This album of 18 fan-leaf paintings from the Song and Yuan dynasties — the oldest are likely to be around 1,000-years-old — features some of greatest names in Chinese art. Specialist Sophia Zhou explains how they are likely to have been collected
This remarkable set of 18 round fan leaves on silk, all of which are approximately the same size, feature the paintings of various Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasty artists in styles that are datable from the 10th to the 13th centuries. Like Wood and Rock, the pen and ink painting by Su Shi offered this season in Hong Kong, some of the leaves are likely to be around 1,000 years old.
The fan leaf was the favourite form of the Song academy painters; its round and oval shape suggests it was originally mounted on a flat fan for decoration. For the purposes of storage and display, later collectors often combined groups of otherwise unrelated paintings as an album. We believe that the 18 leaves being offered in Hong Kong on 27 November were last mounted on individual pages and then assembled in a book-like structure by Wu Rongguang (1773-1843), a well-known Qing collector.
An album such as this one offers a much more intimate viewing experience than other formats of Chinese painting. The very act of leafing through the album, which our short film brings to life, creates a sense of suspense as the various scenes unfold before the viewer’s eyes.
This album offers a rare, kaleidoscopic glimpse of life during the Song and Yuan dynasties — scholars travelling through a landscape; a boy herding a buffalo, which seems to be marching resolutely off in the opposite direction; a scholar reading in a pavilion under bamboo trees; the family tending to the elders, while an attendant serves food and tea — a scene that has been beautifully enhanced in the above film. There are also images of flowers, animals, birds and insects.
Due to the small size of the fan leaf, the pictures had to be composed concisely, and the the beauty of these paintings suggests that they were by the hands of the most highly skilled artists.
Some leaves bear the signatures of some of the greatest artists of the Song dynasty, if not in the history of Chinese art — Ma Yuan, Xia Gui, Fan Guan and Xu Daoning, among them — although some of these are probably later attributions.
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The 40 collectors’ seals date from the Ming dynasty (about 1550) to the late Qing dynasty (late 19th century). The provenance we can piece together might be incomplete, but it is evident that the album has been carefully assembled by collectors with a great eye and love for the refined art of fan-leaf paintings of the Song and Yuan dynasties.
Fan leaves such as these are extremely rare. A small, 13th-century fan leaf achieved HK$13,300,000 (about $1.7 million) against an estimate of HK$600-800,000 in November 2017. Considering the completeness of this present lot and the variety of subject matters, this album looks set to be a highlight of the autumn season.