WENFANGTU 文房圖 Prints of Scholarly and Other Objects

A pair of hand-coloured woodblock prints showing sections of deep bookcases or cabinets appeared in a 2020 Bukowski auction in Stockholm.1 I had not paid much attention to this genre of prints before I came across a group of them when visiting the Veltrusy Mansion (hereafter VM) in the Czech Republic. There used to be a room in this mansion wallpapered with such prints, but which is presently dismantled for renovation and restoration. Old photographs of the room show the arrangement of the wallpaper—but more about this later.

The Stockholm auction prints fired my curiosity, leading to quick cursory research that unveiled a multifaceted state of affairs, more complicated and intricate than first expected. It spans various geographical localities such as the UK, the Czech Republic, France, and Sweden. I will try below to list the various prints as well as their provenance, present whereabouts and interrelationships.

Each print, ca. 110×50 cm, shows two superimposed sections of a deep bookshelf or cabinet separated by a pair of drawer fronts. Each three-dimensional section contains a variety of ceramics, musical instruments, books and scrolls, fruits and flowers, and other cherished objects. The upper section shows all five sides of the cabinet, as if seen straight from the front, whereas the bottom section only shows four sides—the top or ceiling being hidden by the drawers. The sections are slightly inclined towards either the right or the left, depending on which side is shaded. The shaded side is always smaller than the non-shaded, producing a linear perspective of sorts. The battens in the ceiling of the shelf are also angled to either left or right, further enhancing its three-dimensional appearance. Displayed objects are slightly inclined towards the viewer.

In the search for a term or name for this genre of prints, I have had suggestions of bogutu 博古圖 (pictures of antiques); qinggong bogutu 清供博古圖 (pictures of ceremonial objects and numerous antiques); cejiatu 冊架圖 (pictures of bookshelves); cejuli 冊巨里 (books and things); duobao gejing 多寶格景 (shelves bearing treasures); and wenfangtu 文房圖 (scholar’s studio objects). Although all these terms have their merits and could well be suitable, the objects displayed on the shelves are not all antiques and not necessarily precious, so I discarded bogutu and duobao gejing. Cejiatu and cejuli are quite to the point and are the Chinese version of the later Korean names for such motifs, ch’aekka-do or ch’aekkŏri painting. However, personally, I favour wenfangtu, with all its connotations of the traditional Chinese scholar and his studio filled with books and various objects, precious or not. Wenfang sibao 文房四寶 (Four Treasures of the Scholar’s Studio) is the term used to refer to the ink brush, ink-stick, paper and ink-slab which were the cornerstones of a literati life. Being, I believe, the first person to select a term for these prints, I choose wenfangtu.

Bukowski 2020, A-B. 94×48.5 cm.
Bukowski 2020, C-D. 91×46 cm.

The two Bukowski prints (as well as all other known prints in this genre, judging from photographs) are printed on one single sheet of paper.2 Each section of the bookcase is three-dimensional and shows the sides, the back, and the base in different colour tones. The top sections also show the ceiling of the shelf (trimmed away in all the Bukowski prints). The ceiling and one of the sides are painted black, whereas the base and two adjoining sides have a hand-painted woodgrain pattern, which is also visible on the dividing drawer fronts. This trompe l’oeil effect is a Western innovation brought by the Jesuits who arrived in China in the seventeenth century. The linear perspective, as well as the shading (blackening) of one side and the ceiling, are also the fruit of Western influence. Each drawer has a printed rosette handle with a ring. The bookshelves are very plain, in strong contrast to those elaborately decorated bookshelves seen in court paintings, such as the Yongzheng reign set of twelve paintings of beauties in palace interiors (formerly mistakenly titled Yongzheng Shier Fei 雍正十二妃 Twelve Concubines of the Yongzheng Emperor) by an anonymous court artist. Some of these paintings are in the Palace Museum in Beijing.3

The above characteristics are, I believe, common for all known wenfangtu prints. The available illustrations and reproductions are not always clear or detailed, and it is impossible, for example, to distinguish joins in the paper sheet, if such exist. Therefore, assumptions and conclusions made here might have to be revised in the future.

Descriptions of Wenfangtu

I have so far discovered ten such prints in various institutions. Each of these prints has two sections of superimposed shelves, to which I have allocated the letters A to T, and whose contents are listed below.

