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Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 8 October 2009: Lot 1829 
   

1829
A SET OF FIVE INKSTICKS IN A FINE IMPERIAL 'DRAGON'
LACQUER BOX AND COVER
MARK AND PERIOD OF QIANLONG
four of the inkcakes moulded in various shapes, including: a musical chime, inscribed on one edge Wensu ge mo ('Origin of Culture Pavilion ink'); a halved handscroll, inscribed on one edge Wenjin ge mo ('Cultural Heritage Pavilion ink'); an oval, inscribed on one edge Wenyuan ge mo ('Source of Culture Pavilion ink'); and a fan, inscribed on edge Wenyuan ge mo ('Traces of Culture Pavilion ink'), each depicting the respective pavilions noted, with gilt dedicatory poems on the reverse and inscribed Qianlong nianzhi ('made in the Qianlong period') on another edge, together with a circular inkcake inscribed in the centre yuzhi ('by Imperial command') and decorated with a western clock and the corresponding animals of the Chinese zodiac, all contained within a fine black lacquer box, the cover vibrantly painted in varying tones of gold and red lacquer with a five-clawed dragon in pursuit of a flaming pearl amidst flames and cloud scrolls within a leiwen border, the brocaded interior overlaid on imperial yellow silk (fitted box)
BOX: 29.7 BY 35 CM.

PROVENANCE
Christie's Hong Kong, 16th January 1989, lot 344.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection.
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 23rd October 2005, lot 11.

This outstanding and rare set of ink sticks, contained in its original box that became the standard for storing Imperial quality ink, ranks among the finest Qianlong period ink stick sets extant today. Ink sticks were treasured not only for their utilitarian value, but also as the subject of fine collections for the elite and literati class. Its importance as decorative art objects and collectors' items, particularly during the Qing dynasty, can be seen in the present set which was commissioned for the use of the Qianlong emperor himself.

Shi Gufeng's in Ink Mould Engraving of Huizhou, Hefei, 1985, pp.2-6 illustrates a set of four ink sticks copied in the Guanxu period after the 'Four Pavillion Inks' in the present set, and notes that the original moulds from which the set was made were produced under the supervision of the Imperial Depository to commemorate the four depositories constructed to house four sets of the Siku quanshu (Complete Library of Four Treasuries). The present set of ink sticks is inscribed with poems by the Qianlong emperor dedicated to each of the depositories. One of the buildings is the WenyuanGe (Traces of Culture Pavilion) which was built in 1774, indicating that the ink stick was possibly produced around or shortly after this date.

Another set of five Qianlong Imperial ink sticks, also contained in a brocaded lacquer fitted case, was included in the exhibition The Life of Emperor Qianlong, the Macao Museum of Art, Macao, 2002, cat. no. 72 (fig. 1); a further set of ink sticks moulded with scenes of cotton production and inscribed with Qianlong’s poem, contained in a box decorated with dragons in gold and red lacquer, is included ibid., cat. no. 71; and a third set is published in Four Treasures of the Scholar's Study in the Collection of the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2001, pl. 10. Compare also a set of four ink sticks illustrated in Qing Legacies: The Sumptuous Art of Imperial Packaging, Macao, 2000, pl. 24; and a set of four Qianlong ink sticks contained within a brown lacquered box, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 30thMay 2005, lot 1227.

Originally, ink sticks served a purely utilitarian function by providing the means of recording official documents and historical texts during the Han period (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). It was not until the late Ming dynasty (1368- 1644) that the art of ink making reached its apex whereby ink cakes and sticks became collectors' items and were commissioned as gifts to commemorate special events. The flourishing of the literati culture of the late Ming period provided the impetus for the production of many writing objects that satisfied scholars' tastes. The majority of ink sticks surviving to the present day attest to their appreciation as works of art in their own right. Ink became an essential part of the 'Four Treasures of the Scholar's Studio' together with the brush, paper and ink stone.

Traditionally, ink was produced by grinding dry ink sticks or cakes against a moistened ink stone, resulting in a fine liquid perfectly suited for calligraphy or painting. By grinding his own ink, the artist or scholar exercised an ultimate control over the density of the pigment and thickness of the ink, both crucial factors affecting the texture, quality and appearance of their works.Masterfully executed ink allowed the rendering of subtle variations in tonal quality, enhancing the medium's eloquent expressive effects. The phrase 'the five colours of ink' is commonly used to describe the textual and tonal variations that ink has on paper, aptly conveying the importance placed on writing materials of the highest quality.

Ink was manufactured by combining carbon, made from burning resinous pinewood, with water-soluble animal glue. The production of pine soot was carefully monitored, as it was responsible for the blackness and durability of the ink. Although black was the standard colour, ink sticks could be made in a variety of colours by adding specific vegetable or mineral pigments: red from cinnabar and iron oxide, green from malachite, white from lead, and blue from indigo or mineral azurite. Ink recipes could be incredibly complex, sometimes calling for over a thousand different ingredients in order to produce ink of the finest quality.

As a decorative art form, ink sticks were often carved or moulded with patterns designed by popular artists or established ink makers. Designs by court artists often carried inscriptions bearing the characters, yu mo, or 'Imperial Ink' written in zhuan script. Characters and illustrations could be carved in low relief or intaglio, the most elaborate being embellished with gilding. Many of the scenes or stories depicted on ink cakes are classical or literary allusions. By the Qing dynasty the interest in collecting ink cakes lead to the production of large sets stored in intricately carved lacquer or wooden chests, thereby elevating them from their original utilitarian purpose to one of considerable artistry and prestige meant to be appreciated and admired.

While many scholars made their own ink, there were great master ink makers whose ink cakes and sticks were treated with the highest respect. Cheng Junfang, also known as Cheng Youbo, one of the most famous Ming period ink masters, was eulogized by the great Ming calligrapher Dong Qichang who said, 'In a hundred years' time, there will be no Junfang, but his inks will remain; in a thousand years' time there will be none of Junfang's inks left, but his name will remain'. For this reference see Gerard Tsang and Hugh Moss, Arts from the Scholar's Studio, Hong Kong, 1986, p. 78.



Fig. 1 A set of five ink cakes, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period courtesy of the palace museum, Beijing

 

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Hugh Moss |