Hehe er xian – 和合二仙 – The Two Immortals

Our collection contains two prints that initially look identical, as if printed from the same woodblock. The image shows two males, one holding a lotus flower and leaf (he 菏), the other a round box with lid (he 盒). This motif is from the Daoist pantheon and quite a well-known one in Chinese art: the hehe er xian  和合二仙, the two immortals or spirits, where 和 is the immortal of harmony and 合 is the immortal of union. The general symbolism is that of association with a happy marriage or union. Iconographically there is also a relation with the representations in Chinese and Japanese art of the Tang period eccentric monk/poet Hanshan and his playmate Shide.

. Image


Above the figures is printed a black field, in imitation of a rubbing, with the character for long life, shou 壽, written in various styles and a cash coin in the centre with the text taiping tongbao 太平通寶, a standard phrase on old cash coins. The print is not particularly rare, there are examples in Japanese museums and it can be occasionally seen in auction and dealers’ catalogues. The size is approx. 70×35 cm. The colours are applied by hand, only the black lines are printed from woodblocks.  Both our prints are mounted as scrolls, of Japanese origin as evidenced by the material and style, and in need of restoration — flaking paper, folds and creases, worm holes, etc.  

Now, to the interesting part: on the back of the right hand one is pasted a woodblock printed note in Japanese hiragana and kanji. 




A previous owner has transcribed the text into more readable characters:



We even possess an edited version of the text:  



Unfortunately, the note is not signed or dated. But it is evident that the author (artist) of the note has acquired a Chinese print of Hehe erxian, which he copied accurately, without adding any single detail, had it printed and added some light colouring (?) and printed several tens of these, which he now hesitatingly and respectfully (?) offers to the recipient.

I am grateful to Guita Winkel, Leiden, and Norman Waddell, Kyoto, for helping me with the reading and the interpretation of the text. 

There remains a few problems with the text, for example what is a kanaban かなばん? The reference to 水無 in the month is a period in the lunar calendar, but we do not know the era or year. From the style of characters and the spirit of the note, it seems to emanate from the kind of antiquarian circles of the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries. The use of “Morokoshi” for China and the interest in Chinese culture as well as the interest in making a true to life depiction not meddling in any way with the original image suggests it is related to those men who saw themselves as kōshōgakusha (Chinese 考證學 kaozhengxue or ‘evidential research’).

 Whatever problems are inherent with this text, the fact remains that we have here documentary and material evidence that Chinese prints were not only appreciated by the Japanese public, but that they were also re-cut and printed in Japan, and disseminated among the Japanese. Assumedly other copies of the Japanese print were accompanied by this woodblock printed text, which in itself indicate a certain quantity, pasted on the back of the mount or loose, but I have not seen any records of this on any extant prints.

Looking at the two prints, they are, as mentioned, virtually identical. A casual glance does not readily differentiate the two. The Japanese copy follows meticulously the Chinese original, but small details differ and make it obvious that the prints are from different blocks. Those details can not be attributed to the wear of the blocks, the inking of the block, the pressure applied against the paper nor to the colouring by hand. 



The primary and easiest detail for separating the prints are the eyebrows of the lotus-holding boy. In the Chinese original the eyebrow lines are regularly spaced whereas in the Japanese print they are running into each other.


Other tell-tales are the two small lines crossing the sole of the box-boy’s shoe in the Chinese print, lines which are missing in the Japanese version. Studying the details of shoes and bottom part of the dress in these two images, one notes more minute differences in the cutting of the black details. 

We show one more image with details, this one of the lotus flower:



It also appears that where the Chinese print has green colour, it has turned brown in the Japanese version. Maybe this is due to oxidation of the Japanese pigments? A red seal on the Japanese print could also be an identifying item, but I do not know if the seal occurs on all Japanese versions, nor have I been able to read it. 

This print has been dated to the Ming (1368-1644) period and to the Qianlong (1736-1796) period, but personally I lean towards a 19th century date, maybe early Jiaqing date (1796-1820) for the Chinese original and a bit later for the Japanese facsimile. 

I hope to be able in the future to show other Chinese prints that might have been copied/re-cut by Japanese woodblock cutters.


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Gusu Beauties, formats


This is my long-overdue final posting to the Gusu Beauties series.

