From protégé to master: the journey of Harold Wong

Never having wavered from his view that the great tradition of Chinese painting and calligraphy offers unlimited possibilities and profound techniques, Harold Wong followed a path he considered unending. Art advisor, curator and art historian Catherine Maudsley explores his artistic journey in Chinese painting ‌

Harold Wong in his studio in Hong Kong, 1990s

Harold Wong in his studio in Hong Kong, 1990s

Connoisseur, collector, advisor, gallerist and artist, Harold Wong (1943-2022) lived a life full of creative and purposeful self-expression. Although well known to and highly respected by an international circle of art enthusiasts, his unassuming manner meant he seldom called attention to himself. He was a man of few words. His vast knowledge, experienced eye and sensitively alert response to art allowed him to assist leading institutions and individuals to form important collections of Chinese paintings and calligraphy.

Harold Wong’s passion, knowledge and experience led to him build a private collection comprising four main areas: the literati tradition of the Ming and Qing dynasties; calligraphy; mid-to-late Qing paintings; and modern and contemporary ink paintings. All of these are the subject of the upcoming exhibition, From Protégé to Master: The Chinese Painting Collection of Harold Wong, representing just a portion of his collection.

Harold Wong in his studio in Hong Kong, early 1960s

It is difficult to estimate the number of works of Chinese painting and calligraphy that passed through his hands and delighted his educated eyes — the eyes of a connoisseur. Harold Wong emphasised the importance of building a visual encyclopaedia so that, at a moment’s recall, he could see in his mind’s eye the many paintings that he had seen and had committed to memory. To the delight of many, discussing and comparing paintings was a fundamental exercise for him, and as an avid collector was an essential skill.

Three exhibitions — in 2003, 2007 and 2016 — at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Art Museum, were a compelling demonstration of his acumen as an avid collector, each one with a published catalogue of 150 calligraphy couplets, totalling 450 couplets. Because of their connection with his father, Wong Pao-hsie (1907-1979), with whom he shared a deep fascination with couplets, they also tell, in part, his evolution from protégé to master, from a nascent collector to a seasoned one.

Double Beauty: Qing Dynasty Couplets from the Lechangzai Xuan Collection, Chinese University of Hong Kong Art Museum, 2003

The Wong family came to Hong Kong from Shanghai and counted many artists, collectors and scholars as friends. Theirs was an international and cosmopolitan outlook. Harold Wong’s father, Wong Pao-hsie, was an anthropologist trained at the Sorbonne, and his mother, Ting Hsiu-ching (1924-1978), was an amateur Peking opera singer who began studying painting during the family’s Shanghai days.

Harold Wong in Hong Kong, early 1960s

In 1957, Harold Wong began his study of classical paintings with the venerable Madame Koo Tsin-yaw (1896-1978), the 20th-century calligrapher, painter and seal engraver, who also taught his mother. Highly creative, Ting Hsiu-ching wielded the brush with confidence and skill.

Her son, the budding artist, embarked on a period of copying classical Chinese paintings, including the ones in the family’s and friends’ collections. Many of his paintings from the late 1950s to the early 1960s are modelled after great painters such as Dong Yuan (c. 934-962), Dong Qichang (1555-1636), Bada Shanren (1626-1705), Yun Shouping (1633-1690), Hua Yan (1682-1756) and others. Harold Wong’s creative pursuit firmly placed him in communication with mastery. It is difficult to isolate any one influence in his work, including the classical influences of the 13th- and 14th-century Yuan masters, the 17th-century individualists, Shixi (1612-1673), Bada Shanren (1626-1705) and Shitao (1642-1707), as well as the modern master Huang Binhong (1864-1955).

His easy and relaxed familiarity with traditional painters, calligraphers, theorists, writers and poets extended also to Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and Dong Qichang (1555-1636); in his paintings he paid homage to the Northern Song artist Fan Kuan (c. 960-1030) and to literary sources such as the poetry of Tao Yuanming (365-427) and the classic Daode jing. His profound cultural literacy and the opportunities he had to study important paintings first-hand and to imbibe and assimilate their genius meant that they too became some of the masters who enabled the young man to emerge years later from protégé to master himself.

