This posting is a deviation from the norm in as much as none of the prints discussed here are part of my collection. Correction 2017: I have since been able to acquire print A, so at least one print discussed here is part of my collection.
And the last word has not been said about the Gusu, or Suzhou, Beauties, more about them in next posting, soon.
The Koten-kai 東京古典会, the rare book association in Tokyo, celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 2011. The yearly auction sale catalogue that November contained many interesting items among which were two Chinese 18th century lightly hand-coloured woodcut prints showing a view of Stone Lake at Suzhou, the southern Chinese city sometimes referred to as the Venice of the East. The various bridges, pavilions and temples are named, and also many of the shops carry characters identifying them and their trade. From this I assume that the print was bought as a souvenir to having visited the city.
The first print, mounted as a hanging scroll, was sparsely described among the other Chinese prints in the sale catalogue as lot 1671 (hereafter referred to as A).
The other print, only half the size of the hanging scroll, was entered among the Japanese prints as lot 1799, and framed and glazed, (hereafter referred to as B).
1799 蘇州閶門景 明和・安永期 薄墨刷 36×53 cm
Comparison of the two prints
Being displayed on two different floors during the auction viewing, a comparison of the two prints side by side was not possible. However, with the help of an illicit snapshot from one of the prints to compare with the other, it became obvious that the two prints are from the same woodblock. B is therefore not a Japanese re-cut, and should not have been among the Japanese prints. It is interesting, though, to note that this section of the print was for the Japanese cataloguer more Japanese than Chinese.
In general, the smaller size would not be cause for thoughts, the natural deduction being that the smaller print is a later, cut-down version of the larger, due to damage to the other part, or some other factor. This in itself is not unusual, there are several examples of extant single prints which are in fact parts from a larger print. There exists prints where the motif is divided pictorially into three horisontal registers or scenes, each a complete image in itself, and some of these larger scenes have been cut-up into smaller sections.
What is interesting with B is that it has a black border printed around it, surrounding all four sides, indicating that it is printed from a separate, individual block. This black border is not visible in the catalogue illustration but in my snapshot.
Detail of B
The thought occurred that maybe B is a Japanese re-cut of the Chinese original, but further comparisons, as good as was possible considering that the prints could not be held side by side, confirmed that the two respective sections are printed from one and the same woodblock.
If B is printed from an individual woodblock, which also contained a black frame, then the conclusion is that A must be cut and printed from two woodblocks, where the printed black borders between the two sheets were later discarded and the sheets joined together to form one image. And indeed, a careful investigation of A, at about the area where a joint ought to be, discloses that A is composed of two sheets of paper very carefully cut and pasted together so as to make the joint all but invisible.
The assumption is that the printer/publisher of this Suzhou scene might have issued this view in two or three sections/sheets, each complete in themselves with printed black border around the four edges. The upper half of A forms a scenery of the Stone Lake 石湖 with Hanshan Temple 寒山寺 in the foreground and the mountains and sky in the background, very much in line with other Chinese prints of this type. This sheet also carries a signature 根延氏 Gen yan shi or 根处(處)氏, Gen chu shi, next to the collective title 姑蘇石湖倣西湖勝景 Gusu Shihu fang Xihu shengjing View of Stone Lake at Suzhou in imitation of Western Lake (at Hangzhou).
The lower half also forms a scene in itself with Changmen Gate 閶門 and the city houses as motif. In the centre top is written Suzhou Changmen jing 蘇州閶門景 View of Changmen Gate at Suzhou which is an appropriate title for this section, although most of Changmen is actually in the lower right part of the image.
Each section is so designed that when the black border in either upper or lower margin, or both, is carefully cut away, two prints can be seamlessly joined together, almost without any trace of the joint, either of paper or in motif. In A the joint is best seen on the left side where the colours differ slightly between the upper and lower part, about 5 cm below a very obvious, later crack/tear in the paper.
The mounting of A has been very skilfully done and only thanks to a small part of the paper joint being loose, and a small fold can be lifted up, is it obvious that there is a joint between two sheets of paper. Also, the drawings of the images of the two sheets are so well coordinated and aligned that it is very hard to detect the joint.
Three sheets in the image?
The dimensions of A is 71×53 cm, which is ca 30–35 cm shorter in height than most of the other extant prints from Suzhou of the 18th century. The question therefore arises if a third sheet should be added to the scroll? If so, preferably this third sheet should be added to the bottom rather than the top. Perhaps the fact that the other two extant examples of the print are both composed of only two sheets negate this theory.
Two other complete examples of this image are preserved:
- Kobe Municipal Museum of Art 神戶市立博物館, Japan. Illustrated in:
Higuchi Hiroshi : A Historical Sketch of Chinese Woodblock Prints 樋口弘 中國版畫集成 Chūgoku hanga shūsei, [Tōkyō] : Mitō Shooku, [東京] 味燈書屋 . Number 135 [63 x 48 cm].
Zhongguo Muban Nianhua Jicheng – Riben Cangpin Juan 中国木版年画集成·日本藏品卷. Beijing, 2011. Page 132 [71,4 x 51,2 cm]
- Private Collection, Japan. Illustrated in:
Zhongguo chuantong banhua yishu tezhan – Xingzhengyuan wenhua jianshe weiyuanhui cehua 國傳統版畫藝術特展 / 行政院文化建設委員會策劃 – Special exhibition, collectors’ show of traditional Chinese woodcut prints. Organizer, Council for Cultural Planning and Development, Executive Yuan, R.O.C. Taibei, 1983. Page, 203.
Zhongguo Muban Nianhua Jicheng – Riben Cangpin Juan 中国木版年画集成·日本藏品卷. Beijing, 2011. Page 131 [69 x 48 cm]
This print is hand coloured, in rather dark colours so it does not reproduce very well. I had the opportunity to view it recently and can confirm that it is in two sheets mounted together.
Another specimen of the lower half, besides the Kotenkai lot 1799, is held in the Umi Mori Art Museum collection, with some damage to the bottom right margin. This print is so far unpublished. I am grateful to Mr. Aoki, the curator, to communicate me this information.
A Japanese relative
At this year’s Kotenkai auction sale was item 1668, a Nagasaki print showing the port at Amsterdam. In the foreground of the lower part of the print are two Dutch East-India ships, the right one with Schllaak written on the stern, while the upper part is of a townscape. There are details clearly copied from a Western book as evidenced by the cathedral in upper left corner and the text: Leydtse Poort, La Porte de Leyden; and Muyder Poort, La Porte de Muyden. The ships are in typical Japanese style but the cityscape is of entirely Chinese inspiration. Deconstructing the above Stone Lake print one can reassemble it to form this Nagasaki print. Also the dimensions, and the two sheets of paper, have been copied.
The print measures 70×53 cm, so very close in size to Stone Lake, and also consisting of two sheets of paper. Interestingly enough, there is a hint of a printed black border left on the top of the lower print, so obviously this scenery was composed of two individual woodblocks, and could be marketed as two separate, individual prints. Far left of the joint is a solid black mark, like a kento guidance to where to cut the print.
By chance I saw a second example of this print at Isseido booksellers at Tokyo the day after. This print is also in two sheets but with no hand colouring, and some trimming away at bottom and top. And for good show, just before leaving for Japan, I spotted in the International Antiquarian Book Fair catalogue, Kyoto, March 2012, on page 8 a third example, from Kikuo Bookshop Ltd, illustrated below. So three examples within the span of a week, ironic in view of the statement below.
My compatriot, Anders Rikardson, print- and art dealer in Tokyo, kindly directed me, through this link , to Professor C.R. Boxer’s article in Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, Second Series, Vol. IX, 1932 entitled Rin Shihei and his Picture of a Dutch East-India Ship, 1782. In connection with the print in the title, Boxer also talks about the above Leyden-Muyden print, mentioning that it is of extreme rarity – only one complete copy and two halves in two different collections (lower part in Boxer’s and upper part in the print expert Kuroda Genji’s) were known then. Boxer assumes that Schllaak is meant to be Schellach or Schellag, the name of an Indiaman that visited Japan in 1738 and 1748. He also states that “….some connoisseurs have suggested that this…print is not of Japanese origin at all but Chinese….Admittedly the paper, black border-line and other details, especially the sinicized walls etc., do bear a striking resemblance to contemporary Chinese prints, and it is even possible that it was copied from a Chinese copy of a Dutch original.” He goes on to show why he believes the print was actually cut in Nagasaki. And he convincingly shows why this print is earlier than 1782, dating it to the Annei period, 1772–1780.
From this we can deduct that copies of the Stone Lake print were shipped to Japan, reconstructed in a Japanese print using both Dutch and Chinese sources, and datable to not later than 1780, but perhaps, if another theory that Boxer mentions stands ground, it is datable to before 1772.
To sum it up
My theory then is that the publisher/printer issued this Stone Lake print in two variants – one where each sheet was sold or marketed separately and the other where the sheets were cut and pasted together to form a larger picture.
A second possibility is of course that the black frame is a separate woodblock which was imposed after the image/s had been printed, with the same result that the publisher had two variants to market.
It is obvious that a more detailed study has to be conducted on those prints consisting of an image in three registers, of which there are perhaps a dozen preserved. Did the lack of large blocks necessitate printing with small blocks? Why were some images printed on a single sheet of paper but still maintaining a clear division in three registers?
It is not entirely impossible that the Stone Lake print might be of Japanese origin, as pointed out to me by Wang Chenghua – some Chinese viewers consider the print Japanese, and vice versa. Many more questions await answers.