Among 18th century Suzhou prints there are several examples of two prints constituting a whole image, where the scene and design in one print continues into the other, forming a diptych. This is different from a pair of prints where figures or motif compose a duilian 對聯 – a couplet or a complementing pair, for example the traditional arms-brandishing door-gods facing each other.

Most of the Chinese diptych prints consist of large (c.100 x 50 cm.) landscapes from the 1730s and 40s. The most published example is the 1734 Encyclopaedic View of Jobs in the City (Sanbai liushi hangtu) 三百六十行圖,  the earliest dated diptych among Suzhou prints, now belonging to the Umi-Mori Art Museum in Hiroshima, formerly the Osha’joh Museum of Art.

view of jobs2

Another example is the 1747 New Year’s Morning (Suichaotu) and Four Imperial Concubines (Sifeitu). Professor Hiromitsu Kobayashi recently identified these as belonging together and they are illustrated in figure 16 in The Printed Image in China From the 8th to the 21st Centuries, (London, British Museum, 2010), the catalogue to the exhibition at the British Museum curated by Clarissa von Spee. The missing Suichaotu is in my collection, actually both in a black-and-white and in a hand-coloured version. On pages 33-35 in the 2011 published 中国年画集成 – 本藏品卷 Zhongguo nianhua jicheng – Riben cang pin juan, I see that Umi-Mori Art Museum owns examples of both the Sifeitu and the Suichaotu, the latter in two versions – black-and-white and hand-coloured, similar to my holding.


Suichaotu is to the left, and the BM Sifeitu to the right.

Here is the link to the BM print: http://www.britishmuseum.org/system_pages/beta_collection_introduction/beta_collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=270265&partId=1&searchText=sifei%20tu&numpages=1&page=1

To my knowledge no diptychs of large figure prints have been published. One pair of prints with very similar beauties and scenery as the Gusu Beauties, although of different format, are the two images in the Umi-Mori Art Museum frequently illustrated in books on the subject.


But it should be emphasised that these are not prints, but drawings, probably copying a Chinese print. This opinion Mr. Aoki, the curator at the Museum, agrees with, and accordingly they are not included in the Zhongguo nianhua jicheng volume mentioned above. It is not impossible that they were drawn by a Japanese hand.

These images were later paraphrased by Okumura Masanobu (1686 – 1764)  in a print of which an example is in Umi-Mori Art Museum, dated to the 1740s. Another example of this print is in Boston Art Museum, http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/chinese-figures-in-a-pavilion-playing-sugoroku-206090 .


And again, in a different version, by Sadanobu Tamura(?), as can be seen from a bad reproduction below

IMG_0733 - Version 2

Returning to China and to our prints of the Gusu Beauties, Prints 3 and 4 form a diptych, as can be seen by the floor pattern, the staircase, the red railing, the covered walkway and the flowering tree: all details continuing from one print to the other.


Prints 8 and 1 also form a diptych: the floor pattern, the high threshold, the folding doors and the carved railing are common to both prints. They also have the boards with inscription in common. Is it possible that the two text panels in themselves form a duilian!?

Screenshot of ScreenFloat

In view of the tetraptych described below, it is not impossible that a third or fourth print is wanting here, as well as in the Prints 3 & 4 above.

The most amazing discovery, however, is that Print 2 together with Print 5, 6 and 7 form a tetraptych, as can be clearly seen: the missing left leg of the pedestal in Print 5 is visible in Print 2, as is the left part of the vase and some of the flowers. The railings, the floor pattern, the roof design and the landscape also tally. Print 5 and 7 share the couch, the railing, the stools, as well as the opened book and the cushion on the couch. This is, to me, the only known extant example of a Suzhou four-part print. The prints together furthermore represent the four seasons.


Diptychs and triptychs are a well-known feature in Japanese woodblock printing. Chris Uhlenbeck of Hotei Japanese Prints in Leiden has kindly shared with me his knowledge, as follows:

“It seems that in the year 1748, a number of hosoban triptychs by the primitives appeared (Masanobu, see for example, Clarence Buckingham coll. Vol. 1, p. 168; others in the same sources). They have often survived uncut.

Then in the Katsukawa school this is continued: so with artists like Buncho and Shunsho we see hosoban triptychs and diptychs (See Clark & Ueda, The Actor’s Image, pl. 4, pl. 80 or pl. 433 for a pentaptych).

