向達 Xiang Da, or Hsiang Da in Wade-Giles, wrote in his 1932 article concerning Chinese books in Oxford [向達: 瀛涯瑣志 : 記⽜津所藏的中⽂書. In 北平圖書館館刊 10:5 (1936), 9-44], that he had seen many prints and among them three eighteenth century prints from Taohuawu in Suzhou preserved in the Douce Collection at the Bodleian Library. Obviously, no one has paid attention to these prints until recently, when my friend, Sören Edgren, re-read Xiang Da’s article and asked me if I had seen these prints or knew about them. Sören contacted David Helliwell at the Bodleian library who supplied more information and fresh photographs.
The Douce Collection is one of the largest donations (some 19,000 volumes) ever received by the Bodleian and was bequeathed by the antiquarian Frances Douce (1757-1834). Among the mainly western books were some Chinese volumes, which are now shelf-marked Douce Chin. “The collection is small, but contains some items of outstanding interest and great rarity”, including the three prints under discussion.
These three Chinese black-and-white woodblock prints on paper are kept in the larger of two guard-books of single-sheet items, shelf-marked Douce Chin.c.1 and measure approx. 40×60 cm. When mounted in the guard-book two of the prints were framed with a yellow bit of paper, carefully saving the margin signature in one the prints.
- Wannianqiao – The Bridge of Ten Thousand Years
The first print shows a bridge over a river and various buildings and shops.
The street is busy with coolies, pedestrians, and a lady walking on a tight-rope surrounded by spectators and a small orchestra. A rider comes through a large gate to the left, the
脣⾨Chunmen 胥⾨ Xumen, located in west Suzhou south of Wannian Bridge and one of the twelve city gates. [correction compliment of Anita Wang].
￼Three tones of black are achieved by overprinting, using perhaps as many as three different woodblocks. A black printed border surrounds the print.
Another example of this same print is in the Kobe
Municipal City Museum (see below) but this is hand-coloured and larger, depicting in an additional upper register the 姑蘇萬年橋 Gusu Wannianqiao or Bridge of Ten Thousand Years in Suzhou, which is also the title of the print, a common motif among Suzhou prints of this period.
This upper register contains the handwritten title and a colophon, including a date equivalent to 1740. Since this is handwritten the date might have been added later, but in comparison with similar prints, see below, the date appears correct.
Both prints are definitely printed from the same woodblock judging by the small defects and striations in the block, which are visible in both prints. ￼
￼Similar prints illustrating the Gusu Wannianqiao exist, one with printed calligraphy imitating a rubbing in the upper register. I include two examples here, one dated 1741 and the other 1744.
The iconography is quite similar in all three prints and it is obvious that at the time there existed a genre and a style common among many artists and studios.
2. Duanqiao – Melting Snow at Broken Bridge
The second print takes us to Hangzhou and a wintry West Lake. We see part of the lake, with a boat passing under 斷橋 Duanqiao, the famous Broken Bridge, here crowned by a pavilion, on one of the dykes.
A man in the foreground offers his hand to a kneeling lady who has put down her umbrella. In the background are more buildings, some identified by printed characters 曲院⾵風和, 放夜亭 etc. An inscription on top centre reads: 斷橋雪, 和靖梅, 天然點盡西湖; 綴勝景名標, 無復著畫圖, 補羡占花魁 [need translation]. Perhaps we should title this print Melting Snow at Broken Bridge, which was one of the famous Ten Views of West Lake.
Just like the previous print, this one is overprinted two or three times to achieve three tones of grey/black. A printed black border surrounds the image.
3. Leifeng Qiji – The Legend of Leifeng
The third print is also of West Lake, 雷峯奇蹟 Leifeng qiji , The Legend of Leifeng (Thunder Peak) [Pagoda].
This Buddhist monument was built in 976 AD, five stories of brick and wood. Japanese pirates burnt the wooden structure during the Ming dynasty (1360-1644) leaving only the brick ruin. As with Melting Snow at Broken Bridge the print has a text at upper centre, reading: 雷峰奇蹟, 白狀元西湖認母,姑蘇桃花塢張星聚戲寫. It touches on a legendary story and explains what we see. Local legend says that the original Leifeng Pagoda was constructed to imprison a snake-turned-human, 白素貞 Bai Suzhen or 白蛇傳 White Snake, who lost her mortal love at West Lake. Her son, 白狀元 Bai Zhuangyuan, (the last two characters showing that he came first in the Imperial Examinations), returns to West Lake to hold a memorial ceremony for his mother, the White Snake. We see Bai Zhuangyuan arriving by boat and preparing to walk up, under the protection of a canopy, to a table prepared with offerings in front of the pagoda. The small person in the ‘dream-stream’ is most likely Bai Suzhen, White Snake, as the starting point of the ‘stream’ is from the crypt of the pagoda. It is her soul, coming out of the pagoda to meet her son.
The pagoda collapsed in 1924, perhaps finally freeing White Snake, and certainly extinguishing its fame as one of the famous Ten Views of West Lake. The Leifeng pagoda was a recurring motif in Chinese prints of West Lake and easily recognisable by its broad and stubby build. Two more of the Ten Views can be seen in the image: 南屏晚钟 Evening Bells on Nanping Hill in the ￼background with the bell tower, and 三潭印⽉月 Three Pools Mirroring the Moon in the foreground, ￼the three lanterns immersed in the water.
