Architectural Digest Magazine, China Issue, March 2017
She could have been an opera singer; she embodies the quintessence of an Austen character; she is enchanted by how art revitalises life; contemporary Chinese art has completely re directed her life trajectory and makes her home in Beijing so unique.
While our photographer is shooting the living room, Emily de Wolfe Pettit and I start our conversation in her homely but elegant kitchen. The British nautical flag pattern on the table where we sip tea sets a pragmatic tone and Emily plays her favourite soprano, Angela Gheorghiu’s haunting and elegiac voice in the background. A red wallpaper by Manuel Canovas occupies the wall next to the table where we sit. There are a series of narrative and vivid scenes depicted in the wallpaper where Chinese tea farmers collect, dry and trade tea, in Qing chinoiserie style. In the contrast, there are two contemporary oil paintings on the wall:- one portrays a young girl smoking, posing nonchalantly, by gifted young artist J S Tan.
Emily points to the wallpaper and tells me: “I particularly like the expression of that tea farmer with the hat. I love wallpaper. For me, it personalises a space instantly; wallpaper is underrated.” It reminds her of her house in England – the complete antithesis from this modern flat in central Beijing – a Kentish cottage tranquilly surrounded by a church, gardens and forests. Inevitably, I immediately associate it with the English countryside manors in Jane Austen’s pre-industrial stories. “My colleague in Hong Kong teasingly calls me ‘Auntie Austen’,” a smile emerges on her face. I cannot agree more: her slender figure, statuesque face and impeccable manners embody a classic ‘English Rose’, especially knowing that she was trained to sing opera and almost became a professional opera singer.
Emily is of French, English and Irish descent, born and raised in Sydney. Her mother was a horticulturist and interior designer. It was her mother who took Emily to art and antiques auctions from just two years of age, and later to work sites. It was indeed the best formative nurture for Emily, an art consultant today. Her father, a doctor, is passionate about opera. She went for the first time to an opera with him at the age of seven, a heavy Wagnerian opera. The second was Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. “So different from Wagner’s Medieval German romance Lohengrin.” With a wide variety of antiques and opera repertoires, Emily’s early life was steeped in traditional arts.
However, how could be it possible that we have this Jane Bennet character sitting in a flat in Beijing, chatting with us over Chinese tea? Emily obtained a scholarship for her MA at The University of Oxford, specialising in music and philosophy. Her dissertation explored the influence of Schopenhauer on Wagner. This academically gifted young woman also received a First Class degree from University College of London and London School of Economics in German and International relations in 2003. The experience of being an exchange student to study business administration at Peking University in 2004 and 2005 completely changed her life trajectory, when she initially found her bond with the art scene here. Emily is traditional but also a modern lady with very sharp self-awareness and pragmatism. When she studied opera at Universität Heidelberg in Germany, she concurrently served an internship at Bayerische Staatsoper and although she loved opera, she realised it would not become her career. Observing other singers, the nomadic lifestyle of travelling around the world on tour was not for her. Ironically, she is now a loyal member of the international nomad community, but not before committing many steadfast years to China and her career here.
She described her first encounter with Beijing as one of those life changing moments. It happened quite quickly and it has been many years of hard work but it has paid off – from gradually meeting Chinese artists, to total fascination with the diversity of Chinese contemporary art scene, even though an institutionalised art scene did not really exist when Emily began her career. The Arts are intertwined in many ways in Emily’s life; her rich knowledge of music, philosophy and literature has equipped her with a comprehensive and exacting eye for visual arts. Led by her business acumen, she made the visionary decision to move to Shanghai in 2006 and set up an independent contemporary Chinese art consultancy, when she had just turned 27. She then moved to Beijing several years later and we are sitting in the flat in a diplomatic compound she has leased ever since. “This flat has very high ceilings for central Beijing. With no other tall buildings nearby to block the view, I really enjoy the cityscape, the embassy district and the park beyond. When I first took it on, the flat was not distinctive and it had no spirit or warmth. I could not alter the layout, but I did covert the old laundry room into a reading room. I often work, read and write there, immersing myself into isolated serenity.”
Since the time when art re wrote Emily’s life story, she has dedicated all her passion and energy to it. Over the past ten years, she has established strong connections with many renowned and upcoming young artists in China, while she has implemented many projects, curated academically-researched exhibitions and provided art consulting services to corporates and the hospitality industry, for instance, managing Chevron’s contemporary Chinese art collection, sourcing portrait paintings for Standard Charted Bank and leading the art commissions for Rosewood Hotel, Beijing. She has also devoted time to discovering and support young artists, curating exhibitions for them which accompany research, writings and bilingual catalogues. Beyond being a gifted writer, this superwoman even undertakes catalogue design by herself.
“I began to buy for myself around thirty years of age when I first had the means to do so.” Today her flat is a Kunstkammer of contemporary paintings. “Each wall was a blank canvas, waiting for me to hang art and every single piece carries tremendous meaning for me, testament to a friendship with the artist. One thing I would like to point out is that I almost always collect works from artists I know personally.” Emily recounts details of her treasures to me. She has never sold a work. To her, loving art is a lifestyle of pursuing beauty and the Arts should be accessible to everyone; art should not solely be a rich man’s game or an emblem of self-glorification.
She spends a lot of time with artists in their studios. People usually would say most artists are eccentric and fickle, but Emily has built genuine, long-lasting friendships. She respects artist Wang Guangle’s talent and strong work ethic (“you absolutely need both”); she admires the artist Wang Yuyang’s recent forward-thinking works commenting on artificial intelligence; she also reveres the contemporary ink painter Liu Dan’s erudition and charisma. Most of the artworks in her flat are by Chinese young artists; she likes to support promising talent at the early stage of their career.
Her flat is also interspersed with European glamour and a femininely romantic aura infuses the space. Three collage works by female artist Meng Liping are discreetly hung behind some screens, using eroticism for satirical commentary. Two retro chairs from a theatre in Paris effortlessly join a Republic-period screen handpicked from Gao Bei Dian, an old Chinese carved bench and a restored lacquer cabinet in her living room.
Looking at the artworks around me, I smile: “they are very pleasant together, nothing too much.” “Limited by the space, I keep many in my storage, including some erotic collages, nude photographs and so on” she giggles. This diplomatic lady quietly voices her opinion on contemporary collecting: “I do not appreciate chasing fashion for the sake of it; it goes against the very premise of being avant-garde and one becomes part of the flock of sheep.” If there is a key word for her private art collection, it would be ‘renaissance’. What really attracts her is the spirit of revitalising tradition; for example, artist Zhang Fazhi’s muted brush stokes and use of light to evoke memory in a childhood scene, taken behind her AD portrait, move her.
Our conversation comes toward the end now. She adds: “However, the relationship we have with art naturally evolves throughout one’s lifetime. I notice my collecting pattern is changing. I am more interested in art works that challenge me now. Yes, I have always enjoyed a bit of a challenge!”
Photographer: Philippe Le Berre
Photo coordinator: Zhao An
Stylist: Chen Jin
Writer: Wendy Wang
Editor: Wenting & Chen Jin
Translator: Michelle Feng, Peking Art Associates