Saturday, February 28, 2015

May Your Halls be Filled With Gold and Jade

“May Your Halls be Filled With Gold and Jade” is a common Chinese New Year greeting, and one that can literally become true if you happen to have a Chinese lithographed tin house bank like the one below. This object combines many of my favorite collecting interests: houses, toy banks, lithographed tin objects, and Chinese antiques.

This bank represents a traditional Chinese house, the type that can still be found in the countryside and occasionally in the city. The construction is of large bricks, with stone windows. On top is a tile roof with an elaborate crest and decorative gable ends. These fancy elements on real buildings are often picked out with colorful glazed tile work, as indicated on this model. A favorite detail is that it sits asymmetrically on its cobblestone base, thus giving it the tiniest of yards. 

Chinese New Year is under celebration in this tin house, indicated by the red papers, inscribed with auspicious sayings, pasted around the doors. These red papers are still to be found absolutely everywhere, on old buildings as well as new ones. Touchingly, even when these old houses are crumbling and uninhabitable, the owning families will return each year to the family seat and paste up fresh red papers.

From Handbook of Old Taiwan Houses, by Kang, Ruo-xi
The real house above in Taoyuan County (near Taipei's International Airport) closely resembles the tin example, down to the stone courtyard and lucky red banners.

On the doors of this bank are the single characters for Spring and Luck, as Spring Festival is the alternate and more traditional name for Chinese New Year. Here they are displayed right side up, but it also is traditional to display them upside down.

Above the doors is the banner hoping that the house will be “filled with gold and jade,” with the coin slot located conveniently just above. This greeting is still in frequent use; there are also variants wishing you “gold and silver” and even just plain gold.

The 'plain gold' version “A thriving business and Halls filled with gold”, on a transom in my own apartment, present when I moved in.

The two vertical side banners convey a specifically New Year’s sentiment. On the right it says, “One night joins two paths” and on the left “The dawn separates two years.” The word used for path, wai, suggests the kind of twisting paths found around mountains and rivers, thus symbolizing the preceding and coming years. Instead of the actual word for dawn, the adage interestingly employs the term “fifth watch,” using an ancient Chinese system for dividing time. The night, roughly 7:00 PM to 5:00 AM, was divided into five watches, with the fifth watch covering the period from 3-5:00 AM, which was considered the true dividing line between the days. 

The sides show several window grills of the type usually made from heavy green tiles. 

The back of the bank features a stone window set with vertical bamboo posts. The actual posts in these frequently seen windows are either stone carved like bamboo, or sometimes colorfully glazed terracotta.

When I was small, my father collected toy banks, both tin and cast iron, and family excursions hunting for these were my introduction to collecting, so I was doubly pleased to find this traditional Chinese example. Let me know if you ever had a favorite toy bank, or special container for saving coins. 

Chinese sayings often wish the recipient wealth and prosperity. Their presence on a coin bank helps to guarantee this by teaching the virtue of saving money. However good fortune arrives, here's hoping that your halls this year will be well filled with gold, silver and jade, in addition to peace and health.

[I hate to distract readers with Chinese characters and accented transliterations, but since rough translations cannot specify the original sayings, I place them here for reference:

金玉滿堂        jīn yù mǎn táng          (May your halls be filled with gold and jade.)
,              fú,    chūn                 (luck,  spring)
一夜連雙崴    yī yè lián shuāng wǎi  (One night joins two paths.)
五更分二年    wǔ gèng fēn èr nián    (The dawn separates two years.)
生意興隆 金滿堂  shēng yì xīng lóng, jīn mǎn tang  (A thriving business and Halls filled with gold.)]

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Happy Goat Year

 Thursday, February 19th is Chinese New Year Day. This year is the Year of the Goat, but the same character can also mean sheep or ram, so you have considerable leeway in deciding how to celebrate. These animals are very much a part of Chinese art, found in many forms and media, but even accepting all three alternatives does little to eliminate the possible confusion.

This ceramic goat with its raised head and happy expression looks like it might have been part of a set of Chinese zodiac animals. Its kneeling posture solves the problem of delicate, easily-broken legs, and details in blue give a lively dash to this relatively realistic animal.

Perhaps a garden scene is intended for this very deep architectural carving of two goats among various vases, pots, fruits and flowers, including a spectacular, out-of-proportion gilded chrysanthemum in the central vase.

A closer look at the right-side goat.

