Mad In Pursuit Notebook

Liu Songnian Testing of the Bell

Liu Songnian: "Three Sages Appreciating Antique"

3.11.2013. Works of art drifts past on the assembly line of my never-ending inventory. Photos taken. Numbers assigned. Associated scraps of paper recorded. My knowledge of history is thin. Unless a piece ranks as one of Jim's all-time favorites, its importance goes unassessed. It is just one of the flock to be tended by this sleepy shepherd. Then one day, it grabs me.

I didn't pay much of any attention to this painting until I was listing out names of Asian painters in our collection to see if they had Wikipedia articles. This "Liu Sung-nien" seemed to be an orphan. It wasn't till I was googling around in preparation for writing my own, that I realized I needed to use modern transliteraiton: "Liu Songnian." Ah! Not such nobody after all!

In the 12th century, while Catholic Europe busied itself with cathedrals and crusades, the Emperor Gaozong (after invasions and military defeats in the north) established a new seat of government at Hangzhou, just southwest of modern Shanghai. This became known as the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Smarting from the loss of half his empire, Gaozong set about recapturing much of what he could of the cultural brilliance that had illuminated his father's court in the north. On the top of his list was re-establishing the Imperial Academy of Painting and re-hiring its painters.

The Southern Song empire was living under the constant threat of invasion, but the Academy painters stuck to tasteful and consoling themes: landscapes, birds, flowers and scenes from palace life. Another favorite theme was the scholar at leisure--depictions of the ideal scholar-gentleman, the official at ease in a lovely setting enjoying cultural pursuits. [Sickman and Soper]

It is in this tradition that Liu Songnian (1174–1224 CE) joined the Academy at the end of the 12th century, where he advanced from student to painter-in-attendance. He is now recognized as one of the four master painters of the Southern Song Dynasty. Our painting is about 800 years old.

It depicts the theme of the scholar-gentleman. Exhibited as "Testing of the Bell," the title is literally "Three Sages Appreciating Antique." The piece is about 12 x 15 inches and painted on silk, with calligraphy on three sides.

Liu Songnian

Jim purchased it in 1965 from William Clayton, a London art dealer. On the back of the mat was an undated newspaper article by poet and art historian Laurence Binyon,* who reviewed the painting when it was on exhibit at the Spink & Son gallery at some earlier date.**

The most interesting piece [in the gallery show] is a little picture called Testing the Bell.... I do not remember having seen this subject before, though it is likely to be a traditional motive [sic]. The subtle aroma of Chinese aestheticism is communicated in the listening attitude of the connoisseur, a sense of hush and of vibrating sound; and the grouping is made the occasion of an attractive design...

The picture does have an air of fussy sweetness: the sages make their assessment while the maker (?) looks eager for their favor.

I wish I had a better facility for creating excitement around works of art. I can't get much past the "Holy cow!" But I'm hoping that by sharing what we have, I'll encourage someone else.


Laurence Sickman and Alexander Soper. "The Art and Architecture of China" (The Pelican History of Art Series). NY: Penguin Books, 1960 (2nd ed.). Pp. 129-133

"Liu Songnian," Wikipedia

*Reverberations: Some time in the early 20th century Laurence Binyon stopped by Spink & Son's gallery on King Street, St. James, London, to see an exhibit of Chinese painting. He gazed upon our little picture and wrote his reactions, which were published in a London newspaper. Binyon, it turns out, was responsible for opening the English sensibility to the spirit of Asian art. According to the Dictionary of Art Historians, this passion of his then influenced the work of painter Wyndham Lewis and poet Ezra Pound. Discovering these echoes of influence make me dizzy and enriches my world.

Now here's the funny thing. I've been thinking about dragons -- why are they such a powerful symbol in world culture? Last night as I was crawling into bed I glanced at a stack of tiny books about Chinese art. Midway down was one called "The Flight of the Dragon," so I pulled it out. It was subtitled "an essay on the theory and practice of art in China and Japan, based on original sources." I kept it out to read. Today, as I was researching Laurence Binyon, I discovered that it was he who wrote the book. More echoes.

**Between 1927 (when Spink moved to King St) and 1943 (when Binyon died).