The Secret Life of Chinese Gardens

Secret Garden

A special exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum Broadway

An exciting new exhibition has opened at the Ashmolean Broadway. Those with an affinity for Chinese art and history will enjoy the minimalist space, cleverly accented with artistic impressions of Chinese gardens. The Secret Life of Chinese Gardens brings together famous artists and their lesser known contemporaries to create an insightful exploration into Chinese culture and its relationship with nature.

Traditional Chinese architectural spaces usually emphasise hierarchies in family and social life. In contrast, gardens are places for privacy and leisure and with this they create a world of drama, love and secrecy. This exhibition includes various depictions of favoured Chinese garden plants and unlocks their symbolic meanings. The exhibition also reveals popular leisure activities in ancient Chinese gardens, as well as famous romantic scenes from Chinese literature. 

Secret 3

Modern impressionist, Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) is just one of the artists featured. Daqian was one of the best-known and most prodigious Chinese artists of the twentieth century. He is also regarded by many art experts as one of the most gifted master forgers of Eastern art. He excelled in all types of paintings, and is especially famous for his landscapes. His meticulous use of materials and his skilled technique make his work distinctive and his style noteworthy. The Secret Life of Chinese Gardens has two of his works on display: ‘Peonies’ and ‘Cinnabar Lotus’.

Ceramics also form part of the collection with vases, bowls and other vessels. One example is a dish with an underglaze blue decoration of a scene from the drama Romance of the West Chamber (China, Kangxi Period, 1662-1722. Reitlinger Gift). The piece tells the story of a young couple consummating their love regardless of their parents’ disapproval. In this scene the young scholar Zhang Sheng is climbing over a wall into a garden to a secret date with his lover Cui Yingying, the daughter of a retired senior officer. Given the privacy that gardens allow, they have often provided the setting to many love stories in Chinese literature.

Secret Garden 2

The Ashmolean Broadway has built a reputation for its celebration of local history but its top floor gallery is always dedicated to something that pushes those borders. Based at Tudor House on the main high street, the Ashmolean Broadway houses unique permanent collections too, all carefully curated by the Ashmolean Oxford. They include paintings and furniture from the founding collections of the Ashmolean, given by Elias Ashmole to the University of Oxford in 1683.

Tudor House was built in the 17th century as a coaching inn. It has been extended and adapted over the years but still retains original features and architectural flourishes reflecting trends of the passing eras; a unique contrast to the Eastern art also on display.

The Secret Life of Chinese Gardens delves into an inspiring world of romance, beauty and creativity, opening your mind to these secret spaces which have connected man with nature for centuries. 

Dates: Now until 20th September

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