The corresponding bracket closely matches the first one, this time with two human figures displayed in a very similar garden.  The figure on the left appears to be playing a lute; oddly, the central vase seems to be unfinished.

This charming small octagonal wooden bowl demonstrates some of the problems identifying animals in Chinese art. When fine details are not present, it is difficult to tell the difference between goats, deer, and other similar animals. Usually deer have branched antlers that stick straight up from the head, and are frequently depicted as spotted, while goats have unbranched horns of various shapes.  This one seems just about in between, but let me know whether you think this represents a goat, a deer, or some other animal.

The adjacent panel is crisply carved with the character meaning East.

The above boxwood carving has some very unusual features. It is of a longevity god, holding a staff in one hand and his beard in the other, and at his feet is kneeling a goat. At least this really looks like a goat, with two unbranched horns close together. Yet the longevity god known as the Old Man of the South Pole is commonly depicted accompanied by a spotted deer.  In this kind of naive artwork one expects to encounter many variations, both in what was intended and the way it is depicted, so in the end the viewer has to decide upon a plausible interpretation.

The back reveals the original function as a seal case or small box.  The sliding cover that fit in those grooves has unfortunately been lost.

The above pair of very realistic and modern goats, down to their horns, hooves and even beards, appears on a carved window. This image is from the book Dong Yang Woodcarving by Hua, De-Han.

For sheep fanciers out there, this pair of once-gilded finials appears to depict sheep, but once again we are on a tangent of speculation. The cloven feet and fleecy wool are decidedly ovine, but the heads, while appropriately broad, are like nothing on this earth. They almost appear to have anteater-like snouts.

These is a sad story connected with these sheep. The last time that I moved, several boxes apparently didn't make it, and these were among the lost items. So although I still consider myself their owner, I do not currently possess them, and cannot double-check or re-photograph their features. I particularly regret their loss, since I have never seen anything to compare with them. I also admired their other-worldly charm and the quality of their carving.

Lantern Festival this year is sure to offer innumerable goat and sheep lanterns. This goat lantern, while not from a Goat Year, shows the effect that can be achieved. It is entirely made from empty Yakult containers, a type of yogurt drink, and I consider the tuft of grass it is eating a great added touch.

A bracelet with double ram's heads, in green stone, represents the third official possibility for the year's mascot. Although clearly not meant to deceive, it has the air of an archaic jade carving. 

Finally, here is a modern interpretation, showing that the spirit of these animals has never left Asian art. These fluffy sheep, carved from mother-of-pearl, are actually chopstick rests that I recently found in a kitchenware store.

I hope that you are now in the mood to celebrate Goat Year. There are plenty of realistic and unequivocal portrayals in the goat-sheep-ram continuum, but as always seems to happen in Chinese art, one soon runs into gray areas. The only way to settle the issue is to let me wish you all:  “Happy Year of the Goat, Sheep, Ram, possibly Deer, or any animal, real or mythical, that even vaguely resembles them.”

All photographs by the author, except as noted.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Lucky Lions

Lions, along with dragons, are the animals most commonly depicted in Chinese art. They range in size from monumental sculptures to the tiniest of amulets. Lions are valued for their protective symbolism. In architecture, lion guardian statues are placed flanking doors, and inside of houses are found the subject of today's post, small wooden masks carved with the features of lions.

These masks invoke the fierce qualities of lions to repel evil spirits, and when found among Chinese antiques often possess a charming, folk-art quality. The ones shown here measure from less than two inches to about five inches across. The features on these lion masks are very stylized rather than realistic, and mythical elements may be incorporated.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Painted red and with traces of the original gilding, this round example is very typical. The lion has large bulging eyes, with a prominent nose and forehead. The mouth is open, exposing the teeth, fangs, and protruding tongue (some varieties also carry a sword in their mouths). Tufts of fur are indicated in various places, and around the perimeter.

Veering from the Western concept of lions is the single horn in the middle of the forehead. Also on the forehead is the Chinese character wang, ( ) meaning King. In this example the word King is carved on the horn itself. Finally, there are three small holes, from which small bells were originally hung further to help scare away unwanted spirits.

Here is the back of the above example. A rounded fretwork border surrounds a ba-gua design. These eight-sided figures containing eight trigrams are important in Chinese religion. The configuration of the trigrams conveys meaning, perhaps in this case personalized for the original owner. In the center of the ba-gua is a yin-yang symbol, here charmingly carved as two complementary fish. 

