The porcelain stone and glaze used for Chenghua imperial porcelains are arguably the finest ever achieved at Jingdezhen. The sensual pleasure of the touch of a Chenghua porcelain vessel is unmatched by porcelains of any other period, and the smooth, pleasing surface texture of the present bowl is unrivalled in its tactility. The ‘softness’ of the hard material can be gleaned even from a photograph. After a beginning where the Xuande period still supplied the main inspiration, the potters of the Chenghua reign arrived at their own distinctive style towards the latter part of the period. Palace bowls were made for only a few years towards the end of the Chenghua reign – opinions still vary between late 1470s to early 1480s, or just the 1480s.
Unlike the crisp and glossy glazes of the best Xuande wares, those of the Chenghua reign are more muted, covering the blue design with a most delicate veil. The cobalt pigment is much more even than it was in the Xuande period, without any 'heaping and piling'. The attractive delicate tone seen on the present bowl is one of the trademarks of Chenghua blue-and-white. After decades of importing cobalt from the Middle East to achieve a deep and intense colour, native cobalt was deliberately chosen in the Chenghua reign – either on its own or in combination with imported pigment – to create a very different effect. The decoration is of a striking artlessness and immediacy, again in a deliberate move away from earlier models, focusing special attention on the material.
With such new goals and high specifications at the imperial workshops, it is not surprising that Chenghua porcelains are extremely rare, in fact, the rarest Chinese Imperial porcelains. Liu Xinyuan graphically describes the volume of fragments recovered from the site of the Ming Imperial kilns, where the Chenghua (AD 1465 – 1487) fragments equal less than half those unearthed from the Xuande stratum (AD 1426 – 1435), even though the latter period was so much shorter (Liu Xinyuan 'Reconstructing Chenghua Porcelain from Historical Records', The Emperor's Broken China: Reconstructing Chenghua Porcelain, exhibition catalogue, Sotheby's London, 1995, p. 11). The scarcity of sherds at the kiln site is mirrored by the rarity of surviving examples. Of those by far the greatest number is preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, and in Museums in mainland China. Of the remaining examples most are today in museum collections. Only some two dozen Chenghua pieces of any type are recorded to be in private hands (see Julian Thompson's 'List of Patterns of Chenghua Porcelain in Collections Worldwide', ibid., pp. 116-129).
What is generally known as 'palace bowls' are bowls of fine proportion, painted in underglaze blue with a flower or fruit design of apparent simplicity. Bowls with flower scroll decoration were of course also made in the Yongle (AD 1403 – 1424) and Xuande periods, but those of the Chenghua reign are unique in the deliberate irregularity introduced to a seemingly regular pattern. In the present design, blooms basically alternate with leaves, but on the inside one sprig of leaves appears behind a bloom rather than beside it, and on the outside an added bud similarly interrupts the regular rhythm. The stems therefore do not undulate in a predictable manner, but deliberately break up any symmetry. It is this slight deviation from the orderly arrangement – a daring and unique concept for imperial works of art, where any individual touch was generally shunned and machine-like precision and perfection were required – that makes this and other palace bowl designs vibrate, as if pervaded with some quiet motion. In this respect Chenghua palace bowls like the present example are quite unlike any earlier or later imperial designs.
The musk-mallow design with its combination of softly rounded, multi-lobed flower petals and contrasting pointed, serrated finger-like leaves is perhaps the most spectacular design among the various palace bowl patterns, many of which have a plain inside. Only three other patterns exist of palace bowls painted both inside and out, one showing scrolling lotus stems, one lily scrolls (figs. 1 and 2), and one a gardenia scroll outside and a mixed flower scroll inside. The musk mallow is easy to identify through the classic botanical literature. It was used already on some Yongle vessels, but extremely rarely, for example, on a ewer in Topkapi Saray, Istanbul, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 2, no. 617, and an identical one sold in these rooms, 30th October 2002, lot 271. The depiction of the flower at that period was very different, lacking the clear distinction between darker outlines and paler washes, as well as the white rims of the petals seen on the present bowl.
The present pattern exists in two slightly different variations, one with the scrolling leaf stems on the inside crossing, as in the present case, the other with the stems not crossing. The central flower-head is also derived from flower-scroll bowls of the Xuande period, see Mingdai Xuande guanyao jinghua tezhan tulu/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 61. Although the present flower is six-petalled, others exist with seven petals, again displaying the peculiar Chenghua tendency towards diversity.
The Cunliffe musk-mallow bowl is one of only two bowls of this design still remaining in private hands, while eleven examples are in museum collection, six of them in Asia and five in Europe; none are preserved in mainland China or in the United States. Beside this piece only three such bowls have ever been offered at auction, one for the last time in 1951, another in 1973 and the third in 2009. Examples of this design have been recovered in fragments from the waste heaps of the Ming Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, and one reconstructed example was included in the exhibition The Emperor's Broken China: Reconstructing Chenghua Porcelain, Sotheby's London, 1995, cat. no. 69.
