Location/Dislocation – Admiral Keppel, the Chinese Buddha at Sandringham and three key photographs

Visualising China blog - 16/11/2022

Jamie Carstairs (Special Collections, University of Bristol Library) is researching the work of Charles Frederick Moore (1838-1916). In this post, Photodetective Carstairs reinvestigates a photographic cold case…

Fig. 1. A gilded bronze Buddha, with two unidentified men, British Legation, Beijing, c. 1869. A rare, hand-coloured print of a photograph by Charles Frederick Moore. Image courtesy of the Terry Bennett Collection (ref: BPEK-3).

In my mind, three golden Buddhas lined up in a row, as if in a one-armed bandit of yore; there was a laden, brain defogging pause, then “Aha! I think I have it”, a cascade of thoughts, followed by a flurry of checking and googling to confirm the hunch.

In 2013, this image (fig. 1) of a gilded bronze Buddha was shared with the Historical Photographs of China team, along with analysis which compellingly indicated that the location was the British Legation, Beijing.

Curiously, it was observed by one investigator that the pedestal was made of wood.[1] The unusual photograph raised additional questions for me – why was the ‘Laughing Buddha’ outdoors, apparently in a garden? And why were the European men posed, in seemingly proprietorial stances, beside a Chinese devotional object? All very odd. The perplexing picture was mentally added to my ‘unresolved puzzles’ pile.

Fig. 2. This faded print of a photograph by Charles Frederick Moore, is pasted into his album at the Irish Jesuit Archive and captioned ‘Big Bell’ed God, Pekin’. Other known prints are labelled ‘The Bronze Joss Ta tu tza, Peking’ (i.e. The bronze, big-bellied god, Beijing) and ‘Bronze Idol’. Reference image courtesy of the Irish Jesuit Archive, Dublin.

Years later, the same photograph (fig. 2) was spotted in Charles Frederick Moore’s album at the Irish Jesuit Archive, Dublin, piquing further my interest in it.[2] This summer, prompted by my ‘one-armed bandit’ whim, I looked closely at an old post card (fig. 3) I’d bought on ebay, of the Buddha at Sandringham House, Norfolk, England – the country retreat belonging to King Charles – and was astonished to realise that the Sandringham Buddha was the same one as the Peking Buddha in Moore’s photograph.

The revelation led to more discoveries and is quite a story in itself. Admiral Sir Henry Keppel, Commander-in-Chief, China Station, is said to have ‘found’ or ‘purchased’ the Buddha in Peking. He had the ‘Joss’ (as Britons routinely referred to such icons at the time) spirited out of China and shipped to England aboard HMS Rodney. Keppel gave it to his friend, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), as a housewarming gift for his new house at Sandringham in Norfolk.

Fig. 3. The ‘Chinese Idol,’ at Sandringham House, Norfolk, England, c.1925. The Chinoiserie wooden ‘pagoda’ over the sculpture was put up by estate carpenters, for Edward, Prince of Wales, in the 1870s. The canopy was demolished in 1960, as the woodwork had become rotten. The Buddha was (and still is) flanked by two granite Japanese lions, also presented by Admiral Keppel.

While staying at the British Legation, Beijing, in 1869 Keppel, noted in his journal that ‘The Joss went off on Saturday’ – i.e. 22 May 1869.[3] The Rodney finally left Chinese waters on 23 September 1869, departing from Hong Kong, along with two granite Japanese lions (also to be given to the Prince), two bears, a pair of cassowaries and some pigs, and arrived at Portsmouth on 12 April 1870. The Buddha was delivered via King’s Lynn, to Sandringham House shortly afterwards.

These dates might help the identification of the men in Moore’s photograph. They have long been thought to be the great Scottish photographer John Thomson on the left, with Legation surgeon, Dr John Dudgeon, also a noteworthy figure in the history of photography in China, on the right. But, as far we know, John Thomson didn’t get to Beijing until 1871. Dr Dudgeon was resident in the city in 1869, but the man in the photograph does not look like him. Known, reliably captioned pictures of Dudgeon do not resemble the bushily bearded man on the right, whose workaday clothes do not look like those of a Victorian doctor, a member of the professional, upper middle class. So, who are the men?

Keppel recorded that whilst he was at the British Legation, he ‘went to see the Joss that the Sergeant of Minister’s Bodyguard has brought for me’, on 20 May 1869.[4] A man called Franklin was the Sergeant of the British Minister’s Bodyguard in 1869, that is, the senior Legation escort and guard.[5] It is feasible that the men with the Buddha in Moore’s photograph include Franklin and another of the guard, but I have no evidence to support this speculation. How the sculpture came to be at the British Legation also remains a mystery. If it was purchased from impoverished Buddhist priests or monks, in which temple or monastery had it been?

