Born in Lewisham, James Ware (1859-1913) was an English sailor and captain in the Merchant Navy. He went to China with his wife in 1881, initially to set up a business. The needs of the people along the densely populated waterfronts of Shanghai and Ningbo so touched their hearts that they soon decided to begin missionary work instead. After joining the service of the British and Foreign Bible Society, James rented a building in Shanghai, converted it into a chapel, and began to preach. The Wares also adopted a Chinese daughter, whom they found crippled from bound feet.
James was well versed in Chinese, and preached in the local Shanghai dialect. His daughter recalls vividly his passionate style, “he spoke so earnestly, with every muscle tense, acting out every dramatic part of the Bible in such a lifelike way that the whole congregation was spellbound.”
James served the committee that revised the translation of the New Testament and completed the translation of the Old Testament. His greatest achievement though was the translation of The Journey to the West, a famous story featuring the legendary Monkey King, born from a rock and possessing the magical power to transform himself into various animals and objects. As part of the translation project, James commissioned itinerant Chinese artists to illustrate important episodes of the novel. In addition to the Monkey King illustrations, the artists also produced arresting portrayals of the Realm of Hell based on Chinese mythology, including a fascinating view of the Wheel of Rebirth. These would have been used by James to draw comparisons between the Christian and the Chinese conceptions of life after death in front of his congregation.
We are delighted to offer the set of forty illustrations in their forthcoming Fine Asian Art auction in London this May, handed down carefully through family, the album is in remarkable condition. The paintings not only testify to an English philanthropist’s passion for China and her cultural heritage, but also provide rare insight into the creative talent hidden within late 19th century unorthodox, ‘grassroots’ Chinese art. The itinerant Chinese artists, unimpeded by official convention and allowed to give their imagination free rein, have achieved a marvellous synthesis of originality, artistry and humour, sure to capture the heart of collectors and researchers alike.