In the chuban size, Harunobu has designed diptychs, and possibly one triptych (pl. 93-94 en 95-97).

But the big break-through for the triptychs came with the oban size, and these are associated with Kiyonaga, Shuncho and Utamaro. I would put a date of  around 1784 to that. Diptychs were always less popular than triptychs.”

It is in my opinion most likely that the multi-sheet print in Japan also had a Chinese origin, same as Japanese colour printing which appeared at this time. The earliest Japanese colour-printed book is the Mincho Shiken of 1746 edited by Ōka Shunboku, purportedly based on a now vanished Chinese prototype.

Zhang Ye in his doctoral thesis 洋风姑苏版 Yangfeng Gusu ban (Western Style Suzhou Prints) and again in the recently (2012) augmented version 洋风姑苏版研究 The Study of Western Influenced Gusu Prints touches on the subject of screens and hints that some of the landscapes might have formed tetraptychs but he had not located any occurrence where all four prints were extant until he saw my prints, only reconstructed them. In a way, a screen would be the best method of displaying these prints to their full content and next to each other. If they were to be displayed on a wall, the space needed would be over 2 metres, a wall space easily available in a Jiangnan merchant’s mansion.

So far we have not found any examples of either a Chinese screen or a Japanese screen with Suzhou prints pasted on it. Of the 18 known extant examples of the Gusu Beauties series, 11 were or are mounted on Western screens, although admittedly on screens of later date than the prints. Whether this has any significance is difficult to say. We need to know the history behind the prints’ arrival in Europe and the ways in which they were disseminated and displayed.

I would like to speculate that more prints in this series of Gusu Beauties were executed and that a complete series might have consisted of 10 or, more likely, 12 prints, two or four further prints than we presently know about. It is also possible that more prints formed tetraptychs. It is very easy to imagine, in the above two examples of diptychs, the addition of two prints to each in order to extend the scenes.

There might be some significance to the fact that this series of prints is only found in Europe, and that no prints have emanated from Japan.  Except for the variant version of Print 5. Were these prints not in the Japanese taste? Or were they so “chinoiserie” in style that the only market, besides the Chinese local market of course, was in the West?

I also dare to state that these prints are of the highest class in quality of artistry, cutting, printing and colouring. For example the printing of the black is done four times: first in three different tones, and a fourth time to get the criss-cross pattern imitating copper-plate printing. The prints must have been among the most exclusive and expensive in the shop or studio, especially if they were sold in sets of 2 or 4.

Much remains to be said about the European influence on these prints, especially the element of perspective and the copper-plate imitation, but I think I will leave that to a scholarly researcher.

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New books on Suzhou prints


In case not all our readers are up-to-date on the available literature, I would like to point out two books which further the study of Suzhou prints.

The first publication is part of the series Zhongguo muban nianhua jicheng 中国木版年画集成, edited by Feng Jicai 冯骥才 and published by Zhonghua shuju 中華书局 in Beijing. This series is planned to encompass 22 volumes on Chinese nianhua, most volumes a monograph on one specific geographical area where printing were done. It forms the documentary evidence of the research and collecting activity of Feng Jicai and his institution at Tianjin, an extensive activity operating under the name 中国民间文化遗产抢救工程, The Project to Rescue Chinese Folk Cultural Heritages. Feng and his students have travelled to each of the workshop areas and collected material evidence of prints, woodblocks, tools, etc but also done interviews, visual and audi recordings of artists, blockcutters, printers and other workers with knowledge or memory of the craft. In some cases the whole studio, including artist, has been rescued from the bulldozers, and transported to and reconstructed or re-housed in Tianjin.

Two volumes fall outside this pattern by presenting nianhua and popular prints in two foreign collections: Russian collections and Japanese collections. The Russian volume, edited by the recently deceased Boris Riftin, an eminent researcher on Chinese prints and literature, contains mainly Yangliuqing prints, the majority collected in the beginning of the 20th century by Vasili Mikhailovich Alexeev.

The volume on Japanese collections is the one that concerns us here. Having the subtitle Riben cangpin juan 日本藏品卷 it is edited by 三山陵 Miyama Ryō et al. and is divided into four main sections: Suzhou, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Others Areas (including Anhui, Beijing, Shandong etc.). The largest section is Suzhou (168 prints) followed by Tianjin (120 prints), and the remaining ca. 83 prints. Two introductory essays and eight brief postfaces on the various collections complete the text. An alphabetical listing of the print titles, with thumb-sized images, is a handy guide to the prints.