The two Bukowski prints, from now on referred to as A-B and C-D, have been trimmed on all four sides. All colours are hand-painted, with the painting in fairly fresh condition. The thin paper was originally backed with fine linen canvas to serve as wallpaper. Recently (in the last 40-50 years), the prints were mounted on cardboard and framed. The edges of the Chinese paper were hidden under beige paint on the ‘light’ side and and dark brown paint on the ‘shaded’ side. Outside of this painted frame can be seen a yellow margin, partly damaged during the removal from the wall, consisting of canvas, Western paper and oily paint.

The upper section (A, 94×48.5 cm) of the first print shows two albums on which stand an open box. Within the box is displayed a cracked-ice patterned vase on a small wood stand. Ping 瓶 (vase) is a homophone with ping 平 (peace), a recurrent symbolism in the prints. Tiered baskets containing chess pieces are also stacked on the albums. Two brocade-covered rolls of painting or calligraphy lean towards the back. In front of the scrolls are three volumes—one is open to present the text. The spine has the characters Xixiang Ji 西廂記 (Romance of the Western Chamber). The text is legible. It is a fragment from Act 1 (of Play 1) of Xixiangji in the Jin Shengtan (金聖歎, 1610?–1661) edition. The fragment describes the lovestruck Student Zhang after he first set eyes on Yingying. Jin divides the text in sections (jie 节), and the text here presents sections 13 and 14 (the aria 赚煞). The text has been copied quite well, but there are mistakes. For instance, in section 14, Jin writes: 至此遂聲言之也 but the print has: 至比遂聲言之也.4 It is not uncommon to find orthographic errors in print texts of the eighteenth century.

The presence here of the Xixiangji volume (as well as the tea canisters and the calendar in print J below) shows that actual, everyday items were reproduced in wenfangtu prints, not only generic objects.

In the bottom compartment (B, 91×46 cm) one sees a lidded teacup decorated with a writhing blue dragon pattern. In front of it is a violet basin or ink-slab. On a green stand with oval openings sits a bowl containing five Buddha’s Hand citrus fruits, foshou 佛手, a homophone of fushou 福壽 (good fortune and longevity). A water dropper and a vase with a flowering peach branch complete the objects displayed, mostly placed in the foreground.

The second Bukowski print displays in its upper section (C) a single volume placed on a hantao 函套 of books. Behind is a vase with roses. Supported on a stand with three balls is a blue bowl with four pomegranates, two of them split open to show their seeds, a symbol of many offspring.

The bottom part (D) shows a brushpot containing four brushes and a scroll. The scroll has a fine decoration of white wavy lines applied in such a manner as to create relief. The same has been done with the seeds of the pomegranates, the rim of the blue dish, and the white dots on the brocade cover of the books in C.5 There are also musical instruments such as small cymbals, a dizi 笛子 (flute) with a jade tassel and a four-stringed pipa 琵琶 (lute).

Bukowski 2020 D, detail of relief paint.

It is interesting to note that in this print one of the drawers has been pulled out a little to accentuate the trompe l’oeil effect. The left side and inside of the drawer have been painted black. Another interesting detail is visible in the middle, just above the drawers—breaks in the horizontal printed lines. These breaks or cracks can be followed vertically throughout the print, both on its upper and lower sections.

Comparison of breaks in C and D.

This tells us that two blocks of wood were joined together. Furthermore, the fact that the width of the break is narrow in the upper part but wider in the lower part indicates that there were separate blocks for them. In other words, four pieces of wood were joined to form the printing block. It was common practice to join several blocks of wood together with nails and dovetails, and then cut the image. With usage, the blocks came slightly apart and the joins became visible as breaks in the print. The horizontal breaks are not visible here due to overpainting. Moreover, the middle falls just above the drawers, where there are no printed black lines. In the A-B print, one can also see a vertical crack running from top to bottom, tapering towards the bottom. No horizontal break can be detected, again due to later overpainting.

In the catalogue entry for the two Bukowski 2020 prints is a reference to an earlier Bukowski sale in 2016 where three such prints were auctioned.67 Lot 129 in this 2016 sale is another example of C-D, but with brighter colour, although the pulled-out drawer remains unpainted and has a less three-dimensional appearance. A comparison between the two prints (as best as can be done from the subpar reproductions) shows them to have been printed from the same woodblock.

Bukowski 2016, C-D. 91×47 cm.

Looking at Lot 130 in the Bukowski 2016 sale one encounters two new sections of bookshelf, E-F.

Bukowski 2016, E-F. 91×47 cm.

In E, from left to right, are: two tea canisters of base metal, one of them in a (veneered?) basketweave pattern; a tea set comprising four cups and a teapot, probably Yixing 宜興pottery with appliqué in a lighter coloured clay, on a green tray; a gnarled branch placed diagonally across the image; and a patterned vase with roses.

