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Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art

Coordinates: 51°31′29″N 0°7′49″W / 51.52472°N 0.13028°W / 51.52472; -0.13028
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51°31′29″N 0°7′49″W / 51.52472°N 0.13028°W / 51.52472; -0.13028

The David Vases, said to be two of the best-known Chinese porcelains in the world

The Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (abbreviated as the PDF) holds a collection of Chinese ceramics and related items assembled by Percival David that are on permanent display in a dedicated gallery in Room 95 at the British Museum. The foundation's main purpose is to promote the study and teaching of Chinese art and culture. The collection has some 1,700 pieces, mostly of Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain from the 10th century to the 18th. It includes a painting, Scroll of Antiquities (古玩圖 Guwan tu, 1728, Yongzheng's reign).[1]

The collection concentrates on pieces in the "Chinese taste" rather than export ware, and on Imperial porcelain, much of it Jingdezhen ware. It includes examples of the rare Ru and Guan wares and two important Yuan dynasty blue and white porcelain temple vases (the "David Vases"), the oldest dated blue and white porcelain pieces, from 1351.[2] The Foundation also has a large library of Western and East Asian books related to Chinese art; this and archival material are housed in the library of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

In 1950, the collection was presented to the University of London by Sir Percival David. It was displayed in a house at 53 Gordon Square and used as a focus for the teaching of Chinese art and culture at SOAS. The collection has been on display in a special room at the British Museum since 2009.


Two flasks with dragons, 1403–24

Percival David started collecting Chinese art some time around 1913, and he continued to do so until his death in 1964.[3] He first visited China in 1923, and there he gained an appreciation of Chinese ceramics. In 1925 he helped finance and mount an exhibition of many of the best items of the imperial collection in the Forbidden City in Beijing.[citation needed] In 1927, he acquired some items that were originally from the Forbidden City when they came onto the market. Many of these items were sold off by members of the Imperial Household Department during the late Qing dynasty, and Empress Dowager Cixi allegedly used these items as collateral for loans from the Yuin Yeh Bank in 1901.[3] David managed to buy some forty pieces one way or the other and export them to the United Kingdom. In 1930, he again returned to China and helped with various exhibitions and produced a series of catalogues of the pieces. However, much of the acquisition history of David's collection was unrecorded, but he may have acquired many of the items through various dealers, auctions and other collectors. The Yuan dynasty 'David Vases' in the collection were acquired from two separate sources.[3][4] Many pieces were likely once owned by the Qing dynasty emperors, and several pieces have inscriptions added by the orders of the Qianlong Emperor (1736–95). The pieces assembled by Percival David form the most important single collection of Chinese ceramics outside China and Taiwan.

In 1931, David's collection was displayed in the Dorchester Hotel in London. It remained there until it was evacuated to the countryside during World War II. David also created a Chair in Chinese Art and Architecture at the Courtauld Institute of Art, which is part of the University of London. Towards the end of his life, he was determined to keep the collection together, and to this end entered negotiations with the University of London. An agreement was reached to keep the collection and the library together in a foundation attached to SOAS.

The chair that David had created was also moved to SOAS. Previous holders of the chair, called the Percival David Professor of Chinese and East Asian Art, include William Watson, Roderick Whitfield and Craig Clunas. The current[when?] incumbent is Shane McCausland. The collection was opened to the public on 10 June 1952 in a house at 53 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.

The former home of the Percival David Foundation in Gordon Square

The foundation has lent many of its pieces to other countries. It lent many items of Yuan dynasty porcelain to Venice's 700th-anniversary celebration of Marco Polo's expedition. It has also sent other items to places as far away as Japan and the United States.

The library collection was a working library, open to researchers from around the world, and is now accessible through SOAS.


Room 95, British Museum

Due to a funding crisis, 53 Gordon Square closed at the end of 2007. The ceramics collection is on long-term loan to the British Museum, where the whole collection, about 1,700 objects, is on permanent public display in a specially designed gallery (Room 95, British Museum) opened on 23 April 2009, sponsored by Sir Joseph Hotung.[2] The public gallery is part of the Sir Joseph Hotung Centre for Ceramic Studies, which includes facilities to use the collection for teaching.

Chinese Ceramics: Highlights of the Sir Percival David Collection, by Regina Krahl and Jessica Harrison-Hall, was published in April 2009 by the British Museum Press to coincide with the opening of the new display.



David focused his collection of Chinese ceramics on stonewares and porcelain from the 10th to the 18th centuries (Song to Qing dynasties), with a few earlier pieces from the Six Dynasties to the Tang. The earliest piece in the collection dates from the third-century Western Jin. There are no pieces from the earlier periods of Chinese history because David chose not to collect any Chinese earthenware; the development of earthenware is found all around the world, and David's collection aims to give a representative overview of the development of ceramics that is unique to China. He chose the pieces based on the quality of the workmanship and historical importance with a view towards education.[5] Many pieces were imperial wares of the Ming and Qing dynasty, and he collected an unusual number of the rare Song dynasty Ru ware.[6] Just before the opening of the collection in 1952, the foundation was also given a small collection of mostly monochrome porcelain belonging to Mountstuart Elphinstone.[5]

At the British Museum, the collection of the 1,700 items starts with the David Vases placed before the main space of Room 95. Around two hundred of the best pieces are displayed in cases in the centre of the room, with the remaining 1,500 pieces arranged more compactly in rows of glass shelves around the room.[2]


  1. ^ McCausland, Shane (2002). "The Emperor's Old Toys: Rethinking the Yongzheng (1723–35) Scroll of Antiquities in the Percival David Foundation". Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society. 66: 65–75.
  2. ^ a b c "Sir Percival David Collection of Chinese Art". The British Museum. Archived from the original on 22 March 2010.
  3. ^ a b c Wang, Audrey (July 2012). Chinese Antiquities: An Introduction to the Art Market. Lund Humphries Publishing. ISBN 9781409455455.
  4. ^ "altar-vase". British Museum.
  5. ^ a b Krahl, Regina; Harrison-Hall, Jessica (2009). Chinese Ceramics: Highlights of the Sir Percival David Collection. The British Museum Press. pp. 8–9. ISBN 978-0714124544.
  6. ^ Price, Katie (11 November 2015). "The Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art". School of Oriental and African Studies.
  7. ^ "Vase". The British Museum.
External videos
video icon The David Vases, Smarthistory