Fig. 4. The ‘Laughing Buddha’ (Budai) at Sandringham House, August 1934, when still housed under a ‘pagoda’ canopy. Note the good condition of the gilt. Photograph by George Plunkett (Source: http://www.georgeplunkett.co.uk/).

Keppel further recorded that ‘Sir Rutherford [Alcock, British Minister, Beijing] directed that it should be carefully covered with matting for fear any dévote Chinaman should take umbrage at a god being removed from the Celestial Empire.’[6] Perhaps coincidentally, a roll of matting can be seen in the background of Moore’s photograph. One can speculate that the matting had just been taken off the sculpture for the photographer. The Buddha and Keppel travelled by waterways from Beijng to Tianjin, accompanied by a Chinese Official. Keppel noted: ‘The mandarin who accompanied us was anxious to know if I should burn incense before it when I got home. I have no doubt he thought I was a convert to Buddhism.’[7]

Fig. 5. Sir Henry Keppel, known as ‘The Little Admiral’, with his friend, Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), in 1894. The Prince was instrumental in Keppel procuring the command of the Royal Navy fleet in China in 1866. Photograph as reproduced in ‘Memoir of Sir Henry Keppel. C.G.B., Admiral of the Fleet’ by Sir Algernon West (1905).

Keppel added that he ‘sent a photograph of it [the Buddha] to General Knollys’, who was Treasurer and Comptroller of the Household of the Prince of Wales.[8] This was most likely the photograph by Moore. It is reasonable to deduce that Keppel had commissioned Moore to take the photograph, as a record, and in order to send to Sir Francis Knollys, as Knollys was involved in planning the gardens at Sandringham House. Unfortunately Keppel’s covering correspondence with Knollys and this particular print of Moore’s photograph are unlikely to have survived, as Knollys destroyed many of his papers relating to the Prince of Wales, for fear of scandal.

The ‘Laughing Buddha’ (Budai) is an incarnation of the Maitreya in a specific guise. The big belly of the Bodhisattva represents ‘a number of Chinese life-ideals’ – a genial, prosperous, well-fed, spiritually contented being, happy in his own body and surrounded by his gamboling children.[9] For the Royals, the ‘Chinese Joss’ is said to have been referred to by the affectionate nickname ‘John Chinaman’ or ‘Mr Chinaman’.[10] James Pope-Hennessy wrote that the Princesses Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret, when children, called him ‘Laughy’ or ‘Goddy’.[11] Their mother wrote in a letter to King George V in 1924 that she hoped that ‘the little yellow Chinaman is bringing the luck he is supposed to’.[12]

Fig. 6. The Sandringham Buddha’s big toe, the gilt rubbed off for luck, or in veneration, by visitors, who also nowadays leave coins in his lap. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs. A memory of taking photographs of the Buddha in 1994 surfaced this summer, along with figs. 1 and 3, to connect the Sandringham Buddha with the Beijing Buddha photographed by Charles Frederick Moore.

As for visitors to Sandringham House, the Buddha is something of a dislocated, gaudy curiosity. Helen Cathcart described the divinity as ‘blandly-smiling’; James Pope-Hennessy likened his ‘lascivious smirk’ to the face of the Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev; Mike Biles found its ‘unpleasant little smirk’ ‘slightly creepy’; to Elle Seymour, the sculpture is a ‘happy chappy’.[13]

The gilded bronze Maitreya Bodhisattva, now bereft of its ‘pagoda’ shelter, still graces the gardens of Sandringham House, fully exposed to the elements, stained, scratched, and gently corroding. The artwork is recorded as having been made in 1690 by Yen-Ling-Yin and Ling-Sun, Buddhist priests/foundry workers.[14] The representation of the deity was found to have many Chinese coins inside it, presumed to be the offerings of the faithful at some long-forgotten place of worship.[15] Whether one considers the seventeenth century Laughing Buddha as an ‘extraordinarily fine’ historical work of art, or as a holy object, is it fitting that it is today a sad and neglected garden ornament?[16]

[1] Li Weiwen, in correspondence with the photohistorian Terry Bennett, had noted that the bronze statue of the Buddha with its Tibetan style coronet, was on a wooden pedestal (see the carpentry joins at the corners), i.e., not made of either stone or bronze. This suggested that the Buddha was outdoors temporarily. The building behind it was not a temple/monastery, nor an ordinary house, rather it was built in a high-status style. Li Weiwen further observed variations in the brickwork, indicating new construction added to old. As the British Legation in Beijing was previously a prince’s palace and was much augmented by the British, Li proposed that the Legation could well be the exact location. Many thanks to Terry Bennett for sharing images from his collection with me.