Some masks are carved in a style allowing for more freedom depicting the features. In this rather squared-off example, the ears and especially the horn are allowed to protrude. The eyebrows are almost shaped like bats, and the King symbol has been replaced by four dots.

The above rather elaborate lion mask has well preserved paint of black, red, gold and white. Tufts of fur typically appear as odd geometric shapes and patterns, highlighted in red. Even the arms of the King symbol seem to flow as though they were part of the fur. The eyebrows have assumed a flame-like shape. The bright red tongue is plainly visible, and the white teeth have a startling and strangely human quality.

If I were giving these masks names, this one would have to be called Dopey. His double chin, broad grin, and beady, narrow-set eyes all conspire to give him an unintelligent yet genial look. Still, this piece is carefully carved: the horn is so accurate that it looks like the real material, and shaggy tufts of fur form his asymmetrical beard.

The back view of those irregular tufts is a favorite detail of mine.

The reverse side shows a mortise instead of a simple hanging device, suggesting that this once may have been part of a larger object. If so, the imagination boggles at what the entire original creation must have looked like.

This one makes me want to brush my teeth.

I am not sure why some of these have such flat sides, as though reflecting the shape of the board they were carved from. This red and black example has a bushy fringe of beard, and the King symbol has the three cross bars carved, but not the vertical stroke, giving this lion the appearance of having worry lines.

Lion masks are still very much a part of Chinese culture. The above mask, a recent gift from local friends, adheres faithfully to the ancient model—the round shape, fierce, exaggerated features, bared teeth, small bells and King symbol are all present. The horn, however, has disappeared and been replaced by a miniature ba-gua.

Similar lion masks can be spotted frequently exerting their good luck spell on door-knockers and in colorful tile work. Shields often assumed this form, as in this battle scene of warriors in a boat storming a walled city. I find this carving amusing because the lion shields look ready to be cut out and hung as individual amulets.

Other countries also display talismans in the home to bring protection and luck. Horseshoes and Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs come to mind, as do the intriguing witch balls recently featured by ChronicaDomus.

Among the wide array of Chinese amulets, lion masks were popular choices. Let me know which one of the masks presented here you would rely on to keep evil spirits at bay, or whether you have other good luck pieces protecting your home.

Another round example, this one very tiny, only about 1.5 inches across.

All photographs and original objects property of the author.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Gore Hall, 1838-1913—A Lost Harvard Landmark

 Gore Hall in an early 1900's postcard view    
Harvard's Gothic Revival Gore Hall is a stand-out among 19th century college buildings. Built in 1838 by architect Richard Bond, this was the first building at Harvard specifically meant for a library. While Harvard possesses many fine buildings, many tend to the heavy and rectilinear, so it was a shame that the lively Gore Hall was torn down in 1913, on its seventy-fifth anniversary.

Gore Hall was named for famed Harvard alumnus Christopher Gore, 1758-1827, patriot and politician, who in his will left Harvard an exceptionally generous $100,000 (one third of the eventual cost of the library). Gore is known to many because of his exceptionally fine Federal house in Waltham, Massachusetts called Gore Place, built in 1806.  I don’t know whether Gore meant specifically to build a library for Harvard, but the honor was appropriate, as Gore was interested in student welfare, was known to be scholarly, and had assembled an extremely fine personal library at Gore Place.

Christopher Gore, painted by John Trumbull (via Wikipedia)
Elegant Gore Place, Waltham Massachusetts (via Wikipedia)

While I have collected many photographs of Gore Hall, my favorite is the one below by famed Boston photographer George Kendall Warren, 1824-1884. In this very fine c.1860 architectural portrait, the details are crisp and the contrast is dramatic, with the silhouetted elm branches echoing the Gothic curves of the building.

Gore Hall, c.1860 by George Kendall Warren

Another early view, angled to show front as well as side (via Wikipedia)

The architectural inspiration for Gore Hall was the 15th Century King's College Chapel at Cambridge University in England. The Chapel is a much grander building, while Gore Hall is more friendly and intimate, and in my opinion some of its proportions are perhaps more pleasing. Incidentally, this was not the first or last time the American architects would look to the King's College Chapel. While all three buildings created much different effects, the original building of New York University (built 1833, demolished 1894) and the Old Library at Yale (built 1842, still standing) do share a noticeable family resemblance to Gore Hall.

