We all know Sterling Clark and his wife, Francine, as founders of the Clark Art Institute, a Massachusetts museum renowned for its European and American paintings.
But before he bought his first Renoir, before he married the actress from Paris who became his partner in collecting art, Sterling Clark was an adventurer and explorer.
In 1908, when he was 31 years old, he led a 36-man expedition across rough and remote regions of northern China.
Traveling by horse and mule, the men trekked 2,000 miles in 17 months, crossing mountains, desert and the Loess Plateau, a wind-carved plain of silty soil created over the ages by the Yellow River.
Along the way, they documented and photographed people and places, including the Great Wall, temples and pagodas.
‘Through Shen-kan: Sterling Clark in China’ and ’Then and Now: Photographs of Northern China’
WHERE: Stone Hill Center, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.
WHEN: Through Sept. 16
RELATED EVENT: Gallery talks about “Through Shen-Kan” are scheduled in July and August
‘Land of mystery’
In a book about his adventure, Clark called China “a land of mystery” and described “its mighty rivers and mountain ranges, its rich mineral deposits, its ancient tombs.”
More than a half-century after his death, the Clark is revealing this lesser-known side of its founder in “Through Shen-Kan: Sterling Clark in China,” an exhibit at the museum’s Stone Hill Center that also celebrates the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Through Shen-Kan,” the book co-authored by Clark and the prominent British naturalist Arthur deCarle Sowerby.
Bound with a golden yellow cover, an original copy of “Through Shen-Kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in North China, 1908-1909” is the first artifact one sees in the Stone Hill gallery.
Born in 1877, an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, Clark studied civil engineering at Yale University.
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Less than a year after his graduation in 1899, he signed up with the U.S. Army and was shipped off to the Philippines and then to China, where helped defend British interests in the Boxer Rebellion, a pro-nationalist uprising against foreign imperialism and Christianity.
At Stonehill, we see Clark’s pistol and hat, a medal for his service in China and a 1903 photo of him with an Army buddy.
“All this sets the stage for why Clark would go to China,” says Thomas J. Loughman, the Clark’s assistant deputy director and curator of the exhibit.
The rest of the show is about the expedition, beginning with a wall-sized blowup of their route through northern China and a collection of surveying instruments. Clark’s exploration of Northern China was all about science. The team mapped and measured the land, recorded the weather and collected 2,300 mammals and birds.
Unlike many of Far East expeditions mounted by Westerners in the early 20th century, Clark’s crew did not remove or disturb any artifacts, even though the area in which they traveled was considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, a rich repository of ancient burial tombs and treasures.
For this exhibit, the museum borrowed 10 Shen-Khan specimens from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, among them a Chinese striped hamster, a golden eagle, a bengal cat and an azure -winged magpie.
Prepared during the expedition and still carrying the tiny paper field tags bearing Sowerby’s handwriting, specimens from the Clark expedition were some of the Smithsonian’s first from China.
“While Clark was in the field, they were creating this museum,” explains Loughman.
Sowerby, a British scientist who was born and raised in northern China, was in charge of the natural history part of the expedition.
“He’s a bit of a god,” says Loughman. “Clark’s expedition found seven new species of mammals.”
As the exhibit draws to a close, we fast-forward to the 21st century, when “Through Shen-kan” inspires others to follow in Clark’s footsteps.
In 2008, two young Englishwomen who read the 1912 book decided to travel to northern China. Victoria Thwaites and Ginny Howells, both Oxford University graduates, retraced Clark’s trail riding buses and trains instead of mules and horses. (In June, Thwaites and Howells traveled to Williamstown, Mass., for the opening of the exhibit.)
Li Ju, a Chinese photographer, stumbled across photos from the 1908-1909 expedition on the Clark museum’s website. In 2008, Li also traveled to northern China, searching for and rephotographing the sites that were pictured in Clark’s book.
Li’s mission captured the attention of Chinese national television, which aired a series and feature film in 2009 and 2010, and Chinese National Geographic magazine, which published a cover story about it.
In 2010, the book “Through Shen-Kan” was translated into Chinese.
“Then & Now: Photographs of Northern China” is a small but compelling exhibit of Li’s color photos mounted next to images taken by the Clark expedition.
Divided into cityscapes, landscapes, people, and religious and cultural sites, there are 16 pairs of old-and-new photos.
While their mission was science, Clark’s team did photograph people they encountered, including a woman with an elaborate headdress and a postman on horseback, both in Gansu Province. In homage to Clark, Li found similar subjects in the same province, a dancing bride and a postman in his truck.
“It was a remarkable way to document changes over the past century,” says Richard Rand, a senior curator at the Clark.
On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in July and August, the Clark is showing “Through Shaanxi and Gansu” in its auditorium. The 45-minute film is an English-language overview of the Li Ju documentary that aired on TV in China.
Contemporary commentary on Clark’s trip
If you are traveling to New York City in the next few weeks, you might want to stop at the headquarters of the illustrious Explorers Club in Manhattan.
The red brick townhouse at 46 E. 70th St. was once the home of Sterling Clark’s brother Stephen and now houses not only the Explorers Club but the New York office of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Sterling Clark book “Through Shen-Kan,” the museum in the Berkshires commissioned a contemporary art exhibit, “Phantoms of the Clark Expedition” at the Explorers Club.
For the installation, award-winning New York City artist Mark Dion created a series of dioramas and papier-mâché sculptures representing objects and specimens that were used or collected during the 1908-1909 expedition.
‘Phantoms of the Clark Expedition’
WHAT: Contemporary art exhibit inspired by Sterling Clark’s trip to China in 1908-1909
WHERE: Explorers Club, 46 E. 70th St., New York
WHEN: through Friday, Aug. 3
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 212-628-8383
Founded in 1904, the Explorers Club (www.explorers.org) is an international professional society that promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air and space.
The society’s New York office is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday.