Thursday, July 30, 2020

Mystery Object Revealed—Chinese Calligraphy Guides or Frames

This mystery object was used in the production of calligraphy. To keep the columns of characters straight, sometimes guide lines were lightly inscribed. But for those who preferred a more freehand look, these brass frames placed on the paper or silk ensured proper proportions and alignment of the characters as they were painted. They are thus among the many items that belonged in the scholar’s studio.

This was probably a difficult object to guess for those who don’t do drafting or calligraphy, but two readers used the clues and very much narrowed down the answer. Bazza directly mentioned calligraphy, and Rosemary’s mention of a template is so tantalizingly close that I have counted it as a winner.

The top example is made of cast brass, lending it some weight so that it could also be used as a paperweight, and so that it would not slip easily. The top side has a floral decoration, while the bottom is polished to lie flat against the work as it was produced.

The smooth and polished underside of the frame show that it was used directly on the paper or silk

These frames are still very much used by those who practice Chinese calligraphy. The following screen shot take from a Google search shows them in use, and that they often come in sets of varying sizes. Notice that some have rulers stamped along the edges, as a further aid in getting the proper proportions to the characters.

These frames also helped to align the placement of the seal-stamps that were used by Chinese artists and collectors. Painters and calligraphers often sign their own productions with red seals, and collectors of fine paintings and calligraphy may add their own seals, even to famous paintings of important cultural value.

Over time, the accumulation of the stamps adds a characteristic look to Chinese paintings, a visible record of appreciation over many generations. The seals also provide a provenance, and the seal of a famous collector or emperor adds to the cachet of a work.

Zhao Meng-fu (1254-1322) was a revered Yuan Dynasty painter. His Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Chinese paintings. Notice how many red seals are on the painting, and how carefully they are placed. I have been fortunate to see this painting in person, and the effect of Zhao Meng-fu’s genius is truly astounding.

This famous painting has accumulated many seals over the last 700 years. To see its beautiful detail, visit the original photo in Wikipedia, then click to enlarge.

Detail of above. Imagine the nerve it must take to add one of these seals. What if you botched it and got a red smudge on this treasure?

The next calligraphy alignment frame sports a meander or Greek key design. It could use some cleaning up, but I am afraid that removing the paper tag would create a “clean” spot on the frame, and I certainly do not want to polish it. Usually I remove tags immediately, but this is an old one that had been on there a long time, and would not come off easily. The same is true of the paper tags on the bottom of the floral one.

My final calligraphy frame is less fancy, although it is still decorated. It has engraved trophies in the middle of the long sides, interspersed with punchwork bats and corner elements. It is interesting how the corner designs closely echo the pattern of the bats. Perhaps not as heavy as the other two, it is still somewhat substantial, as one would not want these to move easily once one started writing!

When I was learning Chinese writing, I used specially ruled paper to keep the characters somewhat in order. In great calligraphy, the apparent freedom of the artist's brush is especially admired, and although some artists use genuine freehand, who knows how many rely on mechanical aids like these decorated brass frames.

(All original objects and photos property of the author. Zhao Meng-fu painting is from Wikipedia, and the Google search is of course from Google.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Chinese Brass Mystery Object

I apologize for having been remiss in posting, and in addition it’s been a very long time since I have done a mystery object.

So many objects were beautifully made in the past, but today their identification is often obscure. If you know or can guess what this is, let me know in the comments. I will turn on comment moderation for this post, so if you guess correctly I will withhold your winning comment until the big reveal next week, in order to give others a chance.

This utilitarian object is made from brass, and is about five or six inches (c. 13 cm) on the long side, although these came in different sizes.

Perhaps the exact use for this object was more common in Asian countries, at least those with Chinese-inspired cultures, but somewhat similar objects were made elsewhere. They are still made today, both the Asian and non-Asian types.

Good Luck. I look forward to seeing your responses.

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

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Oboes and Oboists

A beautifully made musical instrument can give you the magical feeling that it is playing itself. On the contrary, my first oboe, loaned by my high school, was plastic and absolutely worthless. Although I was privileged to take lessons from Harvey McGuire, longtime English horn player in the Cleveland Orchestra, I was not happy with my progress. 

At college, after a couple of stints with a reproduction Baroque oboe and later an unusual oboe d’amore, an alto oboe pitched in A, they finally located a regular oboe for me to play.

A serious player might have been dismayed. An obsolete ring system oboe, it was full of cracks and did not have all the modern keys. But it was an early Lorée, a standard of quality among oboes, and its thin wood and light keys felt perfect in my hands.

