Beauty, Diplomacy and Malcolm MacDonald
Lecture by Alexander Shaw, University of Leeds. This lecture is hosted by the Friends of the Oriental Museum, as part of the 2017/18 series.
‘I like beauty. I love beauty. I worship beauty in all its earthly forms’. Thus spoke Malcolm MacDonald, whose adventures as a diplomat were perhaps only equalled by his indulgence as a collector.
The son of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, Malcolm served as a cabinet minister in the 1930s before his first diplomatic posting to Canada. From 1948 until 1955 he was Commissioner-General for South-East Asia. An energetic and unconventional character, MacDonald was happiest escaping official life to Borneo, where he became the adopted son of renowned head-hunter Temenggong Koh.
The successful diplomat was only one side of Malcolm MacDonald. The other was a passionate, discerning, but not always shrewd collector of many genres: most importantly, imperial Chinese ceramics. But art and beauty are not just about objects. In later life, Malcolm reflected that ‘one of the things one collects is people. I have made a fine collection through the last sixty years’. Personal relationships were central to his success as both an eccentric diplomat and eclectic collector.
The objects in Malcolm’s collections tell of friendships with Asian royalty, communist revolutionaries, refugee antique dealers and Borneo head-hunters. By looking at these stories, it becomes clear that MacDonald’s views on art, beauty and collecting were very much part of his success as a diplomat.
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