Lord Mayor’s family links to exhibition on China

The Lord Mayor, Dr Sylvia Dunkley, and her husband, John, look at the paintings by his grandmother which they have loaned to the China exhibition at Weston Park Museum
The Lord Mayor, Dr Sylvia Dunkley, and her husband, John, look at the paintings by his grandmother which they have loaned to the China exhibition at Weston Park Museum

THE Lord Mayor of Sheffield and her Consort paid a visit to the China: Journey to the East exhibition at Weston Park Museum last week.

This was not a routine civic engagement for Dr Sylvia Dunkley and her husband, John, however, but had personal interest for two of the exhibits on show normally hang on the wall of their home.

They have loaned two pictures painted by John’s grandmother who lived in Shanghai in the early 20th century.

China has a strong connection with John Dunkley’s family and he has vivid memories as a five-year-old of being fascinated by the picture of a Chinese scene that hung on his bedroom wall.

His maternal grandmother, Beth Glazier Frost, was born in 1877, the daughter of the head of the Manchester School of Art where she later studied. In 1901 she met husband-to-be Joe Frost, an engineer who not long after got a job in Shanghai.

At 24 she followed him out and they married in Hong Kong Cathedral and she became an art teacher. They had four children and returned in 1919 when they decided the children should go to school here.

“My grandfather stayed in Shanghai until he died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. My grandmother went back to China for the last time in 1931 when she became dangerously ill and didn’t return,” he explains.

“My grandmother moved around a lot in the UK where she stayed until she was killed in her eighties in an accident in thick fog in the 1960s. She lived with us in Hull and I always remember her room covered with Chinese bric-a-brac. She would fetch out her Chinese treasures and now these have been passed down to various members of the family.

“Three years ago a Canadian academic contacted me saying she was researching the Shanghai school of artists and kept coming across the name of my grandmother as both a painter and a sculptor.

“I contacted members of the family and asked if they had any pictures – and came up with 86.”

The Chinese connection continues as John’s father went out to work in Shanghai where he met his first wife.

She died young and was nursed by her sister who subsequently married the widower, resulting in John and his siblings. “It’s a large and complicated family,” sighs Sylvia.

John has been visiting China since 1984 when he went as part of a trade delegation from Davy McKee. He has been able to find landmarks his grandmother painted. “It was really lovely because I always knew so many of the pictures told a story.”

A specialist in powder metallurgy, he and Sylvia set up their own business, Atomising Systems, in 1992 which continues to do business with China.

Their contribution is part of the Sheffield input into the exhibition on tour from the British Museum.

“Last July there was an event for the Cultural Olympiad in Millennium Square and there was a Museums Sheffield stand which had details of the China exhibition coming up,” recalls the Lord Mayor.

“I happened to mention we had all these pictures and they said they might be interested.

“Then I was contacted later and they came to the house and we showed them what we have got and these are the two they chose to fit in to the Faith section of the exhibition: Interior of a Buddhist Temple, painted in 1919, and a Confucian Temple from 1922.”

Seeing the paintings on show has made John see them differently. “There’s details I haven’t noticed before.”

It increases Sylvia’s desire to visit China for the first time. “John promised to take me with him when he goes back but it’s a question of finding time, perhaps when we have retired.”

lAlthough the exhibition has been running for several weeks, it has its official launch this weekend for Chinese New Year.

A weekend of family activities will include Chinese food and drink tasting, kite-making, Chinese dance, a chance to have a go at Mandarin and Tai Chi and dragon puppet and calligraphy workshops.

It takes place between 11am and 3pm on both days. Everything is free and there is no need to book.