In F are placed: a Yixing teapot on top of its brazier;8 a typical large circular Cantonese palm fan over which a pipe is angled; two red bags hanging from the drawer handle; and finally a small bowl of grapes.

Bukowski 2016, G-H. 91×47 cm.

Lot 131 in the Bukowski 2016 sale is the print G-H.

The upper section G presents four custard apples in a plate resting on a stand with three balls, very similar to the stand in A; a rhomboid celadon vase (similar to vase in N below), with bagua 八卦 (eight trigrams) symbols on it, holds a branch of blossoming camellia; a blue porcelain box with open lid display its content of beads or pearls; and an abacus.

Bottom section H contains a brushpot in which is a folding fan, three brushes, a sheet of paper; a chicken-feather duster glued to a rattan stick; a handkerchief enveloping seals; a small scales in its wooden holder; two hantao with volumes of books; and, on top of the books, a pair of eyeglasses in their case.

By luck, I learned that the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm (NM) has examples of wenfangtu. The Museum’s holdings expand the print motifs with I to P, as follows:

Nordiska Museet, I-J.

In I, which in this case is damaged, are a vase with three flowers; a half-opened folding fan; fourteen volumes of a book loosely stacked; and a checked towel hanging down from a bronze mirror over the books and the drawer below.

Section J has a rectangular black box with a green shou 壽 (long life) symbol; a Yixing teapot; two blue dragon-decorated cups, one with a lid; two tea canisters of woven basketry (similar to the canister in E); a goose or swan feather; and a book suspended from the handle of a semi-opened drawer. An amusing detail on this drawer are the two cockroaches—one creeping up the drawer front, the other peeping up over the edge. A very Chinese humourist touch.

Nordiska Museet, J detail.

The sections K-L form an entire, untrimmed print. For the first time one sees here the fifth part of the bookshelf—the ceiling. This is, as in most prints, black and divided into three sections by what looks like wooden battens. One also sees here for the first time the frame of the bookcase, hand-painted with the woodgrain clearly depicted.

Nordiska Museet, K-L.

Section K holds three books; an aubergine-coloured vase with two roses; a partially opened folding fan; and a blue dish with three large red fruits (melons?) on a wooden stand with open circles.

The lower section L displays a green dish with a narcissus and a miniature Taihu rock; small scales in its wooden holder; a pair of eyeglasses in a wooden case; and, leaning in the back right corner, a fan made of goose feathers.

Nordiska Museet, M-N.

Section M has only three objects: a blue gu-shaped vase with a branch of blossoming plum; a set of dominos in their box; and a fan with an expensive spotted-bamboo handle, xiangfeizhu 湘妃竹.

Below, in section N, are four objects: a three-stringed sanxian 三弦 (lute) placed diagonally; a green bottle, possibly containing plum wine and plums; a blue dish with lychees and fruits from scarlet sterculia on a wooden stand; and finally a square elongated vase decorated with the bagua, same as in G. This green vase stands in a wooden box with a handle, a similar carrying box to A.

Nordiska Museet, O-P.

In O are three albums on which is placed a bundle of (presumably) books in a carrying cloth baofu 包袱 (Jap. furoshiki 風呂敷) is placed. Next to it is a translucent fishbowl with five fish, three red and two black. The fishbowl rests on an elaborate three-legged stand which the artist did not succeed in reproducing with correct perspective.

Section P has first a brushpot with four spotted-bamboo brushes and a folding fan. Within is also a sheet of red paper and a chicken-feather duster (similar to H above). The brushpot and its contents are reminiscent of that in H. A blue dish contains half a watermelon, plus some chunks. A lotus root and a few slices are also in the dish as are four water caltrops (ling 菱). The water caltrop fruit resembles a bat, and caltrop are thus a rebus for bats, which signify auspicious blessings.

Nordiska Museet, Q-R.

Section Q shows a tall green vase with cymbidium. Next to the vase is a dish on a wooden stand. In the dish are three different kinds of flower. To the right is a cracked-ice patterned bowl with three Buddha’s Hand citrus fruits.

Section R has, to the left, a round box with white seals and a small blue vessel. Behind these is a hantao of books. Diagonally placed is an erhu 二胡 (two-stringed lute) behind which is its bow, together with the beater for the round tambourine standing behind.

Thus far, I have relied on prints in Swedish collections. To be able to complete the inventory of the wenfangtu I had to go to the Veltrusy Mansion (VM) in the Czech Republic, where two separate sections (probably from a single print) are located.

