5

6

7

8

18

9

10

11

12 (2)

13

14

15

16   17

Lot 3003. A purple 'duan' 'Mi Fu's treasure' inkstone with inscribed zitan base and cover, Qing dynasty, inkstone 8.1 cm, 3 1/8  in., album 23.5 by 16.7 cm, 9 1/4  by 6 1/2  in. Estimate 700,000 — 900,000 HKD. Lot sold 1,500,000 HKD. Photo: Sotheby's.

the inkstone of irregular trapezoidal form, with a slightly sloped recessed bell-shaped inkwell below a thin waterpool, framed by two edges of russet-brown 'skin', the top of the zitan cover carved with a clerical inscription eulogising the inkstone as being potentially Mi Fu's treasure and signed Yin Shubai in the calligraphy of Zhang Tingji, together with an album dedicated to the inkstone and decorated in ink and colours on paper between two polychrome brocade panels, the cover with a paper title panel translating to 'Painting of Critiquing an Inkstone, with Prunus Blossoms and a Bright Moon at the Half Window Studio, Inscribed for Yanchi [Mad about Inkstones] by Tienian', the first page of the album with a second inscribed title panel translating to 'An Album for the Personal Appreciation of the Master of the Green Banana-Leaf Hall', dated to the seventh month of the autumn of the bingshen year (1836) and signed Baoling, followed by a red seal mark reading Qindong, and a collector's seal beneath the panel, followed by two blank gold-flecked double-pages, the next double-page with mounted ink rubbings of the inkstone between its zitan base and cover, the following double-page painted on the right leaf with an inkstone between four seal marks, the left with four sets of inscriptions, three in appreciation of the inkstone, the next double-page with a painting and a long poem by Jiang Baoling documenting the viewing of inkstones in Tao's collection at the latter's studio ('Green Banana Leaf Lodge'), signed by Jiang Baoling, followed by two seals of the artist and another collector's seal, the following four double-pages with additions in ink and water-colours by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, comprising seven views of the inkstone and an inscription indicating that the inkstone "can move on as it should" after being in his collection for three decades, further accompanied with five seals of the artist, zhuxu laoren ('old man as empty inside as bamboo'), yiqi ru yun ('spirit as high as the clouds'), yangshi xianren ('an idler who cherishes stones), Shuisongshi shanfang (Water, Pine and Stone Retreat) and mozhe buxiu ('let ink be my immortality')

Inscription by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat:

For thirty years I have frequently stepped back in time to join the friends of the inkstone on a moonlit night in the Half Window Studio, the scent of prunus blossoms in one nostril and ink in the other.  Tonight despite the clouds the moon shines again and the subtle scent of blossom sits on the breeze of my memory as I grind ink upon it for the last time to inscribe these little likenesses of the stone.

It has been in many collections over the centuries, the album and the accompanying painting by Qindong recording only a few.    

Now it is time to [?] its three decades in my studio then cut my love for it so it can move on as it should.

Treasures such as these last far longer than fragile life and carry with them so much of the past that remains important for the future.  We don’t own them, they merely soujourn a while.  What pleasant company this little companion has been.

Inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat at the Garden at the Edge of the Universe in the summer, 2017.

Provenance: Collection of Tao Guan (1794-1849) and Wu Xiushu (1811-1873).
Collection of Xu Xiaopu (1887-1959).
Collection of Li Hongqiu (1899-1978).
Christie's Hong Kong, 13th January 1987, lot 253.

Literature: Li Hongqiu, Jianhualou shuhua lu [Jianhualou records of calligraphy and paintings], vol. 2, Taipei, 1971.
Zhongguo gudai minghua xuanji
 [Selected Works by Eminent Chinese Painters of the Past], National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1977, p. 55.

NoteMinimally carved from a purple duan stone pebble, the form of the current inkstone vaguely adopts a classic bell shape, with the central plain slightly sloped before subtly joining the recessed well. Retaining part of the original rugged russet-brown skin, the inkstone is reminiscent of a natural pebble. It fits as a practical utensil on a scholar’s desk, a tactile object for one’s palm, as well as an appropriate decoration inciting simplicity and modesty.

