Only a small number of ancient iron animal figures can be found in either public or private collections, probably due to the material’s susceptibility to rust. The present object can be compared to an iron ox of similar size and also with a muscular body and simple outlines, acquired in 1911 by Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919) in Hunan province. That animal appears to be an adult ox with a proportionally smaller head. It has an oxidised surface and can be dated to the Song dynasty or later. It is preserved in the Freer Gallery of Art (accession no. F1911.590a-b), together with a parcel-gilt iron reclining dog from the Tang dynasty gifted by John Gellatly (accession no. LTS1985.1.342).
In ancient China, buffaloes or oxen played an important role in agriculture and transportation. Pottery figures of buffaloes or oxen first appeared no later than the Han dynasty, but those made of metal are relatively rare. See a larger bronze figure of a standing ox (29.5 cm) excavated from the Tang tomb of Shi Siming (703-761), modelled with short straight horns and appearing to be an adult ox, published by Beijing Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics, ‘Beijing Fengtai Tang Shi Siming mu [Tang Tomb of Shi Siming at Fengrai in Beijing]’, Chinese Cultural Relics, 1991, no. 9, p. 32 and fig. 14. Compare also a bronze ox, adopting a slightly more dynamic posture and dated to Song dynasty or earlier, gifted by Ernest Erickson Foundation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, included in Ancient Chinese Art: The Ernest Erickson Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1987, cat. no. 59.
The present figure was in the collection of Ruan Heng (1783-1859, zi Meishu, sobriquet Zhongjia, origin from Yizheng, Jiangsu province, between Nanjing and Yangzhou), who was the younger paternal cousin of the prominent literatary figure Ruan Yuan (1764-1849). His extensive literary works in various genres were published in Chuncaotang congshu [Collectanea from the Springtime Cottage], Zhuhucaotang shichao [Verse collection from the Pearl Lake Cottage], Zhuhucaotang biji [Notes from the Pearl Lake Cottage] and Yingzhou bitan [Notes from the Boat to the Fairy Isles]. He also edited an enormous 200-volume work on the study of Mencius, Qijing Mengzi kaowen bing buyi, as well as several anthologies of contemporary regional poets. Zhuhucaotang (Pearl Lake Cottage), a study and library located on the Ruan family estate (now within Yangzhou city) was probably of special importance to Ruan Heng, who owned a related seal and named his collection of works after the cottage. For more information on the cottage, see Yangzhou fu zhi [Gazeteer of Yangzhou Prefecture], vol. 31, p. 44.
The calf later entered the collection of a renowned Japanese scholar and painter from Kyoto, Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924), who named the present piece ‘Iron Ox’. Tessai’s love of the object is evident in his handscroll which comprises of a painting of the piece and an essay entitled Record of the Ancient Iron Ox. According to the essay, Tessai first saw the present piece “fifty years earlier” in the late 1860s in Kyoto, and he often reminisced about the encounter afterwards. He mentioned various owners before him, who greatly admired its rare elegance and treasured it despite its rustic appearance. The essay ends with one of his seals and his signature “Old Man Tessai, Hyakuren, at the age of 86,” suggesting that the handscroll can be dated to 1921.
Tomioka Tessai (originally named Hyakuren, zi Muken and sobriquet Yuken, later known as Tetsugai or Tetsu Dojin) was born and raised in Kyoto, where he also spent most of his adult life. Tessai received a literary education focusing on Kokugaku (national study), Buddhism, Confucianism, especially the school of Wang Yangming. In the 1860s, during the Meiji Restoration, he supported the transition from the shoganate to imperial rule. After the Restoration in 1868, in order to learn about local customs, geography and history, he travelled extensively throughout Japan and served as chief priest at various Shinto shrines. Tessai studied painting since the age of 19, but only became a painter after his return to Kyoto in 1881, at the age of 44. Regarded as the last great Japanese Nanga ‘Southern-style’ painter, Tessai demonstrated in his works a distinct individual style which hints at the Southern Song literary tradition, the influence of Ming and Qing scholarly paintings, as well as inspiration from nature. His paintings and calligraphy, treasured in Japan, are held in many museums, including the Tessai Museum in Takarazuka.
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