Veltrusy Mansion, S

Section S is only known as a single section; no complete two-section print is known. Posed diagonally is a four-stringed instrument, as in D but with different shape. Behind this lute is a blue vase with two peonies. Two tea canisters complete the image. In contrast to canisters shown in other prints, these bear text: Gongfu xicha 工夫細茶 and Wuyi cha 武夷茶. Both are well-known tea brands then as now.9

Veltrusy Mansion, T.

The lower section T could possibly be the bottom part of S considering the similarity of woodgrain on the back, shelf and side. On a green tray is an Yixing teapot, a lidded teacup decorated with blue dragons and three smaller wine or teacups, also decorated in blue. Behind this is a wooden stand on which rests a blue dish with various flowers—magnolia, peony, rose, vinca—and foliage. Another Yixing pot on top of its brazier finishes the inventory. A similar brazier and teapot can be found in section F.

This completes my description of known prints.10

Provenance of Known Wenfangtu


Bukowski Prints

In the catalogue entry to Bukowski 2016 is stated that the three prints offered at that auction were “originally from a set of 12 paintings [sic!] discovered at a wing to Skenäs Manor, Vingåker”. Looking at Wikipedia, candidates for who might originally have acquired these prints for Skenäs Manor would include Count Johan Gyllenborg (1682–1752), but, perhaps more likely, his son Count Jacob Johan Gyllenborg (1721–1788)—especially as the latter would presumably have inherited Skenäs Manor on his father’s death in 1752, when the fashion for this kind of prints in Europe was really taking off. It was the exact time when similar wenfangtu prints were being used at Milton Hall (MH) in England. Jacob’s uncle, Fredrik Gyllenborg (1698–1759), was a participant in and shareholder of the Swedish East India Company (SEIC) at this time, and it is possible that the prints came to Skenäs Manor thanks to this relation.

Skenäs Manor passed through many hands. In the late 1980s it was bought by an acquaintance of mine, who is still the owner. I called him recently to enquire about these prints, and he confirmed that there were none in the manor when he bought it.

From available catalogue illustrations it is impossible to ascertain whether the prints in the Bukowski 2016 sale are mounted similarly to the two in the 2020 sale, which are mounted on plywood board and in a black frame. Around the prints are traces of yellow and beige paper/paint, evidence of their service as wallpapers (cf below under Göteborgs Stadsmuseum).

Nordiska Museet

The eight prints described above were acquired from Stina Swanbergs Antiqvitetshandel (antique shop) in 1901. All in all, there were 39 pieces acquired in this purchase, so there are probably more prints to be discovered. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Museum is presently closed and it is not possible to either view the prints or to take photographs. The prints are unmounted and have never been used as wallpaper. Judging by the few photographs of the prints, the paper is thin and brittle, also confirmed in the inventory description, and they have suffered from rough handling resulting in tears and parts missing.11 Since these prints have never been used as wallpaper, their colours are very fresh and unaffected by light or dust.

Göteborgs Stadsmuseum

Göteborgs Stadsmuseum, M-N.

The museum has a complete print (M-N) and a fragmentary print (H).12 The first print (M-N) was bought at a Gothenburg auction in 1981. It has been trimmed (the ceiling is missing) and has the same yellow/beige secondary margins as the Bukowski 2020 prints. Possibly, they were all part of the same group, perhaps from the purported twelve ‘paintings’ from Skenäs Manor, considering that they have served as wallpaper at some point.

Göteborg Stadsmuseum, H.

The fragment of section H entered the Gothenburg Municipal Museum in 1938 together with other wallpaper fragments from Marieholms landeri.13 Marieholms landeri came into the possession of Jacob Habicht in 1763 through marriage.14 Jacob Habicht was captain aboard two SEIC ships, Prins Carl, 1765, and Riksens Ständer, 1768. Jacob’s brother, Friedrich Habicht, was a supercargo in the SEIC and made journeys to China in 1752, 1759, and 1766, and was from 1768 stationed as supercargo at the factory in Canton. Either of them could have imported the prints, perhaps more likely Friedrich.

When the main building of the Marieholms landeri was demolished in 1938, “three coats of different Chinese wallpaper were found, one glued upon the other”.15 A newspaper article reported that the wenfangtu print was on top of a figurative wallpaper, which in turn was on top of a bird-and-flower wallpaper. Fragments of these other two Chinese wallpapers are in the Göteborgs Stadsmuseum.16 Hopefully, when better photographs are available of these fragments, a dating of them will be possible which would help us date the wenfangtu prints.

