News | August 1, 2014

Huntington Acquires Rare Book of 17th-C. Chinese Woodblock Prints


SAN MARINO, Calif.— The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens announced today that it has acquired one of the most historically and artistically important Chinese illustrated books ever published.

The book, a set of early color woodblock prints known as The Ten Bamboo Studio Collection of Calligraphy and Pictures, was published in 1633 by Hu Zhengyan (1584-1674).  Hu, a noted publisher, calligrapher, and seal-carver, named the book after his Ten Bamboo Studio in Nanjing, where he and his friends would gather. The book is understood to be among the earliest existing examples of color woodblock printing in China, produced as a work of art but also as a manual to demonstrate painting techniques and different ways of presenting elements in nature.

The prints featured in the book include elements typically associated with Chinese gardens: orchid, bamboo, flowering plum, fruits, sculptural rocks, birds and flowers, and calligraphy, among others. They look stunningly like paintings because of the innovative techniques used in printing multiple colors.

This set of the Ten Bamboo Studio collection is the first edition printed from the original blocks, during the period around 1633-1703. From the pattern of wear on the blocks, experts suggest that it appears to have been published during the earlier half of this time frame. The collection originally included 186 pictorial leaves and 140 calligraphic leaves of poetry. The Huntington’s book has 185 pictorial leaves and 139 calligraphy leaves, making it the most complete example known to exist. There are 17 other known first editions, all in varying condition and in public and private collections in the United States and abroad, including the National Library in Beijing, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and the British Museum. The Huntington’s version, however, appears to have escaped the damage caused by heavy usage and natural deterioration suffered by other examples. Experts believe the leaves were most likely taken apart from their binding in the 18th century while in a Japanese collection. Each sheet was mounted onto heavier backing paper for easier handling, thus protecting the thin paper from being soiled and torn. The mounted prints were then put back together in three albums.

The Ten Bamboo Studio Collection of Calligraphy and Pictures was purchased in honor of Huntington President Steven S. Koblik, who earlier this year announced that he would retire in June 2015. Major funding for the purchase came from the curator of The Huntington’s Chinese Garden, June Li, and her husband, Simon. Additional funds came from Huntington supporters Anne and Jim Rothenberg, Mei-Lee Ney, and Fong Liu.

“Steve has made extraordinary contributions to The Huntington, not the least of which has been to take the Chinese Garden from dream to reality,” said June Li. “It’s been an absolutely amazing experience to be here during this transformative time. The Ten Bamboo Studio book reflects The Huntington’s intellectual foundations—which include major achievements in printing and art, and a deepening understanding and appreciation of botanical science and history—so its acquisition is a wonderful way to celebrate Steve’s unparalleled leadership.”

“This gift to the institution represents remarkable insight on the part of the donors into The Huntington’s collections,” said Koblik. “And for me, personally, it is a real affirmation. Moreover, it underscores The Huntington’s commitment to the study of Chinese cultural history and artistic traditions. I couldn’t be more honored and pleased.”

While much is known about Japanese woodblock print-making, far less is known about woodblock printing in China, where the craft originated.  “This area of study is still relatively young,” says Li, “which makes the acquisition all the more exciting.” Li organizes a series of programs at The Huntington focusing on the scholarly study of East Asian gardens. “These prints will contribute magnificently to the effort to advance our knowledge in this area.”

The techniques used to achieve the prints in the book were painstaking and precise, says Li, as the goal was to have them look like brush paintings and original calligraphy. Scholars are still working out the innovative printing techniques that were used in the book to create tonal colors that look like actual brushwork.

Plans are in the works to make the book available to scholars for study as soon as possible, says Li, as well as to make the pages fully available online.

The Ten Bamboo Studio Collection of Calligraphy and Pictures was subsequently reprinted in China as well as Japan. The manual application of colors onto the blocks and their individual manipulation created variations and differences in each printed edition.

The Huntington’s copy of the book was in Japan by the mid 18th century. It was purchased by an American couple in the 1950s who were living in Japan at the time and then brought to the United States, where it recently was made available for sale.

Image: Hu Zhengyan (1584-1674), The Ten Bamboo Studio Collection of Calligraphy and Pictures, 1633. Three albums with 185 pictorial leaves and 139 poems, ink and color on paper, 9 7/8 ? 11 1/4 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.