Yi. Courtesy Timothy Taylor, London.

Born in Shanghai in 1962, Ding Yi is a leading contemporary artist in China. He has been making abstract paintings using crosses and grids since the late 1980s. He spent his early years learning traditional Chinese ink and oil painting at Shanghai University before becoming interested in Western modernism. After experimenting with different painting styles and studying the works of French painters such as Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse, he settled on the crosses and grids as his signature style. Ding Yi often works on large scale paintings.

Display of “70 circles” by Ding Yi , Gallery 10, Ashmolean Museum.

The discussion around Ding Yi’s artistic practice took place to celebrate the temporary display of Ding Yi’s work  ’70 circles’ (2013) in Gallery 10, 16–28 May. This accordion album is 6.48 meters long, comprising monochrome series of varying circles with abstracted grids.

The display is a temporary continuation of the Beyond the Brush display in Gallery 29.

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Beyond the Brush—Abstract Ink Painting since 1960

Exhibition dates: 4 April  to 28 August 2017

Gallery 29 | Admission Free

The New display Beyond the Brush—Abstract Ink Painting since 1960 in gallery 29 explores abstraction in Chinese art. The paintings, selected from the Ashmolean Collection, combine elements of Chinese and Western art. Ink, acrylic and collage were used to create vibrant images, steering traditional Chinese ink painting towards Abstract Expressionism. The artists include Liu Kuo-sung (b.1932), Chen Ting-shih (1913-2002), Chuang Che (b.1934) and Fong Chung-ray (b.1933), all leading members of the Fifth Moon Group, representing a new wave of modernism that began in the 1960s in Taiwan. Their paintings depart from the Chinese artist’s conventional relationship with the brush, and emphasise the importance of personal expression and individual style in search of a new modernity.

Beyond the Brush: Abstract Ink Paintings since 1960 – Exhibition View

The Modern Art Movement in Taiwan Part I

In the 1960s a group of young artists in Taiwan believed that Chinese painting frozen into formality on the mainland and hidebound by conservatism in Taiwan, was at a standstill, and it was their mission to bring it to life. Abstract Expressionism, which was developed in New York in the 1940s, became a major source of their art creation. The Fifth Moon members met regularly to appreciate and critique one another’s work, including Liu Kuo-sung, Chuang Che, Chen Ting-shih, Hung Hsien, and Hu Chi Chung. They also exhibited their works at art shows held in May. They were not restricted by medium or technique, and used oils, acrylic, collage and Chinese ink to create a new Chinese painting responsive to the challenge of Western modernism. These stylistically diverse paintings illustrate a variety of new ink language in modern Chinese painting. Since 1960, a number of innovations initiated by a group of Taiwan artists have introduced new themes, techniques and ideas to Chinese painting, at the same time they serve to reaffirm the strength and vitality of the tradition itself. Although the Modern Art Movement began in Taiwan, its outlook from the very beginning was international.

Beyond the Brush: Abstract Ink Paintings since 1960 – Exhibition View – On the left: Liu Kuo-sung, Abstract landscape, 1966,  Sullivan Bequest  © the Artist. EA2015.223; On the right: Chuang Che, Abstract, 1967, ink and colour on paper,  59.9 x 46.3 cm,Sullivan Bequest  © the Artist.  EA2015.77.

Liu Kuo-sung is one of founders of the Fifth Moon Group and a leading painter in Taiwan. Born in Bangbu, Anhui province, Liu began learning Chinese painting when he was fourteen years old. He moved to Taiwan with the National Revolutionary Military Orphan School in 1949. He changed his area of study to Western painting after entering university. During 1958 and 1959, he experimented with a number of Chinese and Western styles, feeling the influence of Cézanne, Klee, and Picasso. Since 1960 he has abandoned oil and canvas, and returned to the world of ink and paper. As early as the 1970s, Liu developed his theory about modern ink art, in his own words, “A brush is but dots and thread; ink is but colour and surface; light-ink strokes are but a way of creating texture.” His individual creative technique was marked by bold, sweeping brushstrokes and calligraphically-inspired lines. The two landscape paintings on display show results of Liu’s early experimental ink art. He invented Guosong paper made with coarse fibre to create white lines by stripping off the top layer to expose the rougher surface beneath and pulling out the fibres. He combined paint with collage and the calligraphic brushstroke to create his own vision of the natural world.