I have been told that there are similar prints at two other manors, Forsmark Bruk and at Linné’s Hammarby, but I have not yet been able to verify this.


Veltrusy Mansion

There is only one location with wenfangtu prints in the Czech Republic: Veltrusy Mansion (VM). However, VM is very rich in its holding of wenfangtu. In the Count’s Study, entered through either a lower or a higher door at each end of the room, complete prints as well as separated sections were pasted in various arrangements, all placed within fancy painted rococo frames. The room is presently dismantled and the prints have been taken for restoration. Through various photographs, I have been able to reconstruct the room (I think!). The most common arrangement (there are four of them) is a 3 by 3 section crowned by 2 sections. The bottom two rows were formed of 3 complete prints, the third row and the top two images were all cutout sections. If I am correct, there are 9 arrangements as follows, starting from the right side of the window wall: 

Far left No. 9 (on the window wall), above door No. 1, followed by Nos. 2 & 3.
  • 1. over the lower door: C-D; M-N
From left: Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 (partly).
  • 2. to the right of the lower door and with part of the arrangement in an angled corner housing a ‘hidden’ door: I-J; K-L; O-P forming the lower part; above them are the sections B, T and D. On top are A and S.
  • 3. to the left on the wall facing the windows: I-J; Q-R; O-P. Above are three sections: L, F and H. The whole crowned by sections G and E. The identical prints are repeated in 5 but not in the same order.
  • 4. consists of only one print: G-H.
Nos. 4, 5 and 6.
  • 5. similar arrangement as Nos. 2 and 3 above: I-J; Q-R, O-P. Above are the three sections: H, F and L, crowned by E and G.
No. 6.
  • 6. also with three prints at the bottom and five sections above: I-J; G and L (this must be two sections put together!); O-P. Above are the three sections F, R and H, and on top E and Q.
No. 7.
  • 7. the door to the right of 6 is higher than the door between 1 and 2, and there is no space above it to fit a print. The only wall now left is the window wall and here I can only speculate (with the help of two inadequate old photographs) that it consisted of a single panel of prints followed by a window. Then came an arrangement of two prints side by side (8) followed by a window and finally 9, being a similar one-print panel as 7.

    In 7 is placed a complete print at the bottom, A-B, with two sections above, Q and N.
No. 8.
  • 8. the bottom feature A-B and M-N. Above them is T and R, crowned by K.
  • 9. this wall panel, comprised of four sections (similar to 7), is not apparent from available photographs. The only print identified with certainty is the bottom one, S-T. The two prints above remain to be identified.


Milton Hall

The prints in Milton Hall (MH) are described by Emile de Bruijn in his Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland, p. 46 ff. Individual cutout parts of wenfangtu have been collaged in various combinations with the addition of painted floral motifs or motifs from other prints. The eyeglasses from L, the book bundle from O as well as the feather and tea canisters from I-J are easily recognisable. From I-J one can also see the hanging book, now detached and turned around, and the hanging cloth. This cloth has a slightly different shape from the print in NM and VM. It is readily apparent that the MH prints are all from different woodblocks to those used in prints in any other location. From photographs of the MH walls, it is possible to discern that the trompe l’oeil woodgrain pattern is present, but only on the bottom of the bookshelf, not on the back or sides. Apart from objects cut out from the A-T prints, there are also objects not previously encountered, indicating that there must have been more prints and motifs among the wenfangtu. These new objects include various dishes and bowls on stands, vases, a bronze ding tripod, wooden trays and, most surprisingly, a pair of shoes. The ceilings of the bookshelf sections on which the cutout objects were pasted are, as in the original prints, divided into three fields, but here as vaulted ceilings with tassels hanging from the lower ends. I am inclined to think that the whole bookshelf section is a painted addition by the paper-hangers. If I am surprised by the presence of such a prosaic object as a pair of shoes, I am also surprised by the omission of such exotic objects as the fishbowl in O. The bundle of books from this same print is present, so we know the entire print must have been available for use. Maybe the odd twisted perspective of the stand disqualified the fishbowl. The abacus, the small scales, and the bowl of cherimoyas in G-H ought also to have been objects of interest to the Western eyes of the paper-hangers, but perhaps this print was not available. 

Dating and Origin of Known Wenfangtu

The ‘hanging’ book with a folded corner from print J, as found in four versions in MH and one in VM, is our major aid, at present, to dating the prints. In MH, the books are no longer hanging since they have been scissored out and pasted up in various positions. However, on two of the books the string in the corner is still visible (the ones dated Qianlong (QL) 10 and QL 15).