The final ten characters, 姑蘇桃花塢張星聚戲寫, tells us that the print was playfully composed by Zhang Xingju of Taohuawu in Suzhou. Taohuawu is the district of Suzhou where most studios and workshops were located. Zhang Xingju’s name reoccurs in the signature on the outer left lower margin where the text reads: 姑蘇桃花塢張星聚發客 or published by Zhang Xingju of Taohuawu in Suzhou. It is interesting to see that Zhang here acted as both artist and publisher/printer.
There is a second print by Zhang Xingju in my collection, the 1741 Wannianqiao print mentioned and illustrated above. This specific example of the print is mounted as a scroll, with all margins cut away. However, we see from a further example of the same print, published in Kuroda Genji’s book [Kuroda Genji 黒田源次, Shina kohanga zuroku 支那古版画図録 (Ancient Chinese Woodblock Prints), Tokyo: Bijutsukenkyūjo 美術研究所,1932. Plate 16 ], the signature 桃花塢張星聚發客, published by Zhang Xingju of Taohuawu, in the left lower margin.
The present whereabouts of this print is not known.
There is a third print by Zhang Xingju, this one preserved in the British Museum. It is the 百子圖 One Hundred Boys, dated 1743 and with 筠谷 Yungu as artist and Zhang Xingju as printer.
We have again to rely on a different example of this print for the reading of the signature. The BM print has been cut within the margins but the example in the Umi-Mori Art Museum has in the lower right margin 姑蘇桃花塢張星聚發客, published by Zhang Xingju of Taohuawu in Suzhou.
From these two dated prints (1741 and 1743) it is obvious that Zhang was active in the early 1740s and accordingly The Legend of Leifeng print may be dated to this period. It should be mentioned that, at one point, the signature has been misread as 張星號 Zhang Xinghao, and this misinformation appears in some literature, but it is an error.
Both Melting Snow at Broken Bridge and The Legend of Leifeng show vistas of ￼￼West Lake, and are very similar in style and composition. Artistically and technically they are very accomplished and pleasing. It is tempting to consider them as part of a series of prints illustrating the famous Ten Views of West Lake. They are clearly complete views in their own right, foreground, mid-ground and background all included in each image. They are therefore not a part of a larger print, like the first Wannianqiao print, as we have seen above, which forms the lower register of a larger print.
Both these prints are unique, no other examples are known, nor any other prints that could be part of a presumed series.
The only three prints I know that resemble the Douce prints, both in form and style, are illustrated below.
The first is dated 1732, and therefore definitely too early to be part of a set.
The second is in a private Japanese collection, illustrating the Leifeng pagoda.
This latter print does not have any of the writing that the Douce prints have but it is close to them in style and atmosphere. Also the technical bravura of the Douce prints is visible in this print. The fact that it shows the Leifeng pagoda (admittedly from another angle), in a way excludes it from being part of the series since we already have seen this view. The total lack of any writing also breaks the assumed uniformity. A common detail: both pagodas sport twigs and branches growing at the top!
The third print is a view of a bridge and pavilions at West Lake. Again, no text or other similarities to group it with the Douce prints.
All prints reproduced here show influences from Western art: the vanishing point perspective and shading being the most obvious. The copperplate printing influence is also strong and I wonder if the artists were not aware of Matteo Ripa’s thirty-six copperplate illustrations of the 避暑山莊 Bishu shanzhuang, Summer Palace at Jehol, from 1714. The 1732 print incorporates some very odd and forced elements, especially the piling of rocks in the middle and the decorative carnation-type of trees. The striated sky and the bulbous clouds definitely belong to the western copperplate tradition. One of Ripa’s copper prints is shown here for comparison.
We do not know when the prints entered Frances Douce’s collection but one would assume later in his life, perhaps around the end of the 18th – beginning 19th century. We know that Chinese prints, especially Suzhou prints, were imported into Europe from the 1740s and 1750s onwards. The taste for chinoiserie and for a ‘salon chinoise’ created a huge importation of Chinese ceramics, textiles and wallpapers. The earliest wallpapers were woodblock printed, to be replaced towards the 1760s more and more by painted ones. Not many details are known of how this trade was conducted, and how the prints, once in Europe, were traded and distributed. Quite a few Chinese prints found their way into botanical collections, such as that of Hans Sloane (1660-1753) in England, and those of Antoine de Jussieu (1686-1758) and his brother Bernard de Jussieu (1699-1777) in France. Other prints ended up as wallpapers or wall decorations in castles and mansions all over Europe. And some apparently in the hands of individual connoisseurs such as Douce.
It is a fluke of fate that all three known prints by Zhang Xingju are now in UK collections, with a duplicate of one in a Japanese collection. Douce is responsible for one, and I for the other two: the One Hundred Boys which came from the Jean-Pierre Dubosc collection (he acquired it in Japan) and which was purchased by the BM in 1991; and the Wannianqiao which I bought in Japan some years ago. So the Douce print of Zhang Xingju is the earliest in a European collection, probably sourced directly from China. Sadly, there are no such Suzhou prints preserved in China today.
It must be mentioned that there are other Chinese woodblock prints in the Douce guard-books worthy of attention, but that will have to be the subject of another article.