The Suzhou section is subdivided in groups: Auspicious prints, Female and Children, Beauties, Landscapes, Theatrical, Guandi, Games. Each print is illustrated in colour with brief description of the print, including size, period, signature, printer or cutter, studio, present owner, etc. The majority of the reproductions appear to be from photos taken especially for this project, an admirable undertaking. My main complaint regarding the images would be that most images are trimmed within the printing frame, eliminating borders and joints with mountings. I think it would be interesting to see the mounting or backing, and to be informed if the print is a hanging scroll.

Further to the Suzhou prints, the majority are from the Umi-Mori Art Museum [or Ohsha’joh Museum as it used to be named before] which is no surprise considering that this museum is specialized in Chinese woodblock prints. These prints have been well-publicized in other Japanese publications, but there are some prints included which have not been published before. Other collections include Akita City Museum, Kobe City Art Museum, Yamato Bunkakan, Machida City International Graphic Museum, and a large part of private owners.

Although Suzhou prints of at least one major institutional collection and two major private collections have not been included, this volume presents in good colour and size some of the Suzhou prints preserved in Japan. A bonus is the detailed information of the technical specifications of the print (but lacking information on mounting) and the brief description of the motif. An indexed list of printers, artists or cutters would have been very useful, as would a chronological list of dated prints, more than the general biography of the contributing scholars.

The volume can be purchased from the excellent London bookshop Han-Shan Tang.

From the same specialized bookshop can also be bought our second title:

This book, 洋风姑苏版研究 Yangfeng Gusu ban yanjiu, with the English title The Study of Western-influenced Gusu Prints, and this is the only English text you will find in the volume besides a brief abstract, is of more recent date, actually published in October 2012, and is the augmented, commercial edition of the author’s doctoral thesis of 2009: 洋风姑苏版 Yangfeng Gusu ban. Zhang Ye is a professor at the Central Art Academy in Beijing and has studied Suzhou prints for many years, especially the Western influenced ones.

In the book we find the prints with western perspective and the copying of copper-plate etching and shading which became so popular in the beginning of the 18th century in Suzhou. Contrary to the volume above, the black-and-white illustrations in this book (some 200) are copied, lifted or scanned from other publications (with reference to the publication title) and accordingly not very clear or detailed. There are also some colour illustrations. But it is the text and the depth of information that is important in this volume, as well as the research on similar images or the origin of the motif.

A bibliography; a chronological list covering events in China and abroad; a list, in a presumed chronological order, of prints with relevant information; and something as rare, in a Chinese book, as an alphabetical index are included in the back.

The sharp-eyed reader will notice that the cover image of this book is a detail from our Gusu Beauty print No. 2.

Used in tandem, the above two books constitute an important base for the study of Suzhou prints, and together contains the largest corpus of Suzhou print images.

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Gusu Beauties, tentative dating of the prints

The earliest Suzhou prints of the largest size, roughly around 100×50 cm, are landscapes and can be dated to the 1730s. The earliest dated print is from 1734, the Encyclopaedic View of Jobs in the City (Sanbai liushi hangtu), illustrated on plate 1-2 in Soshū hanga, 蘇州版畫 (Suzhou Woodblock Prints), Hiroshima, Osha’joh Museum of Art, 1986. Although human figures appeared in the landscape prints, they were mostly of small size and subordinated the landscape. There are prints preserved of beauties but they are usually of smaller dimensions and less detailed than our present Gusu Beauties.

Not yet having properly studied Professor James Cahill’s recently published book, Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China, University of California Press, which, I am sure, would have answers to the problem of dating and origins, I dare to make comparisons between the Gusu Beauties prints and two of the wall paintings commissioned by the Qianlong emperor for his retirement palace Ningshougong within the confine of the Forbidden City. These were recently the subject of an article by Wang Zilin in the September 2010 issue of Orientations entitled Four Trompe-l’Oeil Paintings in the Qianlong Garden.

