A very rare rhinoceros horn 'Ode to the Red Cliffs' carving of figures in a sampan
The long boat deftly carved in openwork with a leisurely scene depicting the poet Su Dongpo and his two guests seated in the cabin gazing into the far distance, surrounded by a table scattered with cups, chopsticks, and tiny rice steamers, the other end of the boat carved with a young servant boiling tea and a boatman rowing the sampan, the horn of a dark amber tone with traces of cinnabar lacquer. 13cm (5in) long
An important European private collection, and thence by descent
Published and Illustrated:
J.Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pp.110-111, pl.106
Most rhinoceros horn carvings are made into cups and vessels, and very rarely are they carved as works of art made for other purposes or simply to be admired. This playful piece of carving masterfully captures the naturalistic postures and facial expressions of the five figures, delightfully conveying a sense of dynamism and liveliness emanating from the figures even as they are carved sitting still within the boat.
The subject matter commemorates the work of the renowned poet Su Shi (1037-1101) and his most celebrated poem 'Ode to the Red Cliffs', which refers to the visits to the scenic site of the Red Cliffs by Su Shi with his companions Huang Tingjian and the monk Foyin. This image of the poet travelling in a boat with his companions was very popular during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and was frequently used as decoration on various media including porcelain, jade and rhinoceros horn. However, whilst other depictions of episodes from the 'Ode to the Red Cliffs' are known in rhinoceros horn carvings, these are found only as relief decoration on libation cups and not in the round as the present lot; see J.Chapman, ibid., pp.210-212, pls.289-291; and T.Fok, Connoisseurship of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, Hong Kong, 1999, nos.130 and 132-133, and 137.
No other similar examples appear to have been published; compare however related rhinoceros horn carvings of Zhang Qian in a boat, late Ming dynasty, in the Qing Court Collection, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Hong Kong, 2002, nos.118-120 and 122; and see another related example, 17th/18th century, which was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 30 November 2011, lot 2913.