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Rocks of ages – now coveted collectors’ items

By Christopher Proudlove ©

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by Christopher Proudlove©
Fate found me in
New York the other week … looking at rocks. No, I wasn’t on a geology field trip – although the boulders and outcrops in Central Park looked fascinating from the back of my taxicab – I was there to attend the International Asian Art Fair, among the grandest events of its kind in the world, a sort of an antiques shopping mall for the rich and very rich.

There was a high percentage of British dealers exhibiting at the fair, all of them showing works of art that someone like me could only ever dream about owning. But the rocks were different, surely?

They were among a display of dazzling oriental art on the stand of the London dealer Sydney L. Moss Ltd., and they had to be less expensive, didn’t they? After all, they are just lumps of stone.

Not a bit of it. These are so-called scholars’ rocks, known as ying-shih, and judging by the prices – you’d get little change out of £20,000-30, 000 for a good example – they are as highly prized today as they were centuries ago in ancient China.

Clearly the only way I’m going to own one is by digging one out of the ground and the likelihood of that happening is remote.

But we’ve all done it. Unearth a white quartz pebble while digging the garden (said to bring luck to the finder) or come across a strangely marked or weathered piece of stone on the beach and it’s hard to resist the temptation of taking home to place in a flower bed or on the mantelpiece.

And how many of us remember the “pet rock” fad imported from kooky California (where else)? The “hobby” started somewhat earlier.

The Chinese interest in collecting rocks for religious or aesthetic purposes can be traced back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) when Chinese connoisseurs began using large stones to decorate their gardens and courtyards.

There are also references to the special qualities of garden rocks and individual stones in poems dating as far back as the Tang dynasty (618-907).

One of the best known early collectors was Mi Fu, one of the most distinguished scholars and practitioners of the refined arts of the late 11th century. On being given a job in the emperor’s government, he arrived to take up office and was greeted by his future colleagues.

However, ignoring the elaborate ceremony befitting his new status, Mi caught sight of a particularly wonderful specimen in the rock garden customarily set up in Chinese courtyards, turned his back on the assembled officials and bowing low before the rock exclaimed: “Elder Rock! My teacher!”.

The practice of erecting stones in private gardens may well have evolved out of the Imperial construction of “paradises” known as P’eng-lai, or the Eastern Isle of the Immortals, mystical mountainous places built during the Chin dynasty (265-420)so the immortals could live there.

Scholars’ rocks were more usually small, individual stones chosen for their more refined qualities. They vary from a few inches to four or five feet in height but the majority were small enough to be carried around by the literati and able to stand on a table or desk.

Scholars took these portable mountains into their studios and used them for meditation and contemplation. Some were converted into utilitarian objects such as brush rests, censors or seals – but most were viewed as artistic creations in their own right.

The rocks were particularly admired for their resemblance to the magical peaks and subterranean paradises or grotto-heavens believed to be inhabited by immortals.

Others were appreciated for their resemblance to animals, birds, human figures, or mythical creatures.

The most highly regarded were of dense limestone that ring like a bell when struck.

Especially prized were stones sculpted naturally by processes of erosion or shaped by nature even if they have been artfully enhanced by man.

Pitted, hollowed out, and perforated, such rocks, usually displayed standing upright were seen as embodiments of the dynamic transformational processes of nature.

Principal aesthetic criteria

By the Tang dynasty (618-907), four principal aesthetic criteria – thinness (shou), openness (tou), perforations (lou), and wrinkling (zhou) – had been identified for judging scholars’ rocks as well as the larger examples featured in gardens.

Although black stones are the most sought after, many different types and colours of rocks grew in popularity at various times in Chinese history. During the Ming and Qing periods (1368-1911) more colorful stones such as marble, malachite, turquoise, yellow quartz, soapstone and serpentine became most sought after.

I asked Sydney Moss about dating scholars’ rocks and he confessed it was impossible. Having been made by nature and largely without the intervention of mankind, they are as old as the mountains themselves.

However, the rocks are normally displayed on carved wooden stands, which are often works of art in their own right, depicting mythical, stylistic or symbolic images in great detail. These can be dated by their designs and give a reliable indication of when the rock would have been adopted as a collectors’ item.

Above all, the learned Chinese scholars admired the rocks for “surfaces that suggest great age, forceful profiles that evoke the grandeur of nature, overlapping layers or planes that impart depth, and hollows or perforations that create rhythmic, harmonious patterns.”

The potential of stone collecting is limitless. If you fancy doing a spot of armchair mountaineering, a scholars’ rock is sure to fire your imagination.

Putting it on the slate

Talking of natural stone, a tussle between a private collector and a couple of museum bidders saw The Welsh Singer, an evocative painting of the Penrhyn slate quarry by “forgotten” artist Wallasey-born Frances Macdonald, overturn its pre-sale estimate of around £4,000 to sell for £6,750.

Colwyn Bay auctioneer David Rogers Jones tells me that the collector and his wife turned up for the sale of the lot last Saturday, sat at the front of the room and bid strongly against competition from two other bidders and having bought it, they left. The owner, another private individual, watched at the back of the room and also left contented with the result. That’s what auctions are all about.

Pictures show, top:
A good-sized ying-shih of darkish brown-grey stone, stretched across two widely-spaced feet, with crags and outcrops poking in various directions. The powerfully pockmarked and weathered material bears strongly horizontal striations, while the scooping and hollowing action of water has resulted in asymmetrical caves and channels, cutting diagonally across the lines of the horizontal. One or two large inclusions of paler cream-grey veining are exposed across a broad area of their surface, both to the front and back. Height: 17 7/8 inches. The old wood stand raises the rock high up on a wave or cloud base on long spindly legs, which terminate at the foot in high relief ju-i fungus heads of very high quality carving. Price: £20,000

Below, left to right:
A very large ying-shih with pale horizontal “marble” veining inclusions, robustly rising from a jagged base to a heavy and dramatic bulky overhang, with great scoops eroded away and small apertures associated with the crevices which occur all over the rock; top and bottom, front and back. Height: 34 3/4 inches. Modern Japanese wood stand. Price: £19,500

A large, paler grey ying-shih, with pronounced diagonal striations which cut deep into the obverse surface of the rock, creating dramatic, jagged ridges and fissures, several of which have developed holes of various shapes and sizes. The largest hole is to the centre of the rock’s front, at its base. The surface of the stone is pleasingly dimpled, with a hard dry feel, within its pronounced striations. On the reverse of the rock is engraved in a spindly seal script the legend T’ien-lai ko chen-shang; “Treasured and appreciated by the T’ien-lai pavilion”. This was the hall name of Hsiang Yiian-pien (1525-1590), the best and most famous of all Ming dynasty collectors. Height: 29 1/8 inches. Width: 17 13/16 inches. Price: 28,000

A tall ying-shih rising from a narrow foot through a vertically and diagonally sliced and scored “belly” area to a backward-leaning head featuring two jagged, narrow outcrops. Between them is a long, thin hole, extending almost to the very top of the rock. Height: 26 7/16 inches. Old wood stand. Price: £8,000
(Photos: Sydney L Moss)

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Tags: Chinese

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