Lara Jaishree NettingSep 11, 2014
A Perpetual Fire
John C. Ferguson and His Quest for Chinese Art and Culture
Hong Kong University Press 2013
Lara Netting's new book explores the life, career, and work of one man as a window into the history and associated practices of "Chinese art" during a period of massive transformation in the China of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While reading A Perpetual Fire: John C. Ferguson and His Quest for Chinese Art and Culture (Hong Kong University Press, 2013), we journey along with John C. Ferguson as he navigates through a complex and fascinating world of government officials, art dealers, scholars, and museums in China and the US. Ferguson gradually became embedded in a social web whose connections made it possible for him to transform from a minister's son in rural Ontario to a world-class collector, dealer, and scholar of Chinese art while the very notion of "Chinese art" was still emerging and being debated. Netting's book charts the early development of Ferguson's relationships with key figures in the political and social landscape of Qing and Republican China, tracing the ways that these relationships gave him an access to and a perspective on antiquities that would shape his later scholarship and career. For that reason, it offers a wonderful perspective on the history of modern China, and specifically on the role of foreign residents of China in that history. A Perpetual Fire also pays special attention to the making of some important museum collections in Chinese art and antiquities - including the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and of Ferguson himself - and so it is of special import to readers interested in museum studies, in material culture, and in knowing the complex and fascinating history of how the objects hanging on museum walls and illuminated in display cases got there in the first place.