Veltrusy Mansion, I-J. Dated Qianlong 16 (1751).

The book in question is an official calendar. Such calendars were published annually by the central government, and were obviously ephemeral. The title reads Daqing Qianlong Shi * Nian Shixianshu 大清乾隆十*年時憲書. Incidentally, there are two other Suzhou prints where this exact same calendar(!) is suspended from a hook on the wall (although no string is visible). In both prints the lower part of the front cover is folded up. The date of those prints is QL 10 (1745). Apparently, this particular calendar was an oft-utilised object in prints.17 

Still-life with fan, flute, calendar and bronze vessel. 1745. 107×53 cm. Private Collection, London.
Still-life with vase, calendar and squirrel. 1745. 92.5×55.5 cm. Umi-Mori Art Museum.

The four prints at MH showing this particular calendar are dated QL 10 (1745; 2 of them), QL 13 (1748) and QL 15 (1750) respectively. One of the four prints at VM is dated QL 16 (1751).18 Print I-J is certainly the most numerous, known in 9 examples (four at MH, four at VM and one in NM).

The Chinese Room at MH was created in the early 1750s, which is supported by the datings on the prints. The room at VM was installed in either 1754 for a visit by Francis I and his powerful wife, Maria Theresa, or in 1766 following the 1764 flooding of the Vltava River, a tributary of the Elbe not far away. The date 1754 fits well with the dated print of QL 16 (1751).

It is interesting to see that there is a gap after the printed character ten (in QL 10) which gave the opportunity for the publisher to write in by hand the number for the current year, thereby allowing use of the woodblock for ten years. The wu 五 five in QL 15 (1750) is a very obvious addition by hand.

Milton Hall, detail of QL 15 dating.

Whether or not this was a common thing for the publisher of the calendar to do is not known to me. The print publisher could certainly keep his print ‘current’ for ten consecutive years without having to cut a new woodblock. I hope to be able to visit MH and verify whether the handwritten wu character is really handwritten onto the print or rather printed to imitate hand-writing. Regardless, it is an amusing insight into the economical world of the publisher.

As concerns the prints in Sweden, the ones at the Nordiska Museet were bought from an antique shop in 1901 and no provenance is documented. Likewise for the print in the Göteborgs Stadsmuseum (M-N) which was also bought from an auction in 1981 (although indications are that it is part of the Skenäs series). However, the fragment of H in this museum can be dated to between 1752 and 1768 if it was either of the Habicht brothers who brought the prints to Gothenburg.

If we are right to assume that it was Count Jacob Johan Gyllenborg (1721–1788) who acquired the prints at Skenäs Manor, they would be dated between 1752 (when he inherited Skenäs) and 1759 (when his uncle, the presumed middle-man, died). Alternatively, the latest date would be 1788, when Count Gyllenborg died.

Therefore, the prints in Sweden, which are all from the same woodblocks but different from those at MH or VM, are later in date than those other prints. Considering the uniformity in colouring and painting of the woodgrain, the Swedish prints were probably all from the same edition and batch and imported at the same time, possibly in the late 1750s or early 1760s. The small but notable decline in the cutting of the woodblocks and in the detail (for example, not printing the title and other text on the cover of the book in print J) is consistent with being a later edition.

An observation to be made in this context is the fact that the calendar cover being illustrated and dated points to the print being aimed primarily at a local audience, and not necessarily at the export market. The print market in China at this time was flourishing and prosperous—at its zenith—and the publishers of prints were too busy satisfying the local market, as well as Chinese customers in Japan, to pay much attention to the relatively limited Western market.

The wenfangtu at MH and VM are mingled with other prints that have traditionally been attributed to Suzhou printshops. The depiction of flowers and plants in the wenfangtu are similar in style to those in wallpaper prints associated with Suzhou. I think, therefore, there are grounds to state that the wenfangtu prints are products from this city. However, Terese Bartholomew has pointed out to me that the scarlet sterculia fruit (as in N above) is from a tree that grows in southern China. The open seedpod is a common motif in eighteenth-century Canton enamel and Rose Canton porcelains for export. Terese has never seen the seedpods illustrated in prints. Furthermore the palm fan in F and the cockroaches in J are very Cantonese. Therefore, there are also arguments for the prints originating from Canton. Obviously, the final word on the origin of the wenfangtu remains to be pronounced.

