53. How The Train Scroll Came Into Being

How the Train Scroll Came Into Being

We often wish that we had, for some work of art, a detailed and authoritative account of how it came into being. That thought inspires me to write out here, for the benefit of future researchers and appreciators, the true story of the planning and making of one work of high art in which I was deeply involved, the Train Scroll, a painting by William Lewis.


From 1951 to 1953 I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, working mainly with Max Loehr. My then-wife Dorothy became a member of the Potter's Guild, a local institution that still is active (I think); their large and busy studio was located a half-block off State St. in the main part of town. She spent a lot of time there and became an accomplished potter. One of her closest friends, and a leader in the Guild, was Eppie Lewis, whose husband William (Bill) Lewis had his studio upstairs from the Guild; he was a professor in the Art Department. I spent time at the Potter's Guild too, as an outside observer, and Eppie and Bill were among our good friends.


Bill Lewis was (still is) mainly a landscapist, with a special interest in how the landscapes and seascapes he paints have been affected by the Industrial Revolution and human activity. He delights especially in painting trains and ships. Through us he developed a side interest in the Chinese mode of painting, and a desire to try it himself. Some time in late 1952, I think it was, we conceived together the idea of making a Chinese–style handscroll for presentation to Max Loehr on his coming birthday. I was taking a heavy course load at the time, and beginning to prepare for my M.A. exams, Bill was busy painting and teaching, but we both plunged eagerly into this completely profitless but great-fun project.


I had acquired while in Korea some painting paper, and still had it. (It wasn't ideal—too smooth for rough-brush effects that Bill could otherwise have used.) I gave him this, an inkstone and Chinese inkstick, and a poor reproduction book of the Mustard Seed Manual of Painting as a guide to Chinese styles. And we planned the subject of the scroll, which was to be a Chinese-style landscape done in the manners of a succession of famous masters, with a freight train running through it. Bill went ahead with the painting, which was soon accomplished in quite a brilliant way; I meanwhile was composing inscriptions to write on the painting and after it as colophons. I wrote his "signature" inscription for him, giving him the name T'ao-shang-chai Chu-jen or "Master of the Over-the-Pottery Studio," and dating it to the first year of the reign Shang-cheng, "Merchants' Government"— the Eisenhower administration had begun, and the phrase "Government by business men" was current. I inscribed in one overhead space a rhyming quatrain by the Ch'ien-lung Emperor, signed and with his seals, and copied the seals of famous collectors on the painting with different-colored red pencils.


The scroll opens with a title, Lieh-ch'e T'u-chuan or "Train Scroll," signed Tung-an Tao-jen (I was then living on East Ann St.) The painting proper begins with a rustic house whose inhabitant has ventured out to view a marvelously-drawn locomotive rushing past. belching smoke. Pulled by the locomotive is a long train of freight cars that continues through the scroll. It passes through a distant city (based loosely on the one in Hsia Kuei's great "Pure and Remote View" scroll), disappears into a tunnel, and emerges onto a trestle that occupies (and de-mystifies) the "void" into which a scholar-recluse in the foreground, sprawled beneath a pine tree and accompanied by his boy servant, is gazing—a Ma Yuan composition gone wrong. The train winds through tunnels in a Mi Yu-jen-style dotted mountain; in middle-ground is a potter's dwelling and climbing kiln, alluding of course to the Potter's Guild. Further on is a Ni Tsan landscape, with the train disrupting Ni's always-empty middleground. The train, and the scroll, end with four cars in the foreground: a boxcar on which is written ssu-shih-jen pa-ma (forty men, eight horses, an allusion to the famous "forty-and-eight" boxcars in France during World War I); a flatcar carrying the Great Buddha of Kamakura; a passenger car occupied by regally-clad figures taken from the Yen Li-pen-attributed "Emperors" scroll; and the caboose. A herd-boy is being thrown off his buffalo, which flees in panic. There are no doubt mistakes and omissions in this description, but it is enough to suggest the nature of this wildly original concoction. For Bill to have mastered and imitated so well the Chinese styles, and combined them so delightfully with the motifs that were more his own, was and remains an extraordinary achievement.


The colophons begin with one by Emperor Hui-tsung, written in his slender-gold calligraphy and placing the scroll, for cataloguing purposes, in the "Machinery Category, Divine Class." One by Mi Fu follows, expressing a very different, negative opinion. Then longer colophons, both written by myself? one signed with a name I was then using (pronounced in Japanese Keihiru = Cahill), the other by Weng Fang-kang (1733-1818), who complains that the Emperor will mislead the people by praising this barbarian machinery and thus diverting them from their traditional and proper pursuits. I recall making use of a play between huo-ch'e, the train, and the same as an old word for the carts that carry sinners around in Buddhist hell. Colophons composed and written by others followed. James Crump, professor of Chinese at U. Mich., had somewhere learned to write memorials to the emperor in proper formal literary style and calligraphy; he wrote one expanding on the earlier colophonist's complaint. Jim Plumer, the other and older Chinese art specialist then at U. Michigan, wrote a colophon that I don't remember well; and Kyoko Kornhauser, wife of David Kornhauser who taught Geography there, wrote a Japanese poem in elegant cursive calligraphy. There are others, including one by a Mr. Tsai, whom I don't remember.


Mounting all this as a handscroll was a problem that we handled awkwardly—I have often wished we had done better. We used photograph mounting tissue, the iron-on kind that bonds the photo to the album page when pressed by a hot iron, to stick the painting and inscriptions onto a long roll of backing paper (shelf paper from the grocery store). The opening section was backed with silk cloth, and Dorothy made a splendid brocade wrapper on which, when one unties the usual ribbons and turns back the flap, one is confronted by a zipper.


The great moment came when Max, alerted that it would be a birthday presentation ceremony but with no idea of what would be presented, was given the scroll at a gathering of all the participants and others, and had to appreciate it, and read and loosely translate the inscriptions on first sight, before the assembled guests. He did this, as he did almost everything, with great formal elegance and total assurance. Bill recalls that when he untied the ribbons and saw the zipper he said, in a connoisseur's grave tone, "Early Sung!" And he proceeded with a mock-learned reading and appreciation of everything in the scroll. It was a performance that more than matched ours.


The scroll was exhibited in U. Mich's Art Museum, and kept by Max during his lifetime. After his death his widow Irmgard gave it to me—she was moving back to Germany and thought it should stay here. When I spent some days in Ann Arbor giving lectures in December 2002, as arranged by Maribeth Graybill, a reception by the Art History Dept. was the occasion for a presentation of the scroll to them. Bill Lewis came, with his second wife Garland; his former wife Eppie is well and living in Ann Arbor, but didn't come. I did most of the talking, relating the circumstances of its creation as here, commenting on the painting as it went by, giving the general content of the inscriptions and identifying their writers as I rolled. Bill Lewis received the plaudits he was due, and the scroll was officially accepted by the Chair of Art History for their collection of treasures.


I am happy to say that Bill Lewis is still well and active at age 89; I talked with him today (12/8/07) and learned that he is still painting, sometimes on commission. His email address is
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