The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is building on the work it started in 2008 with the opening of its Chinese Garden. On Thursday it announced that it had acquired a rare and prized 17th century Chinese illustrated book.
The book features a set of intricate color woodblock prints known as "The Ten Bamboo Studio Collection of Calligraphy and Pictures." It was published in 1633 by Hu Zhengyan, a calligrapher and seal-carver who named the book after his studio in Nanjing, which was a gathering place for his many artistic friends. He also ran his printing business out of his studio.
June Li, the curator of the Huntington's Chinese Garden (Liu Fang Yuan, or the Garden of Floating Fragrance) who also helped fund the purchase, says that the acquisition is the first significant set of Chinese art to come to the Huntington. As an early example of colored woodblock work, the book influenced much of the art that would come in later years in that form.
"When the opportunity [to buy the book] presented itself, we felt it was appropriate for the Huntington because it was not only a book, but a book made as an art form," said Li during a recent tour of the Chinese Garden. "Plus the subject matter is botanical. It was a very happy collision of all the worlds that interest us."
This particular set of the "Ten Bamboo Studio Collection" is the first edition printed from the original blocks. It initially had 186 pictorial leaves and 140 calligraphic leaves of poetry. It currently has 185 pictorial leaves and 139 calligraphic leaves, making it the most complete example of the book in known existence.
Seventeen other known first editions are in public and private collections around the globe, most notably at the National Library in Beijing and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
When the book was created, the goal was to make it look as if it contained original paintings and calligraphy. The techniques used to achieve the intricate, colored brushwork effects are still being studied by scholars.
The Huntington, which purchased the book in honor of its soon-to-retire president, Steven S. Koblik, plans to make the book available for study as soon as possible and will also make the pages accessible online.