Alexandre Yevgenievich Jacovleff and the 7 Chinese missionaries

The series of seven arresting and extremely accomplished crayon and sanguine portraits of Western and Chinese missionaries in the first floor corridor are the work of Alexandre Yevgenievich Jacovleff (1887-1938), a Russian painter, draughtsman, designer and etcher, who became something of a specialist in ethnographic portraiture. He was born in St Petersburg, and studied at the Imperial Academy of Art, where he was strongly associated with the Russian avant-garde movement which gave rise to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He left Russia for the first time in 1913, visiting Italy and Spain, and in the revolutionary year of 1917, he was awarded a scholarship to study in the Far East. In the two years that followed, he travelled to Mongolia, China and Japan. He decided against return to Russia, settled in Paris, and became a citizen of France. 

Following on from his far Eastern travels, he published Dessins & Peintures d’Extrême-Orient (Paris, 1922), and perhaps in consequence, was invited to join the so-called ‘Croisière Noire’, which was organized by Citroën, as expedition artist. One of the expedition’s primary purpose was to test a hybrid vehicle, Citroën’s ‘Autochenille’ (half-track) , which had caterpillar tracks at the rear and wheels at the front, to see how these monstrous vehicles coped with difficult off-road terrain. It also had a variety of scientific and cultural goals, and took along a team of ethnographers, geographers and other experts; seventeen in all, in eight of the firm’s autochenilles, which eventually crossed Africa from Algeria to Madagascar.  Jacovleff produced some 300 paintings in the course of the expedition, and in consequence, was awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government in 1926. 

Between 1931 and 1932, Jacovleff was appointed as the Artistic Adviser of another epic Citroën scientific and cultural expedition (called at the outset the Croisière Jaune, a title which was glossed over as the journey proceeded, since it became clear that the Chinse found it offensive). This was an adventure along the Silk Road, which set out from Beirut in April 1931, passed through Syria, Persia and Afghanistan, crossed the Khyber Pass, and then traversed the Gobi Desert and Mongolia, finally reaching Beijing in February 1932. There is a full account in G. Le Fèvre, La Croisière Jaune (Paris, 1933). The participants were a distinguished group of about forty experts, plus a Pathé film crew, which included the palaeontologist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin SJ as expedition geologist. 

As on his previous expedition, Jacovleff  made large numbers of these crayon drawings of expedition members and people encountered en route. Many of them were given to the sitters, to generate goodwill for the expedition, and some of those that remained were published in Album du Croisière Jaune (Paris, 1932). The portraits at Campion Hall were madebetween December 1931 and February 1932, in the final phase of the journey to Beijing, where the expedition arrived on the twelfth of February 1932, 315 days and 7,528 miles from its commencement. On 28 December, the expedition had arrived at the Catholic mission centre of Liangchow (the historical name for Wuwei in Central China, a way station on the northern Silk Road), after a desperate journey through a war zone, with temperatures dropping as far as eighteen below. They arrived there at two in the morning after three days and nights without sleep, since they had been compelled to run the autochenilles continuously in case they froze.

They were being entertained at the central mission station of both the Belgian Congregation of Scheut, or Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae, and the German Congregation of Steyl, or Societas Verbi Divini. The attraction of Liangchow for both groups was the presence of a pre-existing Catholic community of so-called ‘old Christians’, descended from Christian refugees from Central China whose ancestors had been converted during the Jesuit missions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and were subsequently resettled in the area. The mission had an excellent library, and the scientific members of the expedition must have benefited from the missionaries’ knowledge as well as their hospitality: the English botanist Reginald Farrar, who visited the area in 1926, though he was no fan of missionaries (or Catholics), conceded, ‘it must be said, if you want information on any point of Chinese or Tibetan natural history, geography, and so forth, it is to the Catholics you must go if you want a sound, sensible, and workmanlike answer.’

In the earliest of the Campion Hall drawings, Jacovleff depicts Father Ferdinand Loy, a German priest of the SVD, who was then Superior of Sinkiang [Xinjiang-Urumqi], who has written on his portrait, using one of Jacovleff’s crayons, ‘Imm freund. Erinnung an de Rustlage der Expedition M. Haard im Linchou-Sinkiang von 28 Dec 1931 bis 6 Janvier 1932’.  On New Year’s Day, 1932, Jacovleff drew Theodor Buddenbrock, Bishop of Kansu and priest of the SVD, with a little touch of a third colour, purple, in his episcopal ring, alongside the red and black. Buddenbrock’s black robes were silk brocade, which Jacovleff has rendered with great subtlety. As with the Loy portrait, Father Buddenbrock has written a formal message of encouragement on the paper, and signed it: the context for these messages is World War One, in which France and Germany had been enemies; punctilious courtesy is here addressed to the healing of wounds. 

Two priests of the CICM were drawn in the course of the journey from Liangchow to Beijing, Gaspar Schotte, Suffragan Bishop of Yinchuan, on 23 January, and Leo de Wilde on 11 February, 1932. The drawing of de Wilde must have been executed in Heishanhu, a few miles from Beijing, because on the same date, two other members of the CICMwere also drawn. The names of both these men are given in Chinese characters; one, who is Chinese in feature, is Liu Yafeng, and the other, who is Caucasian, is called An Guoshi (perhaps a Sinification of Ambrose).

However, perhaps the most notable individual in the Campion Hall group is Celso Benigno Luigi Costantini (1876-1958), who was deeply concerned with missionary work in China throughout his career. It was he who called the first episcopal conference in Shanghai in mid-1924 and made constitutions for Catholic missions in China.  He also promoted the foundation of the Fu Jen Catholic college, instituted several regional major seminaries, and supported the episcopal promotion of six Chinese priests. He founded the Congregatio Discipulorum Domini in Xuanhua in 1927 and he became the apostolic administrator for Harbin in 1931, the year before Jacovleff encountered him in Beijing. A cause for his canonization was instituted in 2016, and he is currently designated a Servant of God. 

This was Jacovleff’s last expedition. In 1934, he was invited to become Director of the Painting Department of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and relocated to America. Sadly, he was diagnosed with cancer in 1937, and died in Paris in 1938. A letter from his executor in the Hall archives, dated 1939, reveals that the missionary portraits came to the Hall at the suggestion of Sir John Rothenstein:

'A few days ago, Mr John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate Gallery, came to Paris to acquire a few works of the world-known painter, Alexander Jacovleff, who died last year. A. Jacovleff was considered a leading draftsman and famous for his portrait studies … as a member of a scientific expedition he visited the interior of China, and brought back a number of portraits, among them a few of well known missionaries. They are wonderful drawings, and Mr Rothenstein urged me not to sell them, but to donate them to Catholic Religious Institutions and preferably to your College. As the executor of the estate, I gladly follow M. Rothenstein’s noble suggestion.’



picture: The chapel at Liangchow in the 1930s (from Bianca Horlemann, ‘Xixiang, a Historic Catholic Mission Station in Northwest China’, Religions & Christianity in Today’s China, 4 [2014], 40-49)

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