A precious parting gift

23rd June 2020

A self-portrait penned as a farewell gift for an American friend of a Chinese artist is expected to make over £50,000 when it sells at auction in Salisbury on 1st July.

The 30 inch scroll painting (lot 15) was sketched by Zhang Daqian for the American diplomat, James Kedzie Penfield, as the latter returned to the United States in 1944. Mr Penfield had called on the artist twice at his studio but had missed him both times, meaning that the two friends were unable to say goodbye in person.

To express his sorrow at missing Penfield, Daqian painted this scroll depicting himself as a scholar standing beneath a willow tree – common Chinese imagery for friends saying goodbye. In a tradition that can be traced back two thousand years, a broken willow branch was gifted to a departing friend with the intention that it be planted at their destination and grow into a new tree to continue the life of the friendship.

“The Chinese character for a willow tree is homophonous with the character liu, which means ‘to stay’”, explained Chinese Paintings specialist, Freya Yuan-Richards, who valued the painting for sale at Woolley and Wallis. “The painting is therefore a way of asking a friend to stay because you will miss them, while at the same time wishing them a safe voyage and a happy future.”

Sadly, little is known about the friendship between Mr Penfield and the artist who was to become known as the ‘Chinese Picasso’, including whether their paths ever crossed again, but the painting remained with its recipient until his death in 2004 at the age of 96 and was clearly treasured. Daqian himself had passed away in 1983.

The painting is being sold by Woolley and Wallis where, in May 2019, a much larger scroll painting by Zhang Daqian broke the department’s record (and the artist’s UK auction record) when it sold for £2.64m. This more personal artwork features as part of the Fine Chinese Paintings and Works of Art auction on 1st July and carries a pre-sale estimate of £50,000-70,000.

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