Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
Art, printmaking, inspirations, gardening, vegetables, hens, landscapes, wild flowers, East Anglia, adventure, travel.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Lessons from the little water buffalo

Yesterday afternoon I took break from carving a woodcut and glanced across to my computer screen, I spotted a Tweet from @CambridgeNewsUK "Works of art stolen after break-in at Fitzwilliam Museum in #Cambridge - more details soon" – I felt a lump in my throat . . . if it's 'my' little buffalo, I'll cry!

The news was out that last Friday, 13th April, at round 7.30pm thieves had broken into the Fitzwilliam Museum and had taken 18 carved jade objects from the oriental gallery (on the ground floor just behind the atrium café) one of them was this green jade buffalo . . . 'my' buffalo.

I remember the day I first met the little buffalo, it was a school visit to the museum with Mrs Slade, the pottery teacher. She pointed out the carved green jade water buffalo . . . she got us to look at his round tummy and serene face, the folds of soft flesh under his chin and the little whorl of hair on his forehead. I fell totally in love with him.

For nearly 40 years the little water buffalo has been part of my visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum and my visits home; he was there when I was on my way to my holiday job in the museum one summer (shuffling card indexes in the coins department); I took Cliff to meet him; I've stood in front of him when I was sad; I've shared a moment with him when I felt happy; and he was there when I went to see the Vermeers a few weeks ago.

But today . . . who knows where the little buffalo is? I hope he's not damaged. I hope he's safe. I hope I'll be able to see him again . . . but there's more I can learn from my buffalo . . .

When I looked at the Fitzwilliam Museum website yesterday, I read the 'History Note':

Taken from Qianlong’s Summer Palace by a Scotch subaltern,
when it was sacked in 1861.
At his death he left it to his sister, who died in 1907.
Oscar Raphael bought it at the sale of her effects.
Bequeathed: (Raphael, Oscar C.; 1946)

I thought about the 'life' of the little water buffalo; he began as a small boulder of green jade about the size of a man's foot, in a Chinese river . . .

photo borrowed from Friends of Jade

Then 500 years ago a craftsman sat the boulder on his work table, looked at it and saw a little water buffalo, sitting down and turning his head to sniff the air. I wonder how many hours work it took for him to 'release' the little buffalo's form form the rough stone?

In China, jade was precious, more special than gold or silver . . . where did the little buffalo spend the next 300 years? In a temple, a garden or palace? Who did he calm and inspire?

What is known is that in the early 1800s the little buffalo was one of the treasures in the Gardens of Perfect Brightness, Yuan Ming Yuan . . .


This beautiful complex of gardens and palaces was the Emperor's retreat from the summer heat of Beijing.

The next chapter in the little buffalo's life is dramatic and distressing . . . it was during the Second Opium War, it was 1860 and the French and British armies had marched on Beijing. Two British envoys, a journalist from the Times and their escort of troops went ahead to meet with Chinese officials for peace talks . . . it went horribly wrong and the British group were imprisoned and brutally tortured.

The British High Commissioner to China was Lord Elgin (the son of Elgin of 'The Elgin Marbles' fame) here he is arriving in Beijing . . .

Outraged by the atrocity he ordered the destruction of Yuan Ming Yuan . . .

3,500 British soldiers attacked the palace and set it on fire, one of the soldiers was 27 year Charles Gordon (later to find fame as General Gordon in the Sudan), he wrote in his diary:

We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money...I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.

There was much disapproval, Victor Hugo the French author, wrote:

Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain.


One of the objects stolen was a little green jade buffalo.

The last 40 years has been a short chapter in the life story of the little water buffalo. Who knows what the next twist in the tale will be? Where will the the next scenes take place? Will he return to China or to Cambridge? And what lessons will he teach to those who look?



  1. What a lovely insight to the little buffalo. Lets hope he finds his way back to his home soon.

    (You dont think it has been targeted by a group that wants to repatriate the jade as there are those for Elgin marbles?)

  2. I think that maybe the jade has been stolen to order from collectors of Chinese treasures... there is a strong feeling that iconic pieces should be returned to China... so maybe?


  3. What a shame to lose sight of your buffalo after all these years, thanks for finding out his amazing story for us...I wonder where he will turn up next?

  4. Stolen to order? Quite possibly. It happens in many places.
    But he's such a sweet little buffalo, I hope he'll be safe, wherever he is.

  5. It's so sad isn't it. I've always loved him too and can't really imagine going there without him being there :-( It's an amazing story and I hope wherever he is he's safe.

  6. Poor buffalo. Thanks for sharing his fascinating history. I hope he comes back - I wish I'd met him

  7. This is quite a sad tale really - the buffalo is almost a symbol for the whole story...
    How very sad to kidnap and torture those who were trying to bring peace.
    How much sadder, to rob, pillage, burn and destroy a beautiful and historic building, as an act of revenge. Makes you wonder if there could not have been a better way to bring about a solution...

