Collection Highlight: Rare Chinese Prints

By Jo Faulkner, Record Assistant

Occasionally, when working with the collections at the North Yorkshire County Record Office, material can come to light, that has no obvious connection to North Yorkshire. Behind the scenes work, to update our storage locations guide, led to the discovery of a rare set of 18th century Chinese prints. The prints were included in an exhibition at an ‘Archives at Dusk’ event, and consequently brought to the attention of specialists.

The collection of Chinese woodblock prints is part of the Chaloner of Guisborough archive (ZFM). Inspection of the seventy-six delicate prints, revealed four different designs. These prints are not itemised in the catalogue of the Chaloner archive (ZFM), but have been stored with a collection of various antique prints and papers, which form part of this collection. The four prints illustrate some of the famous scenes collectively known since the 13th century as Ten Views of West Lake, Xihu Shi Jing. The West Lake is perhaps the most famous feature of Hangzhou.

A leading authority on Chinese prints, Christer Von der Burg (formerly of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm) has identified the images as Chinese woodblock prints from Suzhou, probably dating from the mid-18th century. The four prints connect to form a panorama illustrating scenery from the West Lake in Hangzhou. It is possible that the prints were intended as a souvenir, to be mounted together in the form of a hand scroll, though they could have been used as wall decoration. Such prints were in demand in England during the mid-18th century, the fashion for chinoiserie being at its height.

ZFM Signature colophon from Chaloner print

Two of the prints have identical signature colophons in the margin. The signature translates as ‘Xindehao’ and underneath written vertically in two columns ‘gusu Guan Ruiyü dingxi xiyanghua’ which roughly translates as ‘Guan Ruiyü (the artist’s name) from Gusu (Suzhou) published this dingxi western foreign picture (meaning that it was influenced by western perspectives and copper engravings). Mr Von der Burg was not certain of the meaning of dingxi in this context.

The artist Guan Ruiyü is a known signatory to other prints, these are in the Uminomeru Art Museum in Japan, the Museum fur Asiatische Kunst in Berlin, Chateau Filiéres in France and in private collections. The ‘Sunset Glow at Leifeng Pagoda’ has a twin in a private Japanese collection. Three of the Chaloner prints are to-date only known of in this collection in North Yorkshire, and have never been published before. Since discovery, they have been published in a special issue of the monthly journal of Chinese art of the National Palace Museum (Taipei). The Douce Collection at the Bodleian Library, Oxford holds a similar print of ‘Unmelted Snow at Broken Bridge’. The two prints show the same design though are from different woodblocks. The three prints in the Douce collection are in the same vein and format as the Chaloner prints. It is thought that these prints arrived in Europe in the mid-18th century and later came onto the antique market.

ZFM The Chaloner prints, joined to form a panorama

The provenance of the Chaloner prints remains something of a mystery.  We are not yet sure how the prints came to be in the collection. The prints are not bound and are contained in a paper folder. This paper has the hand written inscription ‘Chinese wallpaper brought back by Admiral Chaloner’ written on it. There is a loose sheet of paper inside this, labelled ‘Chinese rice paper [illegible] with care’ in the same handwriting, which is in a style not contemporary with Admiral Chaloner (1815 – 1884). There is some doubt that these types of prints from the 18th century would still exist in China for westerners to purchase in the 19th century.

ZFM Label on paper folder containing prints

There is a theory that the prints may emanate from the Dundas family. The mother of Admiral Thomas Chaloner, the Honourable Frances Laura Dundas, was a granddaughter of Sir Lawrence Dundas (1710 -1781), who owned Asian collections. More research may uncover the full story of how these prints came to be in North Yorkshire.


Further reading & sources

A post on the Chinese Woodblock Printing blog

Helen Clifford, ‘The Dundas Property Empire and Nabob Taste: Accommodating the East: Sir Lawrence Dundas as Nabob of the North?’, East India Company at Home (February 2013), p.12, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/files/2013/02/Aske-Hall-Final-PDF-19.08.14.pdf.

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