Bonhams Asia’s Edward Wilkinson Sheds Light on Appreciating Nepalese Buddhist Art

Buddhist art comes in different forms that reflect the diverse cultures and fascinating history of the countries where they were originated. Baffled by the far-reaching categories under Buddhist art, some of us are left bewildered with the difficulty to get into the world of Buddhist art.

Being one of the highly sought-after categories in the market, Nepalese Buddhist sculptures are widely acclaimed for the exquisite craftsmanship. The Value has invited Edward Wilkinson, Executive Director of Bonhams Asia and Global head of the Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian Art, Bonhams, to talk about the rich history and distinctive features of Nepalese Buddhist sculptures.

Edward Wilkinson., Executive Director of Bonhams Asia and Global head of the Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian Art, Bonhams

Q: Why were Nepalese craftsmen invited to make Buddhist art in other countries?

E: There's a clear understanding why Newari craftsmen from Nepal were recognized as creating beautiful things. Pilgrimage passed through in Nepal and had an exposure towards in different locations throughout Asia.

Q: Can you tell us more about the pilgrimage? 

E: From what we understand in clear records, Nepalese craftsmen were working under the patronage of an important monastery in Tibet, as well as the imperial court in China and Mongolia. These almost like guild, artistic collective would then be commissioned either through following their teachers, under the guidance of an important Lama or purely from an idea that it would be earning money. That part I don’t know. But there’s clear evidence that the craftsmen were working in other parts of the Himalaya and further Eastern Asia. Their influence can be seen very clearly.

Q: What’s so special about Nepalese sculptures?

E: Nepalese sculptures were crafted in a specific way that represents the physical attributes of the people. The same is true for Chinese sculptures, most likely representing the norms of what they consider beautiful. I think each region creates images of deity or Buddha according to what’s around them. People will follow a deity that looks like them.

Nepalese craftsmen were invited to create Buddhist sculptures in different places in Asia. Their works have dispersed across the region and some are now preserved as part of an important collection. Is there any striking feature that we can infer a sculpture as a Nepalese sculpture when we see one?

Q: What are the distinctive features of Nepalese sculptures?

E: One of the most distinctive features of Nepalese sculptures is its profile, its long, slightly curved nose, and a broad, almost square face. Straightaway when I see the face and nose, I know it’s from Nepal. One can see that the entire body has been touched from a ritual practice. That only exists in Nepal. The Tibetan do not touch the sculptures. The Chinese do not touch the sculptures. The Indian do. But there aren’t many large scale Indian Buddhist sculptures still extant. Some were preserved in Tibet, particularly from the Pala period. You can see the face was worn away.

Q: Does it only apply to early Nepalese sculptures? Were there any changes in sculptures created in later periods?

E: From 15th century or before, pieces were solid cast, as opposed to lost-wax or hollow-cast. So the early sculptures should be very heavy and made of almost pure copper. Unlike Tibetan and Chinese sculptures, which are more of a copper alloy, or more commonly referred as “bronze”.

11tth century Nepalese sculpture. The MET.

15th century Nepalese sculpture. Rubin Museum of Art.

E (continue): All of these traits that tie in together, which are not constant. What were true in the 8th century were not true in the 10th century. They changed in the 12th century. You see progression. So what you expect to see in the 19th century Nepalese sculptures is very different what you see in the 13th and 14th century.

During the interview, we saw two beautiful sculptures that Edward used as illustrations of Nepalese sculptures. These two figures will be put on sale in Bonhams New York in March next year. If you want to take a closer look at these two elegantly crafted sculptures, please stay tuned.