A Perpetual Fire

John C. Ferguson and His Quest for Chinese Art and Culture


Lara Jaishree Netting

ISBN : 978-988-8139-18-7

Film, Media, Fine Arts

August 2013

304 pages, 7″ x 10″, 42 color and 78 b&w illus.

  • HK$350.00

After serving as a missionary and then foreign advisor to Qing officials from 1887 to 1911, John Ferguson became a leading dealer of Chinese art, providing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and other museums with their inaugural collections of paintings and bronzes. In multiple publications dating to the 1920s and 1930s, Ferguson made the controversial claim that China’s autochthonous culture was the basis of Chinese art. His two Chinese language reference works, still in use today, were produced with essential help from Chinese scholars. Emulating these “men of culture” with whom he lived and worked in Peking, Ferguson gathered paintings, bronzes, rubbings, and other artifacts. In 1934, he donated this group of over one thousand objects to Nanjing University, the school he had helped to found as a young missionary.

This work offers a significant contribution to the history of Chinese art collection. John Ferguson learned from and worked with Qing dynasty collectors and scholars, and then Republican-era dealers and archeologists, while simultaneously supplying the objects he had come to know as Chinese art to American museums and individuals. He is an ideal subject to help us see the interconnections between increased Western interest in Chinese art and archeology in the modern era, and cultural change taking place in China.

Lara Jaishree Netting received her PhD in East Asian Studies at Princeton University in 2009. She has held a Getty Fellowship at the Asia Society Museum and the J. Clawson Mills Fellowship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Art collectors continuously shape and reshape our view of the artistic past, determining what later generations are able to see and how they see it. Between 1912 and 1943, the Canadian-American John C. Ferguson led a public career in Republican China that would have made a Chinese scholar proud, serving as a major government advisor and influential academician. From deep inside of the Beijing and Nanjing cultural circles, as a private collector and buyer for American museums (the Metropolitan Museum and Cleveland Museum of Art among others), he helped to dramatically redirect American interests in Chinese art from the taste of Japanese aficionados to that of the Chinese literati. Lara Netting’s thorough study brings the remarkable and complex John Ferguson back to life. She restores to him the credit he has long deserved, while at the same time using his example to demonstrate how our definition of ‘art’ is an ever-changing construct.” —Jerome Silbergeld, Princeton University

“Missionary, dealer, collector, and scholar, John Ferguson aspired to the lifestyle and status of a Chinese literatus and was the first Westerner to seriously collect calligraphy as well as Ming and Qing painting. Lara Netting’s meticulously researched study offers a long overdue assessment of Ferguson’s life and legacy—both in China and the West.” —Maxwell K. Hearn, The Metropolitan Museum of Art