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.