[2] As well as the print in Moore’s album at the Irish Jesuit Archive (fig. 2), there’s another one in ‘Bibianne’s album’ (the album Moore’s wife, Bibianne Yii Moore, gave to Hester Hart) and also, in addition to the hand-coloured print (fig.1), there’s an uncoloured print in Terry Bennet’s Collection in amongst a set of known Moore photographs.

[3] Admiral Sir Henry Keppel, A Sailor’s Life Under Four Sovereigns (London: Macmillan, 1899), vol. III, p. 261.

[4] Keppel, A Sailor’s Life, vol. III, p. 260.

[5] The Chronicle & Directory for China, Japan & The Philippines, for the Year 1869 (Hong Kong: Daily Press, 1869).

[6] Keppel, A Sailor’s Life, vol. III, p. 261. Perhaps sensitivities about the looting of 1860 remained acute.

[7] Keppel, A Sailor’s Life, vol. III, p. 259.

[8] Keppel, A Sailor’s Life, vol. III, p. 260.

[9] Kenneth K.S. Ch’en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), pp. 405-408. Many thanks to Professor Rupert Gethin for this reference.

[10] Mentioned in William Shawcross, Counting One’s Blessings: Duchess of York: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (London: Macmillan, 2013).

[11] James Pope-Hennessy (ed. Hugo Vickers), The Quest for Queen Mary (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2018), p. 89.

[12] Letter from Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother to George V, 14 January 1924, quoted in William Shawcross, Counting One’s Blessings: Duchess of York: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

[13] Helen Cathcart, Sandringham: The Story of a Royal Home (London: W.H. Allen, 1964), p. 95; James Pope-Hennessy (ed. Hugo Vickers), The Quest for Queen Mary, p. 89; Mike Biles, ‘A Bit about Britain’; Elle Seymour, The Royal’s Smuggled House Warming Gift at Sandringham (2022).

[14] The Chinese Joss (‘John Chinaman’). Recording Archive for Public Sculpture in Norfolk and Suffolk (RACNS).

[15] Helen Cathcart, Sandringham, p. 96.

[16] The Chinese Joss (‘John Chinaman’). Recording Archive for Public Sculpture in Norfolk and Suffolk (RACNS).

The Forbidden City at War: Images of the Wartime Evacuation of the Imperial Art Collections

Visualising China blog - 19/10/2022

Adam Brookes is the author of Fragile Cargo: China’s Wartime Race to Save the Treasures of the Forbidden City, published in September 2022 by Chatto &Windus, London. He was for many years a journalist for BBC News, serving as Jakarta Correspondent, Beijing Correspondent, and Washington Correspondent.


China’s hapless last emperor, Pu Yi, vacated the Forbidden City at gunpoint in November, 1924. Less than a year later, the Forbidden City became the Palace Museum and opened its doors to Peking’s public. Rapturous crowds came to wander the halls and courtyards that had been home to the emperors of the Ming and Qing empires, and to gaze upon the magnificent imperial art collections for the first time.

For a few short years, the Palace Museum conserved and exhibited the million art objects and texts in its care, and came as close as it could to flourishing. Its finances were permanently shaky and its leadership faced criticism, envy and accusations of corruption, but it grew into one of the principal cultural institutions of the young Republic of China. The objects on display underwent a transfiguration: where once they had constituted the private, hidden treasure of emperors, now they stood as ‘national’ treasures, property of the young nation state and evidence of a ‘national’ history and patrimony.

By the early 1930s, however, the Palace Museum’s leadership fretted at the threat posed by Japan’s military incursions into China’s territory. Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in 1931 followed by the bombing of Shanghai by Japanese naval aircraft in 1932 gave rise to the terrifying notion that Peking, too, could be bombed from the air, that Japanese troops might occupy and loot the city of its treasures. The museum’s board of directors came to a drastic realisation: the imperial collections would have to be evacuated from Peking. The museum’s curators began to pack..

Fig. 1. Packing artefacts for evacuation from the Forbidden City, 1932. Photographer unknown.