Liu Kuo-sung, Blue and black abstract landscape, 1970, ink and colour on paper, 270.7 x 16.6 cm,  Sullivan Bequest © the Artist. EA2015.224

Chuang Che, born in Beijing, was introduced to art by his father when he was little. Chuang’s father was Chuang Shang-Yen (1899-1980), a scholar and calligrapher who worked at the National Palace Museum in Beijing. Chuang Che moved to Taiwan in 1948. After graduated from Taiwan National Normal University in 1958, Chuang taught at Tunghai University. He joined the Fifth Moon Group and actively pushed the modernization of Chinese painting. He introduced lines, shapes and structures of calligraphy into his painting.

Chen Ting-shih, Black and white abstraction, 1968, fibre-board with string print, with oil-based ink, 27 x 19 cm, Sullivan Bequest © Artist Estate. EA2015.421.g

Chen Ting-shih (1913-2002) was born in Fujian, China. Although deaf at a young age, Chen studied Chinese painting at thirteen and taught himself oil painting. He left China for Taiwan in 1948 and has participated in various artistic circles such as the Fifth Moon Group, the Modern Graphic Art Association and the Modern Eyes Group. He was known as a representative of the abstract style. Chen created his signature technique using bagasse plates, the natural cracking of which became his unique artistic style. The painting Abstraction is created by pressing inked fibre-board over loosely coiled string. The entangled and spiralled threads are set afloat against a solid ink background, like sparkling in the dark. This album was circulated among artists of the younger generation whom Professor Michael Sullivan (1916-2013) met during his visit to Hong Kong in 1968. All were painters, except for the sculptors Cheung Yee  (b.1936) and Van Lau (b.1933).

Yan Liu, Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting.

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Beyond the Brush—Abstract Ink Painting since 1960 part II

Exhibition dates: 4 April  to 28 August 2017

Gallery 29 | Admission Free

The Modern Art Movement in Taiwan Part II

Fong Chung-Ray is a distinguished artist best known for his unique abstract painting. In 1949 he went to Taiwan where he received formal art training at the military’s Cadre College of Arts and Crafts. After graduation, he worked as an officer and created art works for the Navy. In 1956 he abandoned realistic descriptive style and became more interested in abstract painting. In 1961 he joined the Fifth Moon Group and his work was influenced by Liu Kuo-sung.

Beyond the Brush: Abstract Ink Paintings since 1960 – Exhibition View, works by Fong Chung-Ray

Upon emigrating to America in 1975, Fong Chung-Ray became more interested in mixed-media and collage. In 1989 Fong introduced collage into his ink painting, and developed his distinguished style that blends the essence of Chinese literati painting and the spirit of modern Western art.  He applied acrylic onto thin sheets of plastic to produce unpredictable patterns, and these patterns in turn are transferred onto papers or canvas. Such a process produced ragged, geometric shapes which blended Chinese calligraphy, European Cubism and paper mounting. His paintings blended the brush strokes of Chinese calligraphy with Abstract Expressionist features.

Fong Chung-ray, Blue, green, and black composition, 2008, ink and acrylic on layers Japanese paper, 27.1 x 24.3 cm, Sullivan Bequest, © Fong Chung Ray. EA2015.119

The paintings in this display were created by the artist in the last decade. Inspired by Liu Kuo-sung’s encouragement, Fong Chung-Ray frequently uses Chinese calligraphy as visual elements; these paintings are excellent examples of turning Chinese calligraphy into expressive images through collage. Fong Chung-Ray names his works with numbers of production rather than more descriptive titles. He was recognised as the most sophisticated colourist of the group. Fong’s colourism is distinguished by its subtle values and delicate hues. In the choice of main colours; he prefers black, pale grey, blue and violet.

Fong Chung-ray, Green, red, and black composition, 2008, ink and acrylic on layers Japanese paper, 24 x 27.2 cm, Sullivan Bequest, © Fong Chung Ray. EA2015.118

Chu Ge (alternative name Yuan Dexing) was a central figure in Taiwan’s modern art movement as a poet, art critic, painter and sculptor. He went to Taiwan in 1949, in 1957 he joined in the modern poetry and painting movements, and used the pen name of Chu Ko.

Beyond the Brush: Abstract Ink Paintings since 1960 – Exhibition View with two works by Chu Ko

In 1965 Chu Ko started working at the National Palace Museum, his research on prehistoric artefacts and Chinese history became some sources of his artistic creation. In Herdsman’s Song, the entangled calligraphic lines present artfully tied knots which were often used by people in ancient China to keep records before writing. From Chu’s view, the aesthetic of Chinese art lies in the simple beauty of knots full of transformation.