Playing it was a revelation—all problems ceased to exist. The low notes, almost impossible on the plastic instrument, sounded easily. A morendo (the tone fading away to nothing) was previously crude and uneven, and I blamed it on poor breath control. But on the Lorée, the note spun out effortlessly.  

**News Flash** I just received an email from the Lorée company, stating that this special oboe was made in 1882, presumably under the supervision of François Lorée himself, as he started the company in 1881. Although a real antique, it was a regular ring-key Conservatoire system with a low Bb. Perhaps this history might account for its singularly enchanted quality.

After college, I started searching for an oboe to replace my beloved Lorée. I collected the following five oboes, three of which are Lorées, but none of them seemed to warrant putting into good playing condition.

The top oboe in the photo is a Lorée from the 1920’s. It might have promise, but unfortunately, it has an undesirable automatic octave system. Semi-automatic octave keys are the only good type.

The next one is also a Lorée, this one from the 1960’s, but somehow its magic quotient is low.

The middle oboe is marked Getzen, usually an American maker of brass  instruments. This oboe was in fact made in France and only labeled for Getzen. It is not a bad instrument, but is no substitute for a Lorée.

This Getzen tends to be watery, meaning that condensation from playing sometimes climbs the bore and gets into the keywork, creating a  gurgling sound. The temporary solution is to insert a piece of absorbent cigarette paper. This was difficult to buy, since people assumed it was for illicit purposes. When I found a brand without glue (Reynolds OCB), I bought two cartons, enough for several lifetimes, and gave one case to the dignified Mr. McGuire. He thanked me, adding that it was embarrassing for him to have to ask for the incriminating cigarette papers.

The fourth example in the photograph is an antique oboe by Lorée, and the fifth and last example is a similar instrument by Barnett Samuel. These might be o.k. if put in playing order, but the keywork is not what is known as Conservatoire system, and so these two will remain simply as curiosities.


Early photographs of oboists are fascinating to collect. These are more difficult to locate than photos of players on, say, the violin or cornet (another instrument I love), but as always patience is rewarded.

This distinguished photo is British, but the oboe seems more Continental. With its heavy turnings and wide ivory rings, it appears to have been old-fashioned even at the time of the photograph.

This young man seems at ease with life and with his choice of instrument—let’s face it, he chose wisely.

This gentleman from Reading, Pennsylvania is playing a Boehm-system oboe made by Buffet, Crampon, a rather daring and avant-garde oboe for its day.

An unusual photograph of a female oboist. One wonders how you can "breathe from the diaphragm" while wearing a corset. This photo is marked for Nice, France, but another photo of the same woman was taken by a photographer in Brighton, England.

An oboe collector’s card that came in a packet of chocolate.

This trade card is too cartoonish to tell much. Since it is French, perhaps it is intended to depict a musette, a small, pastoral version of the oboe.

This oboist is perhaps a soldier from World War I.

This man was versatile enough to play both the oboe and the violin. Good luck reading that signature.

This is Charles Nutick, oboist with the Cincinnati Symphony in the 1920’s. The instrument on his lap is a slightly odd English horn. With its light wood and spherical bell, I thought it might perhaps be a tenor Heckelphone, but I wrote to the Heckel company, and they said that it was not their product.

Many oboists made fine recordings during the LP era. These include John Mack (whom I also heard in person), Neil Black, Pierre Pierlot, Jacques Chambon, Alfred Hertel, and Heinz Holliger. Some of the legendary earlier oboists who also recorded are Marcel Tabuteau, Leon Goossens, Evelyn Rothwell, and Mitchell Miller, who later achieved fame as “Sing Along with Mitch.”

All of these oboists can now be found on Youtube, along with a host of younger talent, but I would like to point out two special recordings that you should not miss. The first is Neil Black playing my favorite version of the Mozart Oboe Concerto.

Rosemary from Where Five Valleys Meet highly recommended Nicholas Daniel, a world-class oboist. I was particularly impressed by his distinctive version of the Mozart Oboe Quartet.

Many people take up a musical instrument at some point. Please let me know what instruments you have learned to play, and whether you had the luck of finding the exact instrument that was perfectly suited to you.

All photos and original items property of the author.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Quick Holiday Greetings

Uniting the season with my interests in Colleges and in the State of Ohio, here is a 19th Century snow scene on the campus of Ohio State University, with Main Hall in the background.

Hello everyone,  This is not a regular post, but I wanted to wish everyone a Happy Holiday Season, whatever holiday(s) you may celebrate.

