Alchemists have endeavoured to transmute base metals into gold since time immemorial, in cultures both east and west and were never in want of patrons. The reverse process – ventures to transform gold into something even more desirable – naturally, was rarer. To create a masterpiece such as the H.M. Knight falangcai bowl with its gold-derived pink surface colour required a patron with a remarkably open mind and chemists and artisans at the very forefront of their métiers. For all three to come together it took an auspicious moment in history. This ravishing bowl can be counted among the most ambitious projects of the imperial workshops in the Forbidden City under the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722), and among the most successful.
The Kangxi Emperor was an extraordinary personality, fanatic in his thirst for knowledge, progressive in his belief in science, demanding in his quest for tangible results, and enlightened in his recruitment of brilliant minds and hands, whatever their background. The short-lived cooperation between imperial artists and artisans and European Jesuits inside the Forbidden City, under the watchful eye of their imperial patron, was a rare lucky episode for China’s material arts that brought about works unimaginable just decades earlier, such as this amazing bowl.
In all cultures, attempts at aurifaction, the quest to make gold, were intimately connected to the search for elixirs of long life. In China, the property of gold to take on a ‘beautiful purple’ (zi yan) colour was admired already in the