Woodblocks and Printing of the Wenfangtu

All the wenfangtu prints in Sweden are printed from the same woodblocks. A comparison of my C print and that of NM shows the same breaks in the black lines as well as the cracks in the blocks, although the hand-colouring makes the images look different. 

Bukowski 2020, detail of C.
Nordiska Museet, detail of C.

Although much of the illustrative material to hand is not too distinct or clear in details, it is obvious that the prints at MH are from different woodblocks to those from VM, which in turn are different from those in Sweden. In other words, there were at least three editions of the wenfangtu prints.

For comparison, I use the box and book in section J, of which there are examples from MH, VM and NM. The MH example, compared with the VM example, has different spacing of the smaller frame in relation to the folded corner. The exposed corner in the MH example displays more text. This is already a strong indication that they are from different woodblocks. The shou 壽 character on the box is also different in the two prints. If this symbol in VM is compared with the NM example, it proves that they again are from different woodblocks, something which is easily recognisable in the different patterns of the basketweave in the tea canisters, as well as different text on the labels. Furthermore, the cover of the book in NM lacks any writing or text, having been left blank. Additional differences can be seen in the hanging cloth, the stacked books, and the insects in/on the drawer.

Such differences in woodblocks are not unusual. Popular prints saw many editions, issued by the original printshop but also copied by the competition. Over time, a block could be damaged, or lost, and a new block cut, imitating the old one. There were excellent designers and block-cutters working in Suzhou at this time, and to faithfully copy a print was not problematic.

Generally, one would expect a certain time lapse before the cutting of new blocks, especially if done by the same printshop. If one’s print was a best-seller, one could be certain that an opportunistic colleague would jump on the bandwagon and copy the print, in which case two versions would be contemporary. This is clearly seen in print J from wall arrangement 2 at VM and print J on wall arrangement 4. The most obvious differences are that in one print the book hangs further down in one print, the feather protrudes onto the side wall, the red label on the rear tea canister is missing, and in the contours of the hanging textile. I assume that all the prints at VM must have arrived at the same time, in one batch from one printshop. I have never encountered an instance where a printshop has two woodblocks of the same motif used concurrently. One explanation would be that the original woodblock was damaged and a new one cut and printed from, although there was still stock of prints from the original block. Alternatively, the printshop might have a surplus of prints from ‘previous’ year (think calendar print) which was offloaded on the foreign buyer who was not bothered with best-before dates. Whoever bought the prints now in VM was given prints from both blocks. If any of my readers has a better explanation, I would be most keen to hear it.

Inspiration and Spread of Wenfangtu

The fascination for three-dimensional and trompe l’oeil images, vanishing-point perspective and other European influences on woodblock prints in 1730s Suzhou probably provided the inspiration for the wenfangtu. Already in the Portrait of Kangxi Reading, ca. 1700–1705, attributed to Giovanni Gherardini or his studio, one sees books in hantao stacked in bookcases that recede with a hint of perspective.19 

The Kangxi Emperor Reading. 138×106.5 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing.

Other possible precursors to wenfangtu are to be found in Buddhist temples. Five trompe l’oeil panels (of twenty-five) are illustrated on page 96 of Kay E. Black, Ch’aekkŏri Painting – A Korean Jigsaw Puzzle, where one recognises the calendar, tea canisters in basketweave, scrolls, flowers in vase, dust whisk etc. Black also illustrates (on p. 191) four panels from the Huayansi Temple 華嚴寺 in Datong, Shanxi province. These panels illustrate smoking incense burners, vases with incense paraphernalia, books and various vessels. In the same book are also illustrated (pp. 94 & 95) details from trompe l’oeil paintings in a private New York collection, where the feather, the plate with small Taihu rock and narcissus, the checked cloth, the bowls with pomegranates and Buddha’s Hand citrus fruits, and so on, are by now familiar. However, musical instruments are missing in all these images. There is no indication as to the date of these painted images.

There was in China a tradition of illustrating bronze or ceramics vessels along with implements from the scholar’s table. This tradition started with the Song dynasty Xuanhe Bogutu 宣和博古圖 (Illustrations of Antiquities in the Xuanhe Reign), a catalogue of over 800 objects from the imperial collection. Follow-ups include several revised Ming editions of the Bogutu as well as new compilations of similar catalogues of imperial collections. There are also examples of paintings from the Ming and Qing illustrating treasured objects. Book illustrations became popular in the seventeenth century and a number of publications were issued containing images of vases with flowers, decorative objects, ink-cakes, ink-stones and brushpots, and, of course, reproductions of paintings by former masters. The Ding family, spearheaded by Ding Liangxian 丁亮先 (fl. 1730–40s), issued a series of four prints displaying bronze and ceramic vases, incense burners, brushpots with brushes, folding fans, scrolls, and coral branches.20 These prints are in the wenfangtu spirit and could well have been the precursors and the inspiration for the wenfangtu prints under discussion.