Never having wavered from his view that the great tradition of Chinese painting and calligraphy offers unlimited possibilities and profound techniques, Harold Wong followed a path he considered unending, so rich were the artistic and creative possibilities inherent in Chinese painting. From his solo 1962 show, Exhibition of Chinese Paintings by Wong Chung Fong, to his re-emergence in 1993 with his exhibition Means of Self-Expression, his deep immersion in Chinese painting continued uninterrupted.

Means of Self-Expression: Recent Paintings of Harold Wong (Huang Zhongfang), GT Publications, 1993

Exhibition brochure and commemorative album cover for Exhibition of Chinese Paintings by Wong Chung Fong, 1962

Learning and attentive cultivation were central to Harold Wong’s life. Looking at the trajectory of his skill as a painter — a time span of over 40 years — shows just how attentive he was. In August 1962, his first one-man show in the territory opened at Hong Kong’s then City Hall. A crowd of well-wishers and dignitaries attended the opening, where 73 works were shown. His teacher, Madame Koo Tsin-yaw, proudly stood in the background as the artist and his family greeted guests. The exhibition was a resounding success and was widely regarded by art critics as a major achievement for someone so young.

The paintings followed a time-honoured tradition and method of recreating well-known artists’ styles and subjects. Ranging from birds and flowers to elegant monochrome orchids and landscapes, the paintings used ink tonalities from lightest grey to deepest black; mineral colour pigments such as malachite, lapis, azurite and umber; and vegetal colours like rattan yellow and indigo. Harold Wong preferred to use traditional materials such as these throughout his painting career.

Mountains in Summer, 1961, painted by Harold Wong and inscribed by Zhang Daqian. 184 x 95 cm

After moving to England in 1962 to pursue his studies, Harold Wong continued to paint and found a supportive and stimulating artistic environment with family friend and painter Edward Seago (1910-1974). The young artist spent many holidays at the Dutch House on the Norfolk Broads, where he painted little scenes mostly in colour and ink. Observing how Western artists looked at nature, Wong perceived that there was a fundamentally different approach, and made a conscious effort to look at nature from a Western perspective.

Colour pigments used by Harold Wong

The success of his first Hong Kong exhibition was followed by similar shows in London — and in Los Angeles, where he was feted by Hollywood stars of the day. During those years he also participated in group exhibitions.

In 1977 in Hong Kong, Harold Wong co-founded an art gallery, Hanart, which flourished first on Wellington Street and then moved to Hollywood Road where it became a focus for Chinese painting enthusiasts. Some years later, branches were established in Taipei and New York. By 1990, he was ready to stand back from the gallery and instead focus exclusively on his own painting, collecting and advising. The years from 1993 to 2000 were particularly active, with many exhibitions and publications.

Paintings by Harold Wong are in private collections worldwide, and in museum collections including the Chinese University of Hong Kong Art Museum; the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; the British Museum; the Hong Kong Museum of Art; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; the Princeton University Art Museum; and the University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong.

Harold Wong’s seal: You Chi (‘Young Fool’)

Harold Wong’s later seal: You Chi (‘Fool Again’)

Long familiar with the fundamentals and aesthetics of Chinese painting, Harold Wong at age 50 recognised that while his youthful zeal had matured and deepened, the challenges and possibilities of this art form had not lessened. At the beginning of his painting career, Harold Wong’s father gave him the appellation You Chi (‘Young Fool’) for use in a painting seal, the term chi signifying a passionate and complete immersion in painting. After resuming painting full-time in the 1990s, Wong referred to himself as You Chi (‘Fool Again’), this time relying on homophones and substituting the character you ‘again’ for the previous you meaning ‘young’. As a painter, he stressed the fundamental elements of brushwork and ink tonality (bimo); the structural elements of solid and void, host and subsidiary, and repeating patterns; along with movement and textures and the luminous, shimmering colours of ink.

As connoisseur, collector, advisor, gallerist and artist, Harold Wong took a quietly dedicated but unrelentingly firm stance on Chinese painting and calligraphy. Although painting and collecting were a very natural means of self-expression for him, they did much more than provide personal satisfaction. Harold Wong, inheritor and interpreter of tradition, made a significant and much-needed contribution to its continuity. As he wrote in his autobiographical essay, ‘I was encouraged to be selective and discriminating, but not biased.’ With this stance, a whole world of possibilities opened up and played an active part in turning the protégé into a master.

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