The rarest, most irreplaceable pieces were packed by the curators in wooden cases, wrapped in cotton wadding and hemp cord to keep them separated and immobile.  The photograph above is one of a very few known images of the packing process. The wooden case was one of nearly twenty thousand that would be packed, inventoried and labeled in 1932 and 1933, and evacuated from Peking. The curators, wearing long robes against the cold and the fedoras fashionable at the time, along with a uniformed soldier, are preparing to pack bronze wine jars that date from the Han period. Those same jars are today on display at the National Palace Museum, Taipei (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. ‘Zhong’ wine vessel, Western Han period, c. 1st-3rd century BCE, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

The curators packed 28,000 pieces of porcelain, more than 8,000 paintings and a similar number of objects worked in jade. They packed ivories and jewellery, swords, libraries, archives, clocks and tapestries. In February 1933, the first of 19,557 wooden cases containing perhaps a quarter of a million objects and texts from the Forbidden City and other Peking institutions, awaited transport. Hundreds of porters hefted the cases out of the Forbidden City at night and took them by truck and cart to Ch’ienmen railway station to be loaded aboard freight cars.

Fig. 3. Packed cases awaiting transport out of Peking, February 1933.

The evacuated cases went first by train to Shanghai for storage in the French Concession, a strange choice, perhaps, given the fighting in Shanghai in 1932. The museum seems to have felt that the extraterritoriality of the foreign concessions might guarantee the collections’ safety, at least until a more permanent solution could be found. As the 1930s wore on and war engulfed China, the imperial collections, bundled and immobilised in their packing cases, traveled thousands of miles across China in search of safety. Their voyage lasted sixteen years.

At the heart of this extraordinary enterprise was Ma Heng (Fig. 4), who became acting director of the Palace Museum in 1933, and was confirmed in the post in 1934. It was a politically dangerous job; Ma’s  predecessor, Yi P’ei-chi, was hounded out of the museum amid accusations of corruption and theft, and  died in penury.  Ma Heng was a wealthy businessman and antiquarian scholar who became a professor at Peking University. He played a significant role in the introduction of modern methods to Chinese archeology. He was a retiring, cautious figure, but enjoyed a measure of loyalty and respect among the museum’s curators.

Fig. 4. Ma Heng (1881-1955)

Ma Heng administered the imperial collections’ years-long, hair-raising journey to the far west of China by steamship, train and truck, raft (Fig. 5) and porter. He found storage for them in a cave in Guizhou province, and in village temples and ancestral halls in Sichuan. In these remote locations, far from the front line but still within range of Japanese bombers, the collections passed the Second World War under the care of a small band of loyal curators. Their move to the far west, into areas still controlled by the battered Republic of China, mirrored the wider migration of people, bureaucracy, industries, universities and schools from east to west in the face the Japanese advance. While the curators were preoccupied with the cases’ safety and the collections’ integrity, their effort perhaps was part of a larger effort on the part of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime to ensure that the idea of an independent, sovereign China did not die.

Fig. 5 Trucks loaded with cases containing the imperial collections cross a river on a bamboo raft, c. 1939.

In the late 1940s, as China fell back into civil war, the imperial collections remained packed in their wooden cases and were stored in Nanjing. In 1948, Chiang Kai-shek decreed that the very finest pieces of the collections would accompany him and his shattered republic on their retreat to Taiwan. Nearly three thousand cases containing imperial porcelain, masterpieces on hanging scroll and handscroll, ancient bronzes, luminescent jades, archives and encyclopaedias made the journey by ship to Keelung, and then into storage in warehouses in Taiwan’s central highlands. The imperial collections, which had resided in the Forbidden City for centuries, were now split, and have never been reunited.

Fig. 6. Cases containing the imperial collections in storage in Taiwan, circa 1950

Figure 6 shows the cases neatly stacked in storage after arrival in Taiwan, each one’s label facing outwards for easy identification. On these particular cases, the character 院 yuan indicates that the contents originated in the Palace Museum as opposed to any other Peking institution, and the character 沪 hu indicates that the case was packed by, and contains objects from, the museum’s Antiquities Department rather than the Library or Archives. The numbers denote the cases’ place in the catalogues, and from them the curators would have been able to deduce the exact contents.

Today, the imperial collections remain divided between museums in Taiwan and in the People’s Republic of China. They continue to carry with them a certain political charge. For some, they are evidence of the greatness of ‘Chinese civilization’; others view them as symbolic of a ‘divided China’ yearning for wholeness once more. Some in Taiwan see them as part of an outdated attempt to impose an alien culture, and wish them gone. Have the imperial collections of China finally reached their resting places? It may be too soon to say.

A name, a photograph, and a history of global connections

Visualising China blog - 30/09/2022

Dr Helena F. S. Lopes is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Department of History, University of Bristol

The Portuguese were one of the largest communities in Shanghai from the 1840s until the early 1950s. Although many had a Macanese family background, not all did. An important connection, virtually ignored in the existing literature, links some Portuguese families in China not to Macau or Hong Kong, but to India. This blog post is about one of them.