The Ding prints and the wenfangtu could also be the inspiration for the later genre of bapotu 八破圖 which flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although none of the objects in the prints are ‘broken’.21 However, the squirrel in the Still-life from 1745 illustrated above has in his mouth a paper fragment chewed out from a sheet calendar. This fragment certainly classifies as a bapo.

The genre of wenfangtu was exported to Korea at the end of the eighteenth century where it became very popular as an art form, but only as paintings. No Korean woodblock prints of wenfangtu are known. The following two images are examples of early Korean paintings in which we can recognise many elements, for example the eyeglasses, the cut-open watermelon, the fan made of feathers, etc. 

Chaekegori. Korean six-panel screen. Ink and colour on paper. 152×399 cm. Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul.

It is obvious that the Chinese wenfangtu prints formed a popular genre of prints that saw many editions and versions. The prints were exported in the middle of the eighteenth century to Europe and then dispersed as far and wide as the Czech Republic, England, and Sweden. Wenfangtu prints must have circulated in France as well, as will be discussed in a forthcoming article by Kee Il Choi, Jr. I believe the last word is not yet said regarding wenfangtu prints.


1 https://www.bukowskis.com/en/auctions/629/689-two-chinese-panels-by-unknown-artist-ink-and-colour-on-paper-laid-on-board-qing-dynasty-18th-century

2 As shall be seen, many of the other prints were later divided into two before being wallpapered.

3 James Cahill, Pictures for Use and Pleasure – Vernacular Painting in High Qing China. (Berkeley University of California Press, 2010), p. 48.

4 I am indebted to Wilt Idema for these comments on Xixiangji.

5 No relief painting is present in the Bukowski 2020 A-B print or in any other prints in Sweden.

6 Giving the wrong sale reference, the correct sale is 593.

7 https://www.bukowskis.com/sv/auctions/593/129-malning-qingdynastin-1700-tal, https://www.bukowskis.com/sv/auctions/593/130-malning-qingdynastin-1700-tal and https://www.bukowskis.com/sv/auctions/593/131-malning-qingdynastin-1700-tal. All are catalogued as paintings.

8 Actually a water pot since tea is not boiled!

9 In one print in the Veltrusy Mansion the text on the front canister reads Yuzi yan 御子岩 or Yugan yan 御干岩, referring to ‘rock’ tea from Wuyi.

10 There are probably more in the Nordiska Museet, cf below.

11 https://digitaltmuseum.se/011023526748/tapet

12 https://samlingar.goteborgsstadsmuseum.se/carlotta/web/object/29860 and https://samlingar.goteborgsstadsmuseum.se/carlotta/web/object/435444

13 Landeri is a now almost extinct form of landed property and could be translated as ‘estate’.

14 https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marieholms_landeri. Another source says he bought it in 1763. It changed hands again in 1792.

15 Otto Thulin & Paul Harnesk, Svenska stadsmonografier : Göteborg. (Göteborg, Religion & Kultur, 1948), p. 66ff.

16 Otto Thulin, ‘Marieholms 1700-tals Tapeter’, in Göteborgs Posten, Saturday addendum, 11 February 1939. I am grateful to Pernilla Karlsson and Christian Thorén at Göteborgs Stadsmuseum for digging out this article for me. 

17 A ‘hanging’ calendar with superimposed glasses is also on a trompe l’oeil painting in the Lingyan Si 靈巖寺 in Jinan, Shandong province, illustrated in Kay E. Black, Ch’aekkŏri Painting – A Korean Jigsaw Puzzle, p. 96. 

18 The other three prints at VM might carry a date, not visible from present photographs.

19 https://en.dpm.org.cn/collections/collections/2009-10-16/691.html

20 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_1906-1128-0-23, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_1906-1128-0-22, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_1906-1128-0-24, and https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_1906-1128-0-25

21 See Nancy Berliner, The 8 Brokens – Chinese Bapo Painting. (Boston, 2018), pp. 14-15.

About chiwoopri

Collector and researcher of old Chinese woodblock prints
This entry was posted in chinese prints and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to WENFANGTU 文房圖 Prints of Scholarly and Other Objects

  1. Thank you, Christer, for this wonderfully thorough and informative piece! A real pleasure to read.

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