The Ten Bamboo Studio Treatise on Painting

Librarian Will Beharrell introduces a pioneering, genre-straddling masterpiece of 18th century Chinese printing

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One of over 300 colour prints from the Treatise
One of over 300 colour prints from the Treatise

Most of the Linnean Society’s rare and early printed books were produced in Europe, but these eye-catching volumes are a notable exception. Produced in China in the late 17th/early 18th century, they contain a beautiful treatise on the art of painting by the 17th century Chinese artist and publisher, Hu Zhengyan (1584–1674).

A pioneering, genre-straddling work, the Ten Bamboo Studio Treatise on Painting, first published in 1633, sits somewhere between artist’s manual, bookseller’s catalogue, and philosophical manifesto. Illustrated with some 300 prints by a number of artists, the Treatise covers a spectrum of plant and animal subjects, as well as minerals, landscapes and calligraphy.

Ten Bamboo Studio Treatise Bamboo Print

The Linnean Society’s copy has an uncertain history. Difficult to date definitively, the presence of a taboo character in the text narrows the date of production to the reign of Kangxi, third Emperor of the Qing dynasty. Its luxurious binding in contemporary Chinese silk raises further questions of provenance and ownership. The yellow silk suggests Imperial connections, but such bindings were also popular among Western customers in the 18th and 19th century.

The treatise is bound in luxurious, 18th century Chinese silk
The treatise is bound in luxurious, 18th century Chinese silk

In researching this little article, we received an intriguing suggestion from Dr Josepha Richard, Fellow of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation and historian of 18th and 19th century China, currently based at London’s Courtauld Institute. Josepha recalled similar yellow-silk bindings on bound volumes of commissioned paintings owned by John Bradby Blake (1745-1773), an 18th century English botanist based in China. Following his premature death, aged 28, some of Bradby Blake’s drawings and papers fell into the hands of scientific doyen and later President of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks. Our own Linnean Society was founded some 15 years later, with important early gifts of books from Banks’s collections. Could these beguiling volumes be a Banksian hand-me-down?

Speculation, of course. In any case, the Ten Bamboo Studio Treatise remains a dazzling, if enigmatic, highlight of our rare books collection.

Watercolour portrait of John Bradby Blake (1745-1773)
Watercolour portrait of John Bradby Blake (1745-1773)

By Will Beharrell, Librarian

With thanks to Dr Josepha Richard (Oak Spring Garden Foundation and The Courtauld Institute).

Image of a watercolour portrait of John Bradby Blake (1745-1773), in the Public Domain. The original work is located in the Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Upperville, Virginia.

All other images taken by the author.

Further Reading

T. June Li, "The Huntington's Ten Bamboo Studio manual of calligraphy and painting", in T. Juni Li and Suzanne E. Wright, Gardens, art and commerce in Chinese woodblock prints. Pasedena: Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 2016 - p.25-43.

Library Catalogue Record

Hu, Zhengyan, approximately 1582-approximately 1672. Shih-Chu-Chai Shu-Hua P'u. [China]: [between 1662 and 1722]. Item Reference: R.700 http://linnean.cirqahosting.com/HeritageScripts/Hapi.dll/search2?searchTerm0=C23346