Companion pieces in Asia are four bowls preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, recorded in the Museum's porcelain catalogue Gugong ciqi lu, part II: Ming, vol. 1, Taipei, 1962, p. 214, three of which have been published with illustrations, two in the Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ch'eng-hua Porcelain Ware, 1465–1487, Taipei, 2003, cat. nos. 33 and 34; the third in the exhibition catalogue Ming Chenghua ciqi tezhan [Special exhibition of Ming Chenghua porcelain], Taipei, 1976, no. 80.
One bowl from the collections of Lindsay Hay and R.E.R. Luff, later in the Ataka collection and now in the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, sold in our London rooms in 1946 and 1973, was included in the Museum's exhibition Imperial Porcelain: Recent Discoveries of Jingdezhen Ware, Osaka, 1995, pl. 229; another bowl from the collections of C.M. Woodbridge and Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Bernat, now in the Umezawa Kinenkan, Tokyo, sold in our London rooms 8th May 1951, lot 62, formed part of the Special Exhibition of Chinese Ceramics, Tokyo, 1994, pl. 263; and one sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 20 March 1990, lot 523, and 27th April 1997, lot 73, and at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 7th October 2006, lot 908, and 8th October 2009, lot 1692, is illustrated in Li Zhengzhong and Zhu Yuping, Taoci yanjiu jianshang congshu, 3: Zhongguo qinghua ci [Series on ceramics research and connoisseurship, 3: Chinese blue-and-white porcelain], Taipei, 1993, fig. 101.
In Europe, a pair of bowls of this design from the collection of Axel and Nora Lundgren is in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, see Jan Wirgin, Ming Porcelain in the Collection of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities. Hongwu to Chenghua, Stockholm, 1991, cat. no. 35; two similar bowls are also in the British Museum, London, one, from the collection of Sir Percival David, was included in the exhibition Flawless Porcelains: Imperial Ceramics from the Reign of the Chenghua Emperor, Percival David Foundation, London, 1995, cat. no. 1; the other from the collection of Mrs. Winnifred Roberts, given in memory of A.D. Brankston, is published in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Catalogue of Late Yuan and Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, no. 6:4; and a similar bowl in the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, in the Netherlands, is illustrated in Daisy Lion-Goldschmidt, Ming Porcelain, London, 1978, pl. 66.
Chenghua porcelain remained greatly treasured throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. Ts'ai Ho-pi relates many anecdotes recorded in the historical literature attesting to the value and esteem of Chenghua wares in later periods (Ts'ai Ho-pi, 'Chenghua Porcelain in Historical Context', Sotheby's London, 1995, op.cit., pp. 16 ff.). The rulers most interested in collecting ancient ceramics, the Wanli (r. AD 1573 – 1620) and Yongzheng (r. AD 1723 – 1735) Emperors both had copies commissioned from the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, the former with his own reign marks, the latter with a spurious Chenghua mark. A bowl of this design of Wanli mark and period in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, was included in the Museum's 1976 exhibition together with an original piece, op.cit., cat. no. 79; a Qing copy in the Percival David Foundation, is illustrated in Oriental Ceramics. The World's Great Collections, vol. 6, Tokyo, New York and San Francisco, 1982, no. 252.
The present bowl was one of three Chenghua palace bowls in the collection of Lord Cunliffe. The Rt. Hon. Rolf, 2nd Baron Cunliffe of Headley (1899-1963) was one of the most important collectors of Chinese art – ceramics of all periods as well as archaic bronzes, jades and snuff bottles. According to Roy Davids and Dominic Jellinek, Provenance, London, 2011, pp. 132-3, Bluett & Sons prepared a valuation of his collection after his death, which comprised some 600 items. He had acquired all three palace bowls together from Peter Boode in 1947 for a total of £ 475. Boode, an important dealer in East Asian art, had arrived in the Far East in 1913, had sourced many Chinese art works in the early Republican period and opened a gallery in Mount Street, London, in 1934, which closed around 1949. At Bluett’s selling exhibition in 1971 the present bowl was prized at £ 25,000. At Sotheby’s ten years later it sold for HK $ 4,070,000. The other two Cunliffe palace bowls were a pair, both of the lily pattern; one of them was sold in these rooms, 20th May 1980, lot 39 (fig. 1); the other was sold at Bonhams London, 11th November 2002, lot 67 (fig. 2), where the original Boode invoice was illustrated in the catalogue, and is now in the Xiling collection, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Xiling Collection, n.p., 2011, p. 40, no. 16.
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