What story can an object tell? And wouldn’t it be great if they could talk to curators?
On a recent Saturday, Paul Benson, objects conservator for the Nelson-Atkins Museum came to the Johnson County Museum to demonstrate surface cleaning on a set of five stone Chinese musicians, a donation received by the Museum in 2013. After an hour of scrubbing with a mild detergent, much of the surface dirt and organic growth (green slime) disappeared, rendering the statues almost new. Made of coquina (shell) limestone, the shell fragments are now much more visible.
What do we know about this band of musicians? They were purchased by J.C. Nichols (1880-1950) in the 1920s from a London estate, and brought to Mission Hills where Nichols placed them in a flagstone circle at the intersection of Indian Lane and Mission Drive. Nichols incorporated art and
sculpture into several of his Kansas City developments, bringing a European tradition to America. For almost 40 years, these dwarf like musicians provided photographic
opportunities for families with young children. The original band of six was reduced to five when in 1924 vandals broke off the head of one of the statues. In the 1960s the statues were placed in storage, where they remained until they were purchased by a local resident at the Nichols Company auction in 1999.
These three foot statues are rather curious looking with their Western features, block-shaped feet, and conical shaped oversized heads with ruffled caps. According to a 1924 KC Star article Nichols purchased them from a London collector who had purchased them in the Orient, however I am not buying the Orient story.
An internet search turned up the Avenue of Chinese Musicians at Allerton Gardens, in Monticello, IL.
(allerton.illinois.edu) Robert Allerton, (1873-1964) was the son of a wealthy banker, and the largest donor to the Chicago Art Institute, giving over 6,600 works of art in his lifetime. His garden estate outside Monticello, is where you can see the Avenue of Chinese Musicians.https://www.flickr.com/photos/illinoislibrary/14938942226/
According to University of Illinois, owner of the Gardens, Allerton purchased a similar set of 10 statues in the 1920s from a London estate. I wonder, did he know JC Nichols? Did they purchase the statues from the same person or source? Did they travel in the same circles? The similarities between both bands are uncanny. It seems that vandals and the elements damaged Allerton’s original statues; he hired a local tombstone maker to recreate the originals, which are on view at the Allerton Gardens.
Perhaps someday we will discover more about this curious group of Chinese musicians.
Anne C. Jones, Curator of Collections