Figure 4 shows us a 1775 painting in the Yucuixuan of a palace room where a princess is seated on a central couch surrounded by princes of various age. The princess’ posture, in a graceful S-shape, the activity of the boys, the dresses and the decor is much mirrored in the Gusu Beauties prints. The similar kind of sable hats and phoenix hair ornaments can be seen in Print 9.

Figure 5 is the mural in the central room of Yanghe Jingshe, painted in 1776, and here we see ten young boys and two ladies, said to be princesses, engaged in various games in a pillared hall which is separated from a pond and garden by a carved balustrade, beyond which is a pavilion and a covered walkway, all ingredients that can be found in the Gusu Beauties prints as well.

Although the style and technique of the paintings are more refined than those in the prints, it is not difficult to see a relation.

The big question is if the popular Suzhou prints influenced the court paintings, or if the court paintings influenced the Suzhou print makers? We know that many Suzhou artists worked at the court and they would have brought ideas and concepts to and fro.

The easiest would be to claim that the court paintings came first and acted as the model for the prints in demand by the wealthy mercantile class in the Jiangnan area, a class of nouveau riche who wanted to copy the accoutrements of the court.

Considering that these two paintings were executed 1775 and 1776, and Château de Filières was constructed 1785 to 1790, during which period twenty-two other Chinese woodblock-printed wallpapers were installed, it is tempting to date our prints to somewhere between 1780-1784, ie late Qianlong period. I admit that this is very a bald statement, and it assumes that the Gusu Beauties arrived at the château at the same period as the wallpapers, but I hope it will be the base for discussions by those scholars with more insights than I have.

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Article on ‘beauty’ prints in Berlin

Ellen Johnston Laing has published an article in Orientations, October 2013, entitled Mothers and Sons: Four Newly Discovered 18th Century Chinese Prints which illustrates and describes four Yangliuqing prints recently found in the collection of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Asiatische Kunst. 

Although different in style, these prints reminds one of the subject and the interior scenes found in the Suzhou prints described earlier in this blog. It is obvious that a common iconography existed in 18th century China which took different forms in the geographically separated studios.

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West Lake print

In the previous posting I dared a dating of Qianlong-Jiaqing period for the West Lake print, but if I had taken the slightest effort to look up the most obvious building, Louwailou 樓外樓, in the middle bottom of the print, I would have found that this restaurant was established 1848, and the print should accordingly be dated after this.

Unless of course the Louwailou existed before this date as some other kind of establishment. Any one who knows?

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A print of West Lake, Hangzhou 西湖勝景

As a wish for a Happy New Year 2013 I present to my followers a hitherto unpublished print of the West Lake in Hangzhou. I admit to not knowing much regarding the print, I do not even dare to speculate on a date (wild guess is Qianlong-Jiaqing period). Perhaps the buildings and signposts in the image can cast an indication.

What is interesting is the amount of details in this print, which measures around 35×45 cm (the print and its data are in London and I am in Argentina).


I hope my readers can give me more input on this print.


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Eleven Prints from Hainfeld Castle

Recently Professor Lucie Olivova kindly called my attention to some Chinese woodblock prints coming up for auction sale in beginning of December at Prague. She also sent me images of the prints – six of them are figurative and five are decorative.
2521-19The latter show birds among rockery and plants, printed in black outline and hand coloured. The style is very much that of decorative wall papers found in 18th century interior decoration. And in fact a search on the Internet shows that they emanate from the Chinesische Zimmer of Schloss Hainfeld in eastern Austria. The Chinese Room was an accoutrement required for many 18th century châteaux and manors in Europe in response to the reigning fashion of chinoiserie. Usually this consisted of decorating a room with Chinese, sometimes Japanese, porcelain, and ornating the room with rococo roquailles and ornaments, including painted “Chinese” wallpapers in cartouches or whole walls. The Kina Slott at Drottningholm; The Royal Pavilion at Brighton; Sanssouci at Potsdam; Chinese Room, Claydon House; etc. An Internet search on chinoiserie will yield many more examples.
But hitherto I had always thought that these wallpapers or wall paintings were painted, either by indigenous Chinese artisans or western copyist. The possibility of them being printed never crossed my mind until I saw the wall decorations in Château de Filières some years ago, briefly referred to in my posting Old Chinese Woodblock Prints in Château de Filières. The twenty-two prints in that Château are very similar to the six from Hainfeld, if not from the same series or workshop.
The five Hainfeld decorative prints have printed black outlines with colours filled in by hand. They are presently about 107×56 cm, backed up on medium weave canvas. Although now presented in decorative western frames, one can see at the edges of the canvas traces of nail holes indicating that the prints were stretched on some other frame, and/or mounted in a wall frame. The prints have been retouched with thin oil paint, to cover up damages or to enliven the colours. One of the prints has been almost entirely repainted in this thin oil paint.
Two of the decorative prints are duplicates, but the colouring is such as to make them differ much from each other.
As for the figurative prints, six of them, they are equal in size to the previous, also mounted in western frames. Here as well, one of the print has been entirely covered with oil paint so as to efface much of the original print and text.
There is a difference in style among the prints: three of them show a lady with attendant(s) in a studio or garden environment, whereas two others only show a lady with a boy, set  in an empty space. The last print depicts a lady with a servant and a boy with various implements laid out on a round mat.
2521-21 2521-24
It is with great anticipation that I look forward to studying these prints in more detail. Oh, yes, almost forgot, I did get the prints at the sale!