    And your little buffalo... I think you may be right about his current fate - that he was stolen to order and will pop up again, somewhere in China or the Far East, in a Jade collector's treasure trove.
    So sad that you will no longer see him - and also that he may never be seen by the public again, or not for a long time.

    Humanity is such an enigma so contradictory. Someone made this beautiful carving, from a natural piece of jade. They put love and care into its creation, so it would bring enjoyment and specialness to whoever saw and handled it.
    Then there were the people of those three nations - China, Britain and France - who could not agree with each other and committed such cruel and destructive acts.
    And the individual soldier, who followed orders, yet expressed his sadness at the disastrous result of those orders. And who brought the little buffalo home with him.
    And now, more violence (though luckily not so savage and not against people as such)...

    Where is the Little Buffalo now?

  8. What a brilliant post - lovely story of Buffalo's history - but particularly of the way he affected you and that lovely relationship. I've had work stolen myself, and the feeling is horror! Where has the piece gone, what dangers and cruelty await? Buffalo needs love - please hope that he is not damaged or broken, and that this is just another chapter in his amazing story - I'm sure he'll let you know he's okay when he can.

  9. What an interesting post. What blogging is all about. Perhaps you could do a lino cut of your water buffalo just in case he doesn't make it back.

  10. Celia, you have told the little jade water buffalo's story very well. I particularly like its beginning and the anonymous artist's vision of the poetic animal within the rock of jade.

    Something about the violence studded history reminds me a bit of the plot of The Moonstone.

    I do hope that you will again be able to gaze upon your small jade friend.


  11. Goodness me, what a chequered history for a pretty little object. Your post has made me quite thoughtful.

  12. What a fantastic picture you have conjured up of the little buffalo - a really interesting post. Can I just add that shooting is just too good for some people. The thieves have now spoilt thousands of peoples enjoyment - yours included.

  13. What a beautiful little buffalo, and such a peaceful expression. I enjoyed reading about his history, and I can't help but feel that, given your narrative on where he came from, he'll turn up someplace else in the future. I'm sorry you have lost the opportunity to look at him, hopefully he will stay safe. It was sad to read the history of what happened along the way. As Toffeeapple says, it does make you quite thoughtful.

  14. What a lovely post Celia... but so sad about "your" beautiful little water buffalo

  15. What a sad, and thought provoking post. (Just like your last Titanic one!) At least you got to know and love the little water buffalo, during one of his life's chapters. And thank you for sharing it with us all!! He is a true beauty. Jade, or greenstone & pounamu as its known in NZ, is such a beautiful and elusive stone. I have been searching for a piece on the beaches of the West Coast for years. While my husband has this uncanny knack of finding pieces. The saying is that that the stone finds you, so my time will come!

  16. I really enjoyed this blog post, Celia. Poignant, informative, artistic all in one. I have to agree with Fiona about a linocut - it being a way to continue your association with him.

  17. What a lovely post, I read the news last week. I don't actually remember seeing him from my brief visit to the Museum, and now it looks as though I might not get the chance. Let's hope he's going to be loved by his new guardians whoever they maybe, wherever in the world they might taken him.

  18. Thank you for a fascinating tale, history in an object. You must be so sad not to see him any more - that's the beauty of museums, they loan anyone these objects to hold in their soul gardens - and then some wretch takes them away

  19. I'm just catching up here and somehow I missed this post. The little water buffalo is enchanting, and like many other such objects clearly has a tumultuous history. Yet through it all he remains serene. I wish I had been able to see him, and like you, I hope he's safe. If he's recovered please let me know. I'll be heading in the Cambridge direction later this year :D

  20. Wow! This stylish glass tile is absolutely awesome! So perfect for kitchen backsplash.
    Ming green marble Mosaic

  21. As an artist myself, I enjoy reading Philip Koch's sensitive writing about Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, who along with Whistler and Rothko, are my favorite American painters.
    I don't live in the United States but have traveled and passed a short time there. But even with the little time spent in your beautiful country, especially in small-town America, I can relate to some of the poetical feel that Hopper and Wyeth had captured in their art, which is for me part of the attraction of their paintings.
    Browsing at wahooart.com the other day, as I do now and then, I find a good selection of Edward Hopper's work, http://EN.WahooArt.com/@/EdwardHopper ,in the big archive of Western Art, that customers can order online for canvas prints and even hand-painted, oil-painting reproductions can be made and sent to them.
    Hopper's surrealistic and depersonalized world is there again. Timeless, yes, as it is still there now in the roadside cafes and diners that I ate at all over America.


I love reading all the comments (except for spam and advertising which I will delete) and I'll reply here in the comments under each blog post, it may take a few days if I'm busy.
You don't need to have a blog to leave a comment, you can select the name/URL option and fill in just your name instead of a blog link.