There is a Santa, after all.
My favorite holiday animation has long been Frannie’s Christmas, produced by Mike Mitchell. This classic took part in some animation festivals, and was released on VHS, but unaccountably has made no appearances since then. Now someone has posted a slightly imperfect dubbing on Youtube, but I recommend taking advantage of this rare opportunity to view it—who knows how long it will stay up!

Those who know my offbeat sense of humor will know why I treasure this, but at least now the rest of you won’t have to quote syrupy Letters to Virginia to prove the existence of Santa Claus:

Watch Frannie's Christmas Here.


Christmas Time is Here, by Golly!
While we’re on the subject of Christmas Classics, I hope that you all know Tom Lehrer’s Christmas Carol. His zany and complicated rhymes remind me of Ogden Nash, but of course the style is all Lehrer’s own, and has the added benefit of music:

Listen to Tom Lehrer's A Christmas Carol Here.


The Insects' Christmas
I posted this video by Russian-French animator Ladislaw Starewicz a few years ago, but many of you many have missed it, or wouldn’t mind seeing it again. Although the title sounds quite edgy, this silent animated short is just the opposite—sweet, charming and magical:

Watch Starewicz's The Insects' Christmas Here. 

Holiday Question: Can you buy artificial dead Christmas garland?
Answer:   In Taiwan, Yes!

I was walking today in the Taipei's wholesale/decoration area, and there were lots of natural/green and colorful or metallic garlands like these:

but then at a store that generally sells the cheapest of merchandise, I saw the dead artificial garland--it was not in the least metallic; in fact I kept excepting "needles" to drop off when I touched it!

Tell me how you like these holiday videos. Try to be tolerant if any of those annoying Youtube commercials pop up. 

I hope to have a few new posts ready for early 2020. I already have a few basically prepared except waiting for some email confirmations, but you know how people are about sending emails!

Finally, I wish everyone a Happy and Safe New Year, and a healthy and prosperous 2020.

(Stereoview photo of Ohio State University collection of the author.)

Monday, June 24, 2019

My Ties to Tie Clips

When I was in college, I played the contrabass clarinet in the concert band. The contrabass is a huge clarinet, pitched two octaves below the standard clarinet in Bb. It is over six feet tall and must be played standing up. This configuration posed an unusual problem.

Single-reed player Jay Easton playing the Bb contrabass clarinet, showing the size of the instrument. His website additionally features many unusual clarinets and saxophones. Click here to listen to him playing the instrument (Mr. Easton plays in a modern style; I also enjoyed playing more traditional melodies).

I had to wear a necktie for many concerts, with the result that the tie would swing forward and interfere with the keywork on the instrument. When I explained this to my musician grandfather, he replied that he had a present for me.

Clarinet octave key tie clip.
It turned out to be a tie clip made from the octave key of a clarinet. This solved the problem in a most perfect and suitable way. You can imagine how happy I was to locate the clip recently in a box of small items I had in storage.

The tie clip compared to the octave key of a standard soprano Bb clarinet.

I treasure this tie clip because it has memories both of playing in the band and of my grandfather, who after a career as a professional tuba player, settled down in Canton, Ohio and had his own music store.

A pencil from my grandfather's music store.

At the same time he gave me the clarinet tie clip, he also gave me this set of tie clip and cuff links, shaped like grand pianos.

That box contained a number of other novelty tie clips, mostly gathered as fun collectibles that reflected other interests. I never wore any except the clarinet key, and that one not since college. Here are a few favorites:

For a while I had a metal detector, and while they do work, the learning curve is considerable. Any detectorist will confirm that what you mostly find are those old pull tabs from beverage cans. So I really enjoyed the humor of this tie clip, which is not made from a real pull tab, but is a specially made solid piece of jewelry.

I love hand tools and anything to do with them, including these vintage tie clips.

This thermometer tie clip really works, and the scale is printed horizontally so that it can be easily read when worn.

From the handcuff theme, this is obviously a policeman's tie clip. It came with a money clip marked for the Cleveland Police. It probably wouldn't hurt to wear this one while driving.

Everyone from Cleveland knows the Cleveland-Cliffs company, long a giant in the mining and shipping of ore. This tie clip shows the ship Edward B. Greene, named for the president of the company in the 1930's.

You may recall my post on the wooden Budai statue. Here he is in triplicate, as a tie clip and cuff link set. (Although made of ivory, this set certainly pre-dates any ban on that substance.)

The Budai are all carved very well. Even on the underside which does not show, the feet and toes are clearly defined.

When I started collecting items, I trained myself to recognize real amber, tortoiseshell, etc. That skill came in handy when rescuing this amber tie tack from the twenty-five cent box.

