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Charles Townley (1737–1805) was born into a wealthy Catholic family and educated abroad. In 1768, after ten years of improving his country estate, Townley set off on the first of three Grand Tours to Italy. He soon became an enthusiastic collector of antiquities.

Returning to England, Townley bought a fine house in Park Street in Westminster and filled it with his collection of classical sculpture. Many grand people visited Park Street to admire his collection of antiquities, which became the talk of London.

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This watercolour is one of a pair which show the Townley Collection arranged in his house at 7 Park Street, Westminster.

In the centre of this view of the sculptures displayed in the dining room, a young lady sketches, seated at the base of the famous Discobolus (discus-thrower) discovered at Tivoli, Italy in 1791. 

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Townley became a Trustee of the British Museum in 1791, and on his death the Museum acquired his famous collection by an Act of Parliament. This was the Museum’s first major acquisition of classical sculpture.

Find out more about Townley and the British Museum with these objects.

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Lacquer is unique to East Asia. It was first used in China thousands of years ago, and has long been valued for its decorative and protective effects.

Lacquer is the toxic sap from the Chinese lacquer tree. The sap is filtered and heated so it is no longer poisonous, then applied in layers onto a wooden core covered with textile. Red lacquer is coloured with cinnabar. Each layer of varnish takes 24 hours to dry, and elaborately carved objects require 100 layers. After carving, the edges of the design are polished.

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This carved red lacquer table was created for the Xuande emperor (r. 1426–1435). It is the largest surviving piece of lacquer furniture made in the imperial lacquer factory in Beijing. On the top, it has a five-clawed dragon and phoenix on a ground of lotuses with ornamental rocks. The dragon symbolises the emperor and the phoenix the empress.

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Red lacquer was also carved to create boxes and dishes. Paintings from the period show eunuchs carrying boxes and dishes like this for imperial picnics. They were also used to present gifts of food. This dish shows a scene of scholars entertaining their friends with food, music and games.

See these pieces of exquisite lacquer ware alongside many other spectacular objects in our exhibition #Ming50Years

Book your tickets now >

Images from top:

Carved red lacquer box carved with narcissi and epidendra. China, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, 1403–1424.

Carved red lacquer table on a wooden core, gilded-bronze drawer handles and mounts. Beijing, Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Red lacquer dish with figures in landscape, flowers of four seasons, and inscription. China, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, 1403–1424.

Cloisonné is an enamelling technique for decorating metalwork. Metal wire cells (cloisons in French) are added to create the design. Coloured glass rods are melted and dripped into the cells, then fired. When the object cools and the glass shrinks, gaps in the design are filled in and the object is re-fired. This process is repeated up to four times. Finally, the work is polished and the metal wires gilded (covered in gold).

Ming emperors encouraged developments in craft technology through patronage. They ordered brightly coloured objects to decorate the vast halls of their palaces. According to two inscriptions under the rim of this jar, it was made under the supervision of eunuchs in the ‘Directorate for Imperial Accoutrements’ for the Xuande emperor (r. 1425–1435).

See this spectacular jar and other fascinating objects in #Ming50Years – open now until 5 Jan 2015.

600 years ago on 20 September 1414, the Sultan of Bengal sent a giraffe as tribute to the Yongle emperor of China. The animal arrived at the Ming court to great acclaim and was thoroughly documented in words and images, like in this hanging scroll from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The giraffe was interpreted at court as the mythical beast, the qilin, supposedly seen only when a sage ruler was on the throne. Many exotic animals were sent as tribute to the Ming court from lands visited by the imperial fleet and its admiral Zheng He.
You can see this hanging scroll and much more of China’s amazing craftsmanship from the period in the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, until 5 Jan 2015.
Be one of the first to see these stunning objects from museums across China and the world in this highly acclaimed exhibition.
★★★★★ ‘magnificent’ The Telegraph
★★★★ ‘spectacular’ The Times 

600 years ago on 20 September 1414, the Sultan of Bengal sent a giraffe as tribute to the Yongle emperor of China. The animal arrived at the Ming court to great acclaim and was thoroughly documented in words and images, like in this hanging scroll from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The giraffe was interpreted at court as the mythical beast, the qilin, supposedly seen only when a sage ruler was on the throne. Many exotic animals were sent as tribute to the Ming court from lands visited by the imperial fleet and its admiral Zheng He.

You can see this hanging scroll and much more of China’s amazing craftsmanship from the period in the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, until 5 Jan 2015.

Be one of the first to see these stunning objects from museums across China and the world in this highly acclaimed exhibition.

★★★★★ ‘magnificent’ The Telegraph

★★★★ ‘spectacular’ The Times 

To be considered educated in China, you were expected to be able to practise the Four Arts. These were playing the qin (a complex stringed instrument like a zither), weiqi (the strategy game also known as go), writing fine Chinese calligraphy in the styles of the great masters (shu), and appreciating and critiquing classical Chinese painting (hua). This wine jar from Shanghai Museum shows a group of ladies engaged in these cultural pursuits. You can see it in the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, opening on 18 Sep 2014.

Great Britain moved from using the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar on Wednesday 2 September 1752. By this time, the two calendars were out by 11 days, so the following day was Thursday 14 September! This caused issues for objects like this one – a medal featuring a perpetual almanac. It was calculated using the Julian calendar, and the dates therefore became obsolete. There is a myth that people rioted asking for their eleven days back, which was stirred up by a satirical painting by William Hogarth, of which he also made an engraving, which you can see in the collection

As we mark 100 years since the declaration of war in 1914, here’s a picture of the British Museum’s War Memorial, which has been recently restored. The pictures also show a ticket to the unveiling of the memorial in 1921, along with the original design for the wreath. You can also read the original minutes of the British Museum War Memorial Committee.

The British Museum is also connected with the First World War through Laurence Binyon, Keeper of Oriental Prints and Drawings. Binyon wrote the Ode of Remembrance, taken from his poem For The Fallen, from which we recite the famous words:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

This is Mike the cat, who assisted in keeping the Main Gate at the British Museum from Feb 1909 to Jan 1929. When he died, the former Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, Sir E A Wallis Budge, wrote this pamphlet about him. His obituary was featured in both the London Evening Standard and Time magazine! In 1979, to mark the Golden Jubilee of his death, another pamphlet with illustrations was produced.

This is Mike the cat, who assisted in keeping the Main Gate at the British Museum from Feb 1909 to Jan 1929. When he died, the former Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, Sir E A Wallis Budge, wrote this pamphlet about him. His obituary was featured in both the London Evening Standard and Time magazine! In 1979, to mark the Golden Jubilee of his death, another pamphlet with illustrations was produced.