Mystery Object

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Portrait of Heron-Allen by R.B. Ogle
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Edward Heron-Allen and the scholar's stone

The rediscovery by Mr. Clive Jones of Richard Bertram Ogle's portrait of Edward Heron-Allen was doubtless welcomed warmly by members of this society. Discoveries, however, have an annoying habit of generating new problems. And so it is with the Ogle portrait. What exactly is the object in the foreground of the painting's lower right corner, obscuring its subject's left hand? Roughly columnar, tapered at its top and base, this object - some nine or ten inches in height - is mounted upon a distinctively ornate stand, the symmetry of which is in marked contrast to the uneven and multi-faceted natural form of the object itself. Ogle's portrait lacks clutter. As a result this object makes a considerable demand upon the viewer's attention. All of which makes the confusion over its actual identity all the more vexing.

What is it? The first clue lies in the distinctive form of the stand: closely reminiscent in style and detailing - particularly in its spreading lobed base - to the carved pedestals frequently seen supporting Chinese antiquities. But what kind an antiquity? The rough and seemingly natural form of the object itself provides the second clue. What we see in the portrait is quite clearly a Chinese scholar's stone.

Scholars' stones (gongshi) have a long history and a firm place in East Asian culture. By the Song period (960-1279) the aesthetic appreciation of the shape and textures of particular stones or rock formations was a well-established pursuit, and one not only followed in nature and within the more controlled confines of cultivated gardens but also indoors, in scholars' studies. There, small stones judged to be possessed of exceptional aesthetic qualities, qualities determined by an already well-worn set of criteria (thinness, openness, perforations, patterns of crenellation and crumpling) were mounted and displayed on desks and writing tables alongside the ink stones, brushes, brush rests and other tools of the scholarly trade. In such settings their natural forms served as inspirational and evocative landscapes in microcosm, and as aids for meditation and reflection. Some stones were cherished for their resemblance to natural formations or even to actual mountains, others for their structural complexity and their patterns of erosion, striation and pitting. A third group were admired for their resemblance to people or to animals, both real and imaginary. Occasionally, these scholars' functioned as incense burners, the wisps of scented smoke intended to evoke mist rising from mountains. These stones were often mounted vertically - just as we see in Ogle's portrait - and set into specially carved bases, often of rosewood. The last few decades has seen a growing Western interest in scholars' stones: several major exhibitions have been mounted, and high quality examples command high prices in the auction houses both of East Asia and the West. Individual pieces can also be seen in many major museum collections of Asian art.

But what about the stone's prominence in Ogle's portrait? Several observations might be made. First, that the presence of such scholarly items is not itself uncommon in portraits of scholar-bureaucrats and members of the ruling elites in China and neighbouring areas under its artistic influence during the Qing period (1644-1912), a fact that might lead one to wonder whether Ogle himself had more than a passing familiarity with the iconography of East Asian scholar portraiture and intentionally evoked it in his portrait of Edward Heron-Allen, pen in hand, deep in thought; very much the scholar at work in his study at 'Large Acres'. A second point worth making is that we have corroborating evidence that Heron-Allen did indeed own this item and that its presence in the portrait cannot be dismissed as simply creative license on Ogle's part: it can be also be seen in much the same position on his desk in Winifred Hardman's portrait of 1922, two years after Ogle's.

Both portraits give support to Joan Navarre's observation in the entry on Heron-Allen in the online Encyclopædia Iranica that at 'Larger Acres': "he surrounded himself with mementos from the East."

But why might Heron-Allen have owned such an object? That question brings me to my third and final point. It might be said that in several ways one might struggle to find an object in which so many of his interests and passions would seem to coalesce. The appeal of such an object to Heron-Allen the Orientalist and scholar of Buddhism scarcely needs stating, even if Persia, rather than China, was his primary passion. And what of Heron-Allen the naturalist and the authority of foraminifera? Many of the most treasured scholars' stones were of varieties of black, grey and white limestone, a material particularly susceptible to shaping and pitting, and hence well-suited to creating precisely the kind of forms appreciated by connoisseurs of gongshi. Limestone, superfluous to state, is a sedimentary rock in which foraminifera are a frequent, indeed sometimes the dominant component. From inanimate objects made from living creatures we might turn to living creatures coming forth inanimate matter, another interest of this society's subject. Certain scholars' stones, as I've noted, were prized for their resemblance not to geological but to biological forms. All scholar stones, regardless of resemblance, were believed to possess qi (life energy) and thus, whilst inert, to be in some sense alive. In general terms this congruence of the animal, the inanimate and what might be termed a generative life force stands not too far from a further interest of Heron-Allen's: the myths and misunderstandings surrounding the barnacle goose, the creature that some medieval and renaissance thinkers claimed grew on trees like fruit or, alternatively, emerged from sea-water sodden drift wood. Finally, one might wonder whether the interest of the author of tales about strange gems from India and the University of Cosmopoli's Mineralogical Department might well have been piqued by an object as arresting and as unusual as a scholar's stone. Unusual, that is, to the majority. I strongly suspect that at least a few of his comparably learned Odd Volumes - for example F. Thimms, 'the eminent Buddhist and oriental scholar' who was present with Heron-Allen at D.W. Kettle's delivery to the Sette of a paper on the appropriate subject of 'Pens, Ink, and Paper, a Discourse upon Calligraphy' in November 1885 - would have known precisely what the object was.

Esoteric and 'Oriental', combining elements of the animal and the mineral in various permutations, existing on the borders of the aesthetic and the scientific: could there be more suitable ornament for Heron-Allen's desk than a scholar's stone? Enigmatic? Perhaps. Emblematic? Certainly.

P.J.E. Kershaw

Further Reading: K. Hu, Scholars' Rocks in Ancient China: The Suyuan Stone Catalogue (Orchid Press, 2003); S. Little, Spirit Stones of China: The Ian and Susan Wilson Collection of Chinese Stones, Paintings, and Related Scholars' Objects (University of California Press, 1999).