Yan Liu, Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting.

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Beyond the Brush—Abstract Ink Painting since 1960 part III

Exhibition dates: 4 April  to 28 August 2017

Gallery 29 | Admission Free

Experimental ink art in the Mainland and beyond

This exhibition also showcases a few experimental ink paintings by contemporary artists from mainland and Hong Kong whose works blend the spirit of Western Abstract Expressionism and an oriental aesthetic.

Beyond the Brush: Abstract Ink Paintings since 1960 – Exhibition View

Qiu Deshu (b. 1948), who is a gifted painter and calligrapher, began experimenting with ink on paper in creative ways when he saw Jackson Pollock’s abstract painting at an exhibition in Shanghai in 1979. In the same year, he organised the Grass Society (Caocao huashe), one of the first dissident groups. After a year in America (1985-1986) he returned to Shanghai, and developed his unique technique “fissuring”, or “transparent paper tear method”. Qiu’s experiment in ink painting began in the end of 1970s. Inspired by the crack in a flagstone by change in 1982, he started his “Fissure” series. He uses ink, colour and paper in a collage-like process indebted to the techniques used for mounting scrolls. In the painting Ghostly figures and cracks, he introduced graphic composition into ink painting, and the red marks in this image recall the collector’s seals on ancient Chinese calligraphy and paintings (Image 2015. 267).

Qiu Deshu, Ghostly figures and cracks, before 7 May 1989, ink and colour on paper, 34.4 x 48.3 cm, Sullivan Bequest © the Artist. EA2015.267

In his later work, he does not directly use ink and colour to make forms and draw line, but instead he applies ink and colour onto canvas and board before mounting the broken rice paper. By hitting and rubbing the surface of rice paper, the base colour can be reflected to form different tones, layers and textures.

Ng Yiu-chung, Landscape with red sun, 1970 – 1971, ink and colour on paper, 31.1 x 44.4 cm, Sullivan Bequest © the Artist. EA2015.222.e

Ng Yiu-chung (Wu Yaozhong, b. 1935) is a painter based in Hong Kong. In 1968 he studied painting under Lü Shoukun (1919-1975), who was a pioneering painter and initiated the New Ink Movement involved in pulling modernist elements into ink painting in Hong Kong. In this landscape painting, Ng discarded the traditional vocabulary of texture-strokes, and built up his mountains with short, even, straight strokes, layer upon layer, as if they were bricks.

Lü Wu-chiu, Wang Wei’s Peach Blossom Spring, 2004, ink on paper, 77.3 x 82.8 cm, Sullivan Bequest © the Artist. EA2015.242.b

Lü Wu-chiu was born 1918 in Tanyang, Jiangsu province, as the second daughter of the painter and calligrapher Lü Fengzi, former president of the National Arts College in Suzhou. Lü received her early training in the art of portraiture, which at first she practised in embroidery, so well that her work was presented as gifts to foreign diplomats, winning her a fellowship to the United States. During her visit and study in North America in 1959-60, Lü Wu-chiu became interested in experimental ink painting. Her paintings take on the form of abstract expressionism and embody the essence of Chinese aesthetics.

Beyond the Brush: Abstract Ink Paintings since 1960 – Exhibition View

It is worth mentioning that all the exhibits are from the Sullivan Bequest. Professor Michael Sullivan (1916-2013) was Fellow Emeritus of St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University and a pioneering scholar of modern and contemporary Chinese art. He was born on October 29, 1916, in Toronto, Canada. In 1939 he went to China to drive trucks for the Red Cross in southwest China, where he met and married Khoan in 1943, and made many goods friends with Chinese artists. Over seven decades, the Sullivans built up a rich collection of modern and contemporary Chinese art in a diversity of styles and media.

After his death, more than 450 paintings were bequeathed to the Ashmolean together with his archive. The paintings on display were gifted to Sullivan by artists themselves, including the album with Chen Ting-shih‘s painting, which was circulated among artists of the younger generation whom Professor Michael Sullivan met during his visit to Hong Kong in 1968. All were painters, except for the sculptors Cheung Yee  (b.1936) and Van Lau (b.1933). Their contributions give a hint of the fascinating range of media, styles and techniques, from the purely classical to abstractions and collages, being practised at the time of the colony’s artistic awakening.

Yan Liu, Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting.

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