James Marshall Plumer (1899-1960)
James Marshall Plumer was a noted professor and expert on Asian art. Born in Newton Centre, Massachusetts on July 10, 1899, he attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire and the Boston Latin School before enrolling at Harvard University. At Harvard, he befriended professor and legendary expert on Asian art, Langdon Warner. Inspired by Warner’s tales of the Far East, Plumer undertook extensive studies abroad, visiting ancient temples and monuments in China, becoming fluent in Chinese, and working as an administrative officer with the Chinese government’s Maritime Customs. In 1929 Harvard University selected Plumer as Assistant and Tutor in the Chinese Language and Secretary of the Harvard-Yenching Institute. This appointment was due in part to the efforts of Warner, then Curator of Oriental Art at Harvard’s Fogg Museum of Art.
In addition to his lectures, Plumer continued his research in China. During one of many exploratory trips into the Chinese countryside, Plumer discovered the kiln site of chien ware, a highly-prized ancient stoneware dating back to the Sung dynasty (960-1279). Reports of his findings were published by the Royal Asiatic Society, Ostasiatische Zeitschrift, and the Illustrated London News. An established and well-respected authority on Chinese art, he was appointed Lecturer on Far Eastern Art at the University of Michigan in 1935. A promotion to Associate Professor followed in 1941.
During World War II, Plumer served as a member of the Massachusetts National Guard, Cavalry. In 1943, due to his deep knowledge of Chinese geography and culture, Plumer was selected to organize and administrate the China Unit of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’s Map Service at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The following year, Plumer was recruited by the Roberts Commission to help create maps and lists of protected monuments and sites in China. He worked alongside Langdon Warner, who once again submitted his friend’s name for consideration. In March 1945, Warner recommended Plumer for service with the Arts and Monuments Division of the Civil Information and Education Section of General Headquarters of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) in Tokyo, Japan. The Arts and Monuments Division functioned as the Far Eastern office of the MFAA in the Pacific Theater. Arriving in Tokyo in 1948, Plumer conducted inspections of museums and cultural monuments in China and Japan, including Chūson-ji temple in Hiraizumi, Japan, until 1949.
Following his return to the United States, Plumer resumed his lectures at the University of Michigan. An avid researcher and writer, he continued his studies of Asian art not only in relation to China but India, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. In addition to many publications, most notably Chinese Pottery; A Short Historical Survey (1947) and Japanese Pottery, Old and New (1951), Plumer served as editor of the Far Eastern Ceramic Bulletin. He imparted his enthusiasm for the subject to his students, oftentimes interrupting classes for a hands-on demonstration of a traditional Chinese tea service and hosting luncheons at his home served in authentic Chinese ceramic bowls. He was a member of the American Oriental Society, the Royal Asiatic Society, the Chinese Art Society of America, the Japan Society, the Association for Asian Studies, and the Archaeological Society of America.
In 1958, Plumer travelled to Hōryūji, one of the oldest and most sacred Buddhist monasteries in Nara, Japan, as a representative of the United States at the dedication ceremony for a monument erected in honor of Langdon Warner. In the years that followed, he devotedly continued the work of his late mentor and friend, including the completion of Warner’s last book, Japanese Sculpture of the Tempyō Period (1958).
James Plumer was promoted to full Professor at the University of Michigan in early June 1960. Just a few days later, he suffered a heart attack and died on June 15, 1960.
Photo courtesy of the Ars Orientalis.