This autumn, Christie’s Hong Kong is proud to present selected paintings from the family collection of the last true traditional literati collector—The Master of the Jade Studio, Mr. Wong Nan-ping
The Chinese connoisseur Wong Nan-ping (1924–1985) led a peripatetic life that took him across the globe. Yet, if there was one thing that remained constant throughout, it was his devotion to — and knowledge of — the finest art.
He put together one of the most distinguished collections of classical Chinese painting and calligraphy in the world, and on November 29 Christie’s in Hong Kong is offering a selection of paintings from the collection.
Wong Nan-ping was born into a well-to-do, intellectual family in the city of Changzhou, in Jiangsu Province. (His father ran a successful textile business.) In 1942, while studying Chinese literature at Fudan University in Shanghai, he met the famed art collector, Ye Gongchuo.
By the age of 20, he had already acquired his first paintings. Ye Gongchuo offered him both mentorship and an introduction to Shanghai’s top dealers. Among the early purchases was Mi Youren’s Spectacular Views of the Xiao and Xiang (now in the Palace Museum in Beijing).
In the late 1940s, Wong Nan-ping and his family relocated to Hong Kong during the Chinese Civil War. This in no way curtailed his art acquisitions, in fact: he continued to acquire major works in Hong Kong and visited Taipei for acquiring masterpieces.
Over the course of a lifetime of study and connoisseurship, Wong Nan-ping amassed a collection of masterpieces from the Song (960-1279), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Majority of them are hanging scrolls and handscrolls.
Among the highlights of the Christie’s Hong Kong November sale is The South Marsh, a handscroll of landscape by Lu Zhi (1496-1576), one of the leading artists of the Wu School. With fluid and elegant brushwork, it depicts an atmospheric setting of riverside villages in the Jiangnan region, surrounded by hills.
Another masterpiece is The Fragrance of a Nation in Clearing Spring, a hanging scroll dated 1688 by Yun Shouping (1633-1690), one of the six masters of the Early Qing dynasty. A specialist in painting flora, the artist captures five peonies blossoming in various stages. They harmoniously complement each other from different branches, though our gaze is drawn chiefly to the large lavender bloom in the centre. Its petals and stamens are so vivid, we can almost smell the emanating fragrance.
By the 1970s, the auction market for Chinese paintings was burgeoning, and Wong Nan-ping — now living in Hong Kong and the United States — used this opportunity to purchase at auctions there. He also gave frequent talks about Chinese art at private collectors’ clubs and institutions such as Min Chiu Society and the Rotary Club.
A highly cultivated individual, he was a close friend of many Chinese modern masters — Zhang Daqian and Pu Ru, to name but two — and he always welcomed artists wishing to study works in his collection.
It’s interesting to note that bamboo appears in numerous paintings that Wong Nan-ping bought (a fine early-14th Century example attributed to Ke Jiusi will be offered at Christie’s Hong Kong in November). Bamboo symbolises gentleman. The stalks of bamboo are hollow, and the plant thus came to represent openness and tolerance: a virtue practised by Wong Nan-ping.
In his manuscripts, he shared his tips on how to build a first-rate art collection. These included never going on the hunt for ‘good deals’; never blindly following trends; making friends across the field; being ready to pay a premium for the best works; and, perhaps most important of all, ‘letting serendipity bring the paintings to you’.
Wong Nan-ping passed away in 1985. The following decade, his art collection was showcased in a touring exhibition at three US venues — Yale University Art Gallery, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and the Spencer Museum of Art in Kansas — as well as in Hong Kong at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The exhibition was accompanied by a seminal publication, The Jade Studio: Masterpieces of the Ming and Qing Painting and Calligraphy from the Wong Nan-p’ing Collection. This featured contributions by such experts on Chinese art as James Cahill, Shen C. Y. Fu, Chu-tsing Li, and James C. Y. Watt (the one-time Chairman of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York).
Wong Nan-ping’s family have donated a number of important works to significant Chinese museums, while certain works from the collection have been sold at auction, many masterpieces remain, including those to be offered in the November sale at Christie’s.
One notable example is a hanging scroll dated 1660 by the great landscapist and one of the Four Wangs of the Qing dynasty, Wang Jian (1609-1677). As its title — Landscape after Huang Gongwang — suggests, this was inspired by a painting by the Yuan Dynasty master, Huang Gongwang (1269-1354), attesting to the artistic lineage through several centuries and dynasties revealed in Wong Nan-ping’s distinguished collection.