Li Yuan-chia – The Man behind the Artist.

Over the last 4 months we have been working across teams, (The Visual Collections and The Manuscript and Archives Departments), to try and enhance our understanding of what is contained in the uncatalogued archive of the artist Li Yuan-chia. We have been trying to improve upon the current box list for the collection to enable researchers to have better access to the collection and to rehouse the material into more manageable archival storage.

Li Yuan Chia (1929-94) was a poet-artist-calligrapher-photographer, founder and curator of the LYC Museum in Cumbria. He lived in China, Taiwan, Italy and Britain and spent the last twenty-eight years of his life at Banks, Cumbria, in a house next to Hadrian’s Wall, where he created the LYC Museum. The Tate has an exhibition of Li Yuan-chia’s work running until October 2015 which highlights many of the recurring themes in his work, such as his preoccupations with space, life and time.

Our Clear-Up Project has given us the opportunity to really assess what the archive is comprised of. For example we already knew it contained a huge collection of Li’s photographic work (see Blog post: Locating Li Yuan-chia, 11th February 2014), but as we began looking through the boxes we realised it gave us a unique insight into Li as a person. There was, what appeared to be, a very random collection of artefacts, many personal items such as letters, passport, bank books, travel cards as well as many items related to Li’s artistic practises such as cameras, lenses and artistic tools.



The inclusion of so many personal effects gave the archive a great poignancy, for example his khaki rucksack and his sou’ wester, which although a little musty, was recognisable from his modelling it in some of his photographs. The abundance of personal ephemera enabled us to build up an image of Li, not only as an artist and curator, but as a person. The many letters, cards and notes offered an insight into his personal relationships, often portraying friendships and the affection with which he was held. We particularly liked several get well cards, which had been made by children who had visited the art gallery he ran.


However, there did appear numerous items which we couldn’t link specifically to him. They led us to surmise as to their connection and why they’d been included with his effects, particularly a small collection of WW1 medals that had been carefully wrapped and placed in a 1970’s Kraft Cheese box. There is also a silver cigarette case engraved to resemble a Pound note, which we could find no account of. Whether he used it for its intended purpose or not is an unsolved mystery. Maybe he planned to use them as inspiration for future artistic endeavours? What did become apparent though was that the LYC archive is certainly multi-layered and that it is ready for further investigation and research.

Karen Jacques, Manuscripts and Archive, & Clare Baker, Visual Collections and Academic Engagement. Technical Advice Anne Anderton, CHICC.


4 comments on “Li Yuan-chia – The Man behind the Artist.

  1. Really enjoyed the LYC blog!

    The bit about the WW1 Medals is interesting. Maybe they belonged to a relative of his. China was initially neutral in WW1, and when the US entered the War in 1917, China broke relations with the Central Powers and declared war against Germany. China sent a large labour force to France to support the war effort (some 175,000 strong). It’s possible there were (British) Chinese men fighting for Britain in WW1, or Chinese men (from China) fighting for the allies in some capacity. There certainly were British Chinese fighting (across the forces) for Britain during WW2.

    Check this website out

    All very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    • LI YUAN-CHIA MEDALS. Just seen the blog. Very late feed-back I’m afraid but readers might like to know that Li was a passionate collector of coins, clocks, jewellery and some medals. His executors submitted the folios of coins he had meticulously prepared to auction after his death in 1994. However, Jane’s suggestion that perhaps a member of Li’s family was recipient of one of these awards is an interesting one and worth looking into. One of the Foundation’s trustees Dr Diana Yeh has actually been been researching one aspect of China’s participation in WW1, so some answer to the riddle may soon be forthcoming.

  2. Pingback: Li Yuan-chia – The Man behind the Artist. | CHICC Manchester

  3. Pingback: Celebrating Li Yuan-chia at the Henry Moore Institute Library | John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

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