Perhaps my most amazing tie clip was a present from my sister. (We have an ongoing contest to see who can find the best presents for each other. I can assure you that the competition is fierce.) When we were growing up, we used a silverware pattern called Flair, made by Rogers Brothers and originally produced in the 1950's. We loved this set which embodied many happy memories for us. 

In recent years we have even augmented our holdings of Flair, adding serving pieces, baby sets, and the like. Imagine my surprise when my sister came up with this Flair tie clip, which must have been made in the '50's for the use of salesmen selling Rogers silver. I cannot imagine there are many of these around.

The Rogers Brothers Flair pattern tie clip. Like the pull tab, this was specially made as jewelry, not cut down from some utensil.

The tie clip next to a Flair demitasse spoon for comparison.

The clarinet key tie clip was a real life saver, while the others were collected out of a sense of fun, each representing an interest in my life. Let me know if you have a favorite among these, or if you have a favorite piece of jewelry with a story behind it.

All photographs and original objects property of the author.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Ultimate Mystery Objects: Chinese Ornate Bronze Grilles

I have written about many Chinese mystery objects, with the answer revealed in the following post. However, some of my Chinese items are “ultimate” mystery objects—I cannot supply the answer because no one has any idea of what they are.

These may be common objects, and after publishing I will see them everywhere, but the dealers I have bought them from could supply no information, no one else seemed to know, and intensive internet searches turned up nothing. Perhaps the public scrutiny involved in posting them will yield a clue, and the mystery will at length be solved.

Today’s example is a set of three round bronze grilles, each about seven inches (18 centimeters) in diameter. They are of the same basic pattern, but have increasing complexity of ornamentation.

The simplest design, with added boss to give the center some interest.

The first one has the simplest design. There is an outer ring, with four brackets that bend down to support the inner design. This consists of two more concentric rings. The four outer brackets are split into double volutes or spirals, filling part of the open space. The middle ring has four bars soldered to it in a cross pattern, which support the inner ring. A large, ribbed boss is at the very center.

Additional volutes in the center start to fill in the design.

The second grille starts out like the first. However, the four struts that support the inner circle do not meet in the center, but like the outer struts are split into double volutes. Since these eight spirals occupy the smaller inner spaces, they immediately give a much more ornate and dense effect.

On top of what is left of the inner supports there is attached a cross-like structure with banded ends that is split in the middle to form a hollow square space (detail enlarged in top photo). With the inner circle, the whole effect is of a large coin pattern, similar to those on the pewter offering stand. The round cash coin with a square hole in the center is a very auspicious Chinese design.

The most elaborate design, with added bats.

The final grille is the most elaborate. It is built like the second one, but this time on the flat part of the supports emanating from the middle circle are riveted four bronze bats. These bats are well made, of an openwork design with soldered-on three-dimensional bodies and finely engraved wings. Bats, of course, are another Chinese lucky symbol.

The center coin design is altered slightly. The square hole is larger, and there is no banding on the crosspieces that create the hole. The effect is simpler and more open, perhaps intentionally to avoid a too-crowded look with the addition of the bats.

Detail of the workmanship on the bat appliques.

Their open pattern suggests grilles of some kind, for ventilation, heat, or incense, but I have not seen similar grilles in situ. The lucky symbols incorporated are very common to many Chinese objects, and would not indicate any particular purpose. The supports split into spirals are often seen in Chinese metalwork, but I imagine this technique is found in most societies. 

These three grilles somewhat resemble trivets, but the step-down in each one suggests that they were designed to fit into openings. The fact that there are no mounting holes for nails indicates that they likely were set into a flat surface, instead of being mounted vertically into walls. Various stoves, large incense burners, and furnaces for burning spirit money might have had such flat vents built into them. Some incense and money burners are very large, often built of masonry.

However, the boss on the simple design indicates that nothing (such as a kettle) was meant to be placed on these, and the bronze is too thin to support the heat from a stove or furnace, although if not too near the flames, these uses are still possible.

My best guess is that these were meant for a large temple-size incense burner, although that still leaves the mystery of the three designs. They could have been meant for different types of incense (or denominations of spirit money), or they could have been arranged in a way that made visual sense.

I have three of these, but of course the original number could have been much greater—they could even have encircled a building or large object with rows of increasingly complex designs. Conversely, these could have been sample products, to allow the consumer to choose the most pleasing design.

I imagine that these would look good mounted against a white wall, to highlight the designs. If you have seen similar objects before, or can guess a more probable use for them, please let me know in the comments. Also let me know which one is your favorite: the simple model, the intermediate design with the extra volutes, or the most complex design with the bats.

All photographs and original objects property of the author.