The autumn exhibition in the Ashmolean’s Chinese Paintings Gallery commemorates the life of Fang Zhaoling (1914–2006). Drawn from private collections, including the Fang family collection, many of the works are on display for the first time in public.

Fang Zhaoling was born in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province in east China, the elder of two daughters of an affluent family. Her father, an industrialist, was assassinated in 1925 amidst social and political upheaval in China. In spite of this tragedy, Fang’s mother continued to provide a remarkably liberal and wideranging education for her daughters. Fang started to study Chinese painting and calligraphy at the age of thirteen, later going on to an art college in Wuxi.

In 1937 she was accepted by Manchester University in England and she married her fellow student, Fang Sinkao, a year later, returning with him to China at the outbreak of the Second World War. In the following years, the family was displaced and moved around China, allowing Fang little opportunity to paint. They settled in Hong Kong in 1948 but Fang Sinkao died suddenly just two years later.

In addition to taking over her husband’s business, Fang was left to bring up eight young children on her own: six boys and twin girls. Each of Fang’s children went on to lead distinguished careers, most notably Anson Chan who became Chief Secretary of the British Colonial Government of Hong Kong and of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government under Chinese rule until 2001.

Following her husband’s death, Fang Zhaoling resumed painting with extraordinary diligence and perseverance. She studied with the Lingnan School master, Zhao Shao’ang (1905–1998), and later with one of the most celebrated Chinese artists, Zhang Daqian (1899–1983). Fang’s paintings and inscriptions also suggest that she was taking inspiration from earlier masters such as Qi Baishi (1864– 1957). From the 1950s to the ‘70s, Fang lived and travelled in Europe and America where she became knowledgeable about trends in modern Western painting.

In the 1960s she experimented with Western media and subject matter, producing abstract paintings in oils; and later tackling contemporary issues such as the plight of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ and the environment. Her enduring passion was, however, the traditional Chinese style, rooted in national history and culture. She was fascinated by the simplicity of Han mural paintings (202 BC–AD 220) and she developed a distinctive style of her own in both figure paintings and in her landscapes which, from the 1970s, often combine calligraphic lines and forms to illustrate mountains and rocks instead of using the traditional cun method of ink strokes.

The paintings on display in this centenary exhibition are mostly from the Fang family collection, through the Fang Zhaoling Foundation, including many works which have never been published. Three paintings are from the collection of David Hawkes (1923–2009), one of Fang’s tutors when she studied at the University of Oxford from 1956–58. The exhibition also includes five paintings by Fang from the Nanshun Shanfang Collection, Singapore.

Shelagh Vainker, Senior Curator of Chinese Art, Ashmolean Museum, says: ‘Fang Zhaoling was one of China’s foremost modern artists whose long career and remarkable life was set against the backdrop of the turbulence of twentieth-century China. The Ashmolean is profoundly grateful to the individuals who have lent works to this centenary exhibition and we hope the display will give visitors the opportunity to see some of her greatest works and to learn about her life.’

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Related images
  1. Fang Zhaoling (1914–2006), Stonehenge, 1994, Ink and colour on paper, 78.7 x 102.9 cm, Private Collection © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
  2. Fang Zhaoling (1914–2006), Ink splash landscape of Guilin, 1977–95, Ink and colour on paper, 69.9 x 105.4 cm, Private Collection © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
  3. Fang Zhaoling (1914–2006), Mount Hua landscape, 1973, Ink and colour on paper, 42 x 69.1 cm, Private Collection © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
  4. Fang Zhaoling (1914–2006), Lotus, 1980, Ink and colour on paper, 68.6 x 137.2 cm, Private Collection © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
  5. Fang Zhaoling (1914–2006), Peonies, 1957, Ink and colour on paper, 54.7 x 37 cm, Private Collection © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
  6. Fang Zhaoling (1914–2006), Plum blossom, 1961, Ink and colour on paper, 47 x 42 cm, Private Collection © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford