Lot 128. A rare set of three Suzhou prints, Qianlong period, by Guan Ruiyu. Each panel, 123cm (48 1/2in) high x 60cm (23 5/8in) wideEstimate £ 20,000-30,000Sold for £ 56,312 (€ 62,790). Courtesy Bonhams.

Of arched form, each depicting 'mother and children' domestic scenes, later mounted on brocade covered back boards.

ProvenanceBonhams London, 23 Nov 2004, lot 193
An English private collection.

NoteIt is extremely rare for Suzhou prints to emerge in the market. Produced in the 17th and 18th century, these rare surviving examples offer a compelling glimpse into the aesthetics of the period and are considered major landmarks in the history of Chinese printmaking.

The city of Suzhou was China's wealthiest metropolis when the Qing dynasty was at its zenith. Urban affluence nurtured popular art and culture and resulted in the creation of new types of woodblock prints from the Kangxi through the Qianlong period. The commercial print studios of Suzhou produced innumerable works for the New Year celebrations and other festive events, as well as non-occasional prints, all of which are known today as Suzhou prints.

Although originally Suzhou was one of many centres of woodblock printing, including Nanjing, Hangzhou and Xin'an, the banning of vernacular literature during sporadic periods of the early Qing dynasty forced many woodblock carvers and printers from other centres to move to wealthy Suzhou for new opportunities. No longer limiting themselves to book illustration, they extended their work to independent single-sheet pictures, and in much larger dimensions.

Suzhou prints are stylistically unique and more artistically refined than the ordinary so-called 'New Year prints' (nianhua). Suzhou was not only the wealthiest city but had also been a cradle of both literati and professional artists, as well as an urban centre than had welcomed Western culture since the Ming dynasty, giving it everything it needed to facilitate the production of both unique and popular prints. The present lot encapsulates the influence of the West with single-point perspective and chiaroscuro shadows - elements at the time which would have been seen as completely foreign and exotic.

During the Yongzheng and early Qianlong reigns, Suzhou print studios began to produce large monochrome prints to which bright colours were often applied by hand. Innovative artists in Suzhou printmaking chose new subjects and themes including cityscapes, popular scenic or tourist spots in Suzhou and other areas, imaginary sites with historical or cultural associations, and compositions reflecting the life and culture of the literati. See C.Von Spee, The Printed Image in China: from the 8th to the 21st centuries, London, 2010, pp.36-41.

The three prints in the present lot in fact belong to two themed sets of prints: the print depicting a mother and scantily clad children in play represent a scene of Summer in a series about the 'four seasons'; the other pair depicts warmly clad children at play during New Year celebrations. The New Year print has an inscription:


Which may be translated as:

Xinde Hao [Studio] of Gusu [Archaic name for Suzhou]
The children of the Qilin coming together to celebrate the New Year.

The other panel depicting the summer scene has the following inscription:


Which may be translated as:

The children of the phoenix call out in joy at the year's end
Guan of Wumen [Archaic name for Suzhou]

Examples of these prints produced by the same studio, Xinde Hao, including the three prints in the present lot, can also be seen in the Esterházy Palace, Hungary, and Château de Filières, France, where they were used as wallpaper or attached to folding screens; see Xu Wenqin, 'Chinese images in 18th century European wall decorations and wallpapers', Review of Culture, Issue 99, Macau, 2016, pls.169-171, figs.14-19. For recent scholarship on these uncommon prints see Gao Fumin, Kang Qian shengshi Suzhou ban, Shanghai, 2014 and Zhang Ye, The Study of Western-Influenced Gusu Prints 洋風姑蘇版研究, Beijing, 2012.

Bonhams. Fine Chinese Art, London, 5 Nov 2020.