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While the latter man never fulfilled his oft expressed wish to visit the country, this typically curt yet enlightening response may well have been remembered by his status conscious companion when, 20 or so years later, he had built up sufficient finances and position in society to consider commissioning his first Chinese export porcelain service, of which the tureen illustrated above is almost certainly a part.

In keeping with the other 87 pieces from the Qianlong service which was consigned to Bonham’s Knightsbridge for sale on May 3, the tureen was badly damaged and therefore unusable, but its literary connections were such that it still fetched more than double the price one would expect of an equivalent service bearing an insignificant armorial crest.

Each piece was decorated in famille rose with an underglaze blue trellis border and was painted with the Boswell falcon crest, the gaelic motto Vraye Foye and the monogram JB.

David Howard lists three services with the Boswell crest in his book Chinese Armorial Porcelain. The first, c.1780, is decorated with a Fitzhugh pattern trellis similar to this service but lacks the JB monogram. In all likelihood this was made for James Boswell’s father, the eighth laird of Auchinleck. The second, c.1790, corresponds in every detail to this service, and pieces from both have been donated to a museum at Dr Johnson’s house in Gough Square, London.

The third service, c.1800, differs in decoration to the first two, having broad enamel bands rather than intricate trellis work, and it is thought to have been made for one of the sons of Boswell’s Uncle John. Without the presence of James Boswell’s signature on an East India Company receipt there is no way of knowing for sure whether this service was made for the famous biographer rather than for his Uncle John or his younger brother John, but circumstantial evidence makes unlikely candidates of both relatives. Uncle John died in 1790 and judging by the account of the third service in Howard’s book, this side of the family probably commissioned their services to a different design. Brother John was committed to a lunatic asylum during the early 1770s.

Chinese porcelain dealers were deterred by damage to the service, and it went to Christopher Edwards, an antiquarian book dealer specialising in Boswell, at £8200 (plus 15 per cent premium).