Inkstones of humble forms evoking simplicity, such as the current piece, are timeless, and have very likely been treasured by inkstone lovers throughout the ages. Should the legendary inkstone connoisseur and collector Mi Fu (1051-1107) have encountered such a charming inkstone of this unassuming yet fine quality, he would likely have admired its simplicity. Mi Fu, zi Yuanzhang, was a celebrated Song painter and calligrapher renowned for his intensity and fluidity of his writing, especially in running script. Mi Fu’s landscape paintings, although influenced by Wang Xianzhi (344-386), demonstrate a distinctive style unique in its own right. Mi was known to be a discerning connoisseur and collector of ancient bronzes, scholar’s rocks and inkstones. It is recorded that the famous Song poet Su Shi (1037-1101), also a connoisseur of inkstones, borrowed a purple-gold inkstone from Mi Fu’s collection and asked his son to bury the inkstone with him upon his death. Shocked by Su’s death as well as the burial plan, Mi wrote the letter On a Purple-gold Inkstone, urging the return of his prized inkstone. The letter is now preserved in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Zhang Tingji (1768-1848) admired the present inkstone so much that he envisioned Mi Fu’s potential excitement if he had seen the present inkstone, hence wrote a poetic inscription on the zitan cover. Zhang Tingji from Jiaxing, Zhejiang, originally named Rulin, zi Shun’an, Shuozhou and Zuotian, hao Shuwei, called himself Meishou laoren (‘Long-lived old fellow’) in his later years. He followed Mi Fu’s style of calligraphy, thus also calling himself Haiyue an menxia dizi (‘Disciple of the Studio of Oceans and Mountains’). Zhang passed the provincial exam with the highest honours in 1798, but never advanced higher in the civil examination system. A poet who excelled also at authenticating seal carvings, he collected ancient bronzes, stone tables, calligraphy and paintings, as well as a calligrapher noted for his seal and clerical script and who excelled at regular and cursive scripts.  His poetry and prose were published as the Guixintang ji [Collection from the Cassia Fragrance Hall]. It was said that Zhang was recognised by Ruan Yuan for his talents. Ruan was in charge of the Department of Education in Zhejiang. 

Thirteen inkstones in the collection of Zhang Tingji, including two of similar form later gifted to his sons, are published in his book Qingyige suo cang guqiwu wen [Inscriptions of the ancient objects in the collection of Qingyige]. Zhang also mentioned in the book that he had copied an inkstone based on a rubbing, see vol. 10. For an inkstone inscribed by Zhang Tingji in 1844, see Lanqian shanguan mingyan mulu [Catalogue of famous inkstones in the Thousand Orchids Mountain Establishment], National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1987, no. 63.

According to the inscription on the cover, it was engraved by Yin Shubai (1769-1847), zi Manqing, hao Yunlou (‘cloud chamber’), Xichou sangzhe (‘west field mulberry picker’) and later in life Nenyun (‘delicate cloud’), studio name Yiduolu (‘Hut of One Superfluous’), a gongsheng (tribute student) from Xiushui (modern day Jiaxing, Zhejiang), but participated no higher in the civil examination system. A noted calligrapher and painter and particularly skilled at small, still-life subjects, Yin liked to paint vegetables and fruit in his old age. Also adept at bamboo carving, he was noted for carving hundreds of marvelous regular-script characters on fan frames, and his name was recorded by Chu Deyi in Zhuren xulu [Sequel to record of bamboo carvers]. Among the few books he published were his collected verse Yiduolu shichao [Draft of poetry from the Hut of One Superfluous] and Zhuke lu [Record of bamboo carvings].

The inkstone used to belong to Wu Xiushu (1811-1873), zi Yuzhi (‘jade branch’), hao Lanqing (‘indolent darling’), from Wujiang. Noted for her ink paintings of orchids and poems, she was the wife of Tao Guan (1794-1849). Tao, zi Meishi, haoMeiruo and Chuyun (‘hoes clouds’), was a native of Xiushui (present day Jiaxing, Zhejiang). He was the eldest son of Tao Leshan, from whom he learned painting, poetry and prose. Tao Guan also excelled at seal carving and often discussed about paintings with his brother-in-law Ji Danshi. Tao was particularly noted for his plum blossoms and rocks paintings in the style of the eighteenth-century Yangzhou artist Jin Nong (1687-1763). His poems, well known for their restraint and subtlety, were published as the Lujiao shanguan ji [Collection from Green Banana Leaf Lodge], named after his studio, behind which located the Banchuang Mingyue Meihua shi (‘Half a Window Filled with Moontlight Prunus Blossoms Studio’), said to be the studio of Wu Xiushu where she wrote her poetry.

In 1832, according to the inscription, Tao asked Jiang Baoling (1781-1840) to paint and inscribe for the accompanying album. Jiang, zi Ziyan, Youyun, hao Xiazhu (‘bamboo assimilating rosy clouds’) and Qindong Yishi (‘Unofficial Historian of Qindong’), was a commoner scholar without gentry status, hailing from Zhaowen (present-day Changshu, Jiangsu). At about the age of 25, Jiang began an itinerant life, living for a time in Suzhou, Huzhou, Hangzhou, Jiaxing, and finally Shanghai. He was a noted poet, and landscape painter, particularly famous for his small, still-life subjects, always inscribed with poetry.

Mentioned in the inscription to the painting of the moonlit gathering under the plum-blossoms are Tao’s brother-in-law Ji Danshi (1783-1846) and his cousin Ji Guangxin (1803-1860). Ji Danshi, originally called Wei before renaming as Fen, ziXiaoyu, hao Danshi, was the second son of Ji Nan (1760-1834) and from Xiushui (present day Jiaxing, Zhejiang). Ji Danshi was a passionate collector and noted connoisseur. He studied all kinds of painting subjects, including landscape, flowers and birds and figure painting, but he was considered best at the flower-and-bird genre. Ji Guangxin, nephew of Ji Nan, also from Xiushui, zi Xibai, selected the hao Ertian (‘two fields’) to pay homage to Shen Zhou (1427-1509) whose hao was Shitian (‘field of stones’), and Yun Shouping (1633-1690) whose hao was Nantian (‘Southern field’). He excelled in the theory of painting although he did not paint a great deal himself, but when he did so, his paintings were considered vibrant and surprisingly good. He was also a knowledgeable connoisseur, especially of paintings and calligraphy. For an inkstone inscribed by Ji Guangxin and signed, in a seal, Ertian, see Lanqian shanguan mingyan muluop.cit., no. 70.

The title slip bears the name Tienian, probably the signature of Fu Zhu (1886-1947). Fu, zi Tienian, hao Guachang, from Hengyang, Hunan, but lived in Shanghai in his later years, sometimes signed his works Xiancun jushi (‘idle retired scholar’). A prolific calligrapher and painter, in painting he emulated Xu Wei (1521-1593) and Chen Daofu (1483-1544), and his calligrpahy synthesised the styles of Chu Suiliang (597-658) and Mi Fu (1051-1107).

The collectors’ seals verified that the album was once in the collection of Xu Xiaopu (1887-1959). Xu, originally named Fang and called himself Yanchi (‘mad about inkstones’), was a famed Chinese pediatrician in Shanghai and renowned collector of the 20th century. Among his collection was a special inkstone Wuyun shuangxin yan (‘five clouds and twin stars inkstone’), which Xu treasured highly and even named his studio after. The inkstone, unfortunately now lost, was recorded in the form of a rubbing, compiled together with paintings by various early-twentieth century artists as an album, formerly in the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection, published in Escape from the Dusty World. Chinese Paintings and Literati Works of Art, Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, 1999, cat. no. 15, and now in the collection of the Minneapolis Museum, also partially illustrated by Robert D. Jacobsen, Appreciating China, Minneapolis, 2002, cat. no. 169.

The present lot later entered the collection of acclaimed collector Li Hung-ch’iu (also Li Hongqiu, 1899-1978), a native of Liuyang, Hunan. He was the executive of various banks and trusts, the president and general manager of the World Book Company, later moved to Taiwan and founded the publishing house Dazhong shuju.  

Apart from the extraordinary quality of the Duanstone material itself and the tasteful combination of nature and the hand of man in its conception, the association with the inscribed fitted cover and the accompanying album gives this inkstone unusual documentation from the time it was recorded in 1832 through to the present day. It would seem that the present inkstone inspired the first album, and, when this came into the hands of Xu Xiaopu, he encouraged his many artist friends to produce a similar album related to another inkstone which he owned and from which he drew his studio name.

The album is completed with an inscription by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat:

For thirty years I have frequently stepped back in time to join the friends of the inkstone on a moonlit night in the Half Window Studio, the scent of prunus blossoms in one nostril and ink in the other. Tonight despite the clouds the moon shines again and the subtle scent of blossom sits on the breeze of my memory as I grind ink upon it for the last time to inscribe these little likenesses of the stone.

It has been in many collections over the centuries, the album and the accompanying painting by Qindong recording only a few.

Now it is time to end its three decades in my studio then cut my love for it so it can move on as it should.

Treasures such as these last far longer than fragile life and carry with them so much of the past that remains important for the future. We don’t own them, they merely soujourn a while. What pleasant company this little companion has been.

Inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat at the Garden at the Edge of the Universe in the summer, 2017.

Sotheby's. Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection – Treasures, Hong Kong, 03 Oct 2017