Sorry for the mish mash in the alignment of the illustrations, but I am not literate in this media, yet.
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A Controversial Print of Suzhou 姑蘇石湖倣西湖勝景

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:

  1. 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, [1967][東京] 味燈書屋 [1967]. 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]
  2. 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.

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Gusu Beauties, Notes on Acquisitions and Possible Usage

In the presentation of the various prints I have touched upon my acquisition of Prints 1-4 from the Chinese Porcelain Company in New York. Much later, in 2010, Prints 5 and 9 were bought at a provincial sale in the UK. What I have not mentioned yet is the origin of Prints 6, 7, and 10. These came up in a sale at London, in November 2011. They were mounted in a “North Italian giltwood three-leaf screen, 19th century, probably Piedmont”. Interestingly enough the provenance was stated as from “The Collection of Two Italian Designers”.

Prints 1-4 were also claimed to come from an Italian interior decorator, so now we have seven prints pointing to an Italian origin. The North Italian screen – remember that the Château de Filières prints are also on screens (a total of eleven prints are mounted in this way) – initially caused some stylistic problems. I did not believe the prints to be of 19th century date as advertised, and from the catalogue illustration it was obvious that they were not from the same series. The conclusion was that they must have been inserted in the screen at a later period, a conclusion that proved correct. The three prints have been remounted on a canvas, not of the same coarse weave as Prints 5 and 9, reduced in size, perhaps to fit into the later period screen, and show abrasions and damages, mostly in the lower section of each print.

Prints 1-4 have also been remounted, very recently, perhaps by CPC, on canvas but of a finer and smoother mesh. These fours prints are the only ones to show the black, outer block frame, all others appear to be cut down in size. These four prints are also in the best condition, with less damages to the surface.

Without any knowledge on the subject, or proofs, I venture to speculate that the prints originally were mounted as wall decorations in some European manor or palace, not necessarily in the same locality. Perhaps in the “Chinese Salon” or “Chinese Room”, at one time a very popular theme in 18th century Chinoiserie interiors. I hope to assemble more material on this subject in the near future. It is also possible that they were used for screens, as in Château de Filières. I have not made any efforts to date the two wooden folding screens, but I have an inkling they might be later than the prints. Zhang Ye 张烨, now a Professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, wrote a doctoral thesis in 2009: Yangfeng Gusu ban 洋风姑苏版 Western Style Suzhou Prints. He suggests in it that many of the Suzhou prints of a similar style and type were intended for folding screens, both for the Chinese and the Japanese market.

It should also be noticed that all the Suzhou Beauties prints have appeared in Europe, no examples are found in Japan, which is otherwise the main source for old Suzhou prints. And the finger points to Italy. Might an enterprising Italian merchant or merchants have bought a quantity of prints from Suzhou, shipped to Europe with the East India Trade, and later sold on to a decorator purveying to the various 18th century salons chinoise in various parts of Europe?

A lot of speculating on my part, but future research in the subject might yield the real truth.

For your convenience, here are my prints, grouped as purchased:

Chinese Porcelain Company, New York, Prints 1-4:


Prints 5 and 9 from provincial UK sale 2010:


Folding screen from London sale 2011, Prints 6, 7 & 10:


Compare with the screens from Château de Filières:

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