While working on the edition of a 1937 report written by the Portuguese consul in the city during the battle of Shanghai, a name caught my attention: ‘Joaquim Bernardino de S. Lazaro’, ‘owner of the Sam Lazaro Brothers Firm’ in Shanghai. In the report, Bernardino de Sam Lazaro is mentioned as one of the prominent members of a relief commission set up to assist Portuguese nationals in Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese hostilities. Among other tasks, this volunteer commission played a decisive role in helping evacuate members of the community out of Shanghai. Bernardino de Sam Lazaro’s actions are singled out for praise for having lent a company truck and one of his personal cars to the consulate, used to carry people and their luggage in their flight to safer locations.

Intrigued, I searched for more information and one of the pieces of the puzzle was found right here on the Historical Photographs of China Project website! A photograph by Malcolm Rosholt showing Chinese refugees passing in front of the Sam Lazaro Bros shop window on Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s foremost commercial avenue. Taken by the American journalist, the photograph was contemporaneous to the consul’s report: both are sources by foreign observers of China’s War of Resistance. And in the middle of both, hidden amongst other information, is Sam Lazaro.

Refugees outside Sam Lazaro Bros shop, Shanghai, 1937. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0186

A bit more digging helped shed additional light on this company and the family who found it and ran it. Sam Lazaro Bros (賚瑞羅音樂所 Lai Ruiluo yinyuesuo [Lazaro music house]) was set up by three Sam Lazaro Brothers, one of whom was Bernardino, in 1916 or 1924.[1] It imported pianos and other musical instruments and records from North America and Europe. An entry for Sam Lazaro Bros in the 1925 volume of Seaports of the Far East lists the company as ‘Importers of Musical Merchandise, Piano Tuners and Repairers’ at 125 Szechuan (Sichuan) Road. The 1938 Directory and Chronicle for China, Japan, Korea, etc. listed it on 130 Nanjing Road. Other sources locate the company at 232 Nanjing Road (for example, this entry on the website ‘The Pipe Organ in China Project’). I was excited to find that the firm was also connected to cinema.  Seemingly, it was a ticket agent for major film theatres in Shanghai like the Cathay or the Nanking. Indeed, two film posters can be seen outside the shop in Rosholt’s photograph.

An advertisement for the screening of George Cukor’s film Holiday (1938) at the Nanking Theatre, with the information (at the bottom) ‘Downtown Booking at Sam Lazaro Bros’, published in The China Press, 15 October 1938. Several film listings published in the Shanghai press in the 1920s and 1930s had similar references to the firm.

According to information in Chinese cited in the entry about the company in MADSpace, Sam Lazaro Bros also had branches in Panaji (Pangim), Goa’s capital (then under Portuguese rule) and Yangon (Rangoon, then under British rule), which illustrates how the company’s owners – like other families in Asia – straddled the British and the Portuguese imperial worlds, not simply in East Asia but also in South and Southeast Asia. I later came across archival files from 1949 and 1951 on some members of the Sam Lazaro family, confirming their registration at the Shanghai consulate as Portuguese, possibly from when they were preparing to leave the city. Bernardino is listed as having been born in ‘Margão, Portuguese India’ in 1888.

A genealogy website lists Joaquim Bernardino de Sam Lazaro as having died in Shanghai in 1972, an intriguing information as the great majority of Portuguese nationals had left Shanghai by the early 1950s. Could he have been one of the few foreigners to remain in the People’s Republic of China? Possibly not, as another ancestry website states that he passed away in Bangalore, India. A brief mention in this article also notes that the family left Shanghai for Bangalore in 1951 and that, later, some members went to the United States (one of Bernardino’s sons, Fred de Sam Lazaro, is a distinguished journalist). The same article mentions Bernardino’s wife was a physician and there’s a brief February 1941 report in the North China Herald on Bernardino’s marriage to ‘Dr. Alda da Silva’ at the (Catholic) Church of Christ the King. Did Dr Silva practice medicine in Shanghai? I haven’t yet found an answer to this.

In sum, a name in a report and a photograph on HPC opened a window into a history of global migration involving China, India, Burma, Britain (through the British Empire), Portugal, and the US. They are also linked to a history of global circulation of commodities such as musical instruments and of the distribution of Hollywood films in China, mediated by companies like Sam Lazaro Bros, that were both local and transnational.


[1] The entry about the company in Dr Cécile Armand’s MADSpace platform gives a founding date of 1916 whilst Dr Szu-Wei Chen’s ‘The Music Industry and Popular Song in 1930s and 1940s Shanghai: A Historical and Stylistic Analysis’ (PhD thesis, University of Stirling, 2007) states it was set up in 1924 (p. 137).