Essentially retaining the original shape of the asymmetrical boulder, the carver skilfully worked through the convoluted surface of the stone, creating a continuous, three-dimensional canvas for the relief decoration. This treatment deviated from the conventional technique where the boulder was usually cut into cuboid shapes and carved with three-dimensional finials to form seals. Subsequently, the entire surface of the present seal was intricately carved in varying levels of relief, creating an ornamental aspect to the piece traditionally served by a seal finial.
The vivid picturesque representation of dragons emerging and disappearing amongst scrolling clouds may have been inspired by paintings of celebrated Song dynasty painters such as Chen Rong (ca. 1200-1266). The irregularity of the boulder imposed considerable challenge to the composition planning. However, with unlimited creativity and utmost precision, the artist was able to transform these convoluted concave surfaces into multiple facets for this painterly scene and create depth to this dense yet meticulously planned composition. This acute utilisation of the natural shape of the stone fully exemplifies the artist’s master of the material and technical perfection.
Moreover, the pale ochre-yellow skin of the stone (pu) was seamlessly incorporated into the design, creating an effect similar to that of cameo relief. The natural, paler pigmentation of the oxidised pebble skin subtly contrasts with the boulder of slightly darker tone. This sensitive preservation of the skin on the present seal creates a graduated three-dimensionality fitting into the ‘indication without retention’ regime of outstanding early tianhuang carvings. The seal is closely related to a pair of tianhuang seals, also bearing the signature of Lin Ji, carved with a dragon and a pair of phoenix, dated to the 11th day of the ninth month of yihai cyclical year, corresponding to 1719. Formerly in the collection of Prince Kung, this pair was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 1st June 2016, lot 3205. The quality of the stone itself on all three seals, and the distinct style of the carving, with flowing designs rendered in varying levels of relief masterfully expressed across the natural contours of the pebble, skilfully incorporating the skin of the stone into the decoration in ‘surface-relief, strongly suggests that all three are by the same hand, or by close associates working together and aware of each other’s work. Compare also a tianhuang ‘dragon’ seal formerly in the Chang Foundation, also retaining the natural shape of the pebble and incorporating the skin of the stone into its decoration, illustrated in Chinese Works of Art - Selected Stone Seals, Taipei, 1990, cat. no. 96.
The running script inscription on the back face of the seal, Wenqi ruyu (‘As gentle as jade’), was adapted from Shijing [The Book of Songs],
A gentleman’s noble virtue,
is as gentle as jade,
Thus they are as revered as jades.
Another inscription on the side of this piece, Huaixiu zhi zhen ('A treasure for the sleeve’), indicates the seal was dearly cherished by the user and often carried as a portable gem.
The inscriptions are accompanied by the signature (‘Ji’) and his seal (‘Jiren’) respectively. Lin Ji (1660 - after 1720), zi Jiren, hao Luyuan, originated from Houguan in Fujian province, assumed the title of juren in 1699 and was endorsed as jinshi in 1712. Lin was appointed as Secretary (Zhongshu) in the Parliament (Neige), and an account of him was included in Qingshi liezhuan [Biographies to the history of the Qing dynasty]. According to records from Qinding Siku Quanshu zongmu [Annotated Catalog of the Complete Imperial Library], vol. 184, he compiled the Puxue zhaiji. Lin not only excelled at poetry composition, but was also a celebrated calligrapher famous for his clerical (lishu), small regular (xiaokai), and seal (zuanshu) scripts. In fact, he was known to have written the text to be cut on woodblocks for works by his literary and poetry masters, including Yaofeng wenchao [Transcription of the writings of Wang Wan (1624-1691)], Wuting Wenbian by Chen Tingjing (1638-1712) and Jinghua Lu [Selected Works of Yuyang Shanren] by Wang Shizhen (1634-1711).
Extant carvings bearing the signature of Lin Ji are rare and only a small number of such examples is known. Whilst signed and bearing the seal of Lin Ji, it is likely that he was the patron of the present seal rather than the actual carver. On careful inspection, it is clear that the representation of the scrolling clouds on the present seal shares fundamental similarities with known works by Xie Ruqi. Also a native of Fujian, Xie was a renowned inkstone and seal carver famous for his craftsmanship and flowing cloud design. An inscribed duan inkstone dated to the Kangxi period in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, also bearing the signature of Lin Ji, may have originated from the same hand through the collaboration between Lin and his contemporary. See The Complete Collection of the Treasures of the Palace Museum: The Four Treasures of the Study - Inksticks and Writing Brushes, vol. 49, Hong Kong, 2005, pl. 60. The present seal may also have been executed by Lin’s son, Lin Zhengqing, who is known to have been a seal engraver.
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