King's College Chapel, Cambridge, early Carte-de-visite view
Gore Hall was a popular subject for 19th Century Stereoviews

In 1877, Gore Hall had outgrown its storage space, and a large addition was built. While not quite as handsome as the original building, the new wing was important because it was the first library in which the metal book stacks formed the architectural structure of the building, actually supporting the floors and roof as well as the weight of the books. 

Cabinet view c.1880, showing the Addition

c.1900 colored postcard showing addition.

Gore Hall was specifically described in Henry James’ 1886 novel The Bostonians: “This edifice, a diminished copy of the chapel of King's College, at the greater Cambridge, is a rich and impressive institution… suffused with the odor of old print and old bindings…the high, light vaults that hung over quiet book-laden galleries, alcoves and tables, and glazed cases where rarer treasures gleamed more vaguely, over busts of benefactors and portraits of worthies, bowed heads of working students and the gentle creak of passing messengers…” (Thanks to the Library of Congress for pointing out this passage.)

Interior of Gore Hall, from a Harvard View Book, exactly matches James' description.
Gore Hall itself has been gone for more than 100 years, but its image still adorns the seal of the City of Cambridge, designed in 1846 by then Harvard president Edward Everett. The other image on the seal, the Washington Elm, only survived a few years longer, until 1923, so Cambridge is ironically symbolized by things that are no longer there—this presumably comes under the rubric of Progress.

Seal of the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Washington Elm was not actually adjacent to Gore Hall.

In 1913 Gore Hall, having once again outgrown its capacity, was razed to make way for the current Widener Memorial Library, built to honor Harry Elkins Widener, who went down on the Titanic. Although the Widener is one of Harvard’s most important buildings, it seems a shame that they could not have found another site for it, and that no greater effort was made to save sprightly Gore Hall, by then steeped in University tradition.

Gore Hall under demolition. Structural stacks in addition may be clearly seen.

When tearing down this building, several of the spires were saved and installed at Appleton Farms, now a public park in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Another vestige of Gore Hall came to light when recently some repair work was being done to the Widener Library, and part of the original foundation of Gore Hall was excavated. 

Spire from Gore Hall on Appleton Farms, courtesy of Photographer Chris Rich

This final atmospheric image of Gore Hall that I want to leave you with will come as no surprise to those who recall my fondness for night postcards. The beckoning lights glowing within the building would not have been a feature of the library's early days. Look again at the Warren photograph, and note the high proportion of window space in the walls; during the oil lamp and gaslight era, the administrators were so terrified of fire that no artificial lighting was allowed, and Gore Hall had to close each day at dusk.

Gore Hall at Night

(All images and original photographs, except as credited differently, are the property of the author.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Chinese Antique Thread Winders with Bats

Detail of carved bat.
Congratulations to Rosemary and to Mariette for correctly identifying the Mystery Object as a thread winder or spool. These wooden winders are two to four inches long, while smaller ones, beautifully worked from mother of pearl, often resemble game counters. Winders are often adorned with flowers, butterflies, fish, or geometric shapes, although readers here can readily imagine that I was pleased to find the bat motif.

This winder has a pattern of two bats on each end, facing a peach, the symbol of longevity. As the Hattatts reminded us, bats are a Chinese symbol of good fortune, so although I know of no special connection to thread or sewing, it is not surprising to see this figure turn up. 

The reverse of the winder shows a repeat of the same pattern.
I was lucky enough to acquire an additional example of these bat-carved thread winders. This other one is somewhat different. The spool section is deeper, and the carving is open or pierced. There are only two bats on each side, facing the center, and their auspicious symbolism is augmented by that of the coin placed in the middle.

As before, the carving on the back duplicates that on the front. Note that the coin has changed into a longevity symbol.

It is difficult to decide which one I like better—the second example is quite graceful with its openwork filigree, but the solid first one, with eight bats in total, has to have one of the highest bats-per-square-inch ratios for an object its size. They both show signs of considerable use, and the gilding on each is almost gone. They must have been quite dazzling when new, although possibly I prefer their current worn and patinated condition.

Reader Dianne in the original post mentioned Bat Conservation International, and I had a fascinating time perusing their site. I strongly recommend taking a look at their website to learn more about actual bats and about the various problems, natural and human, that currently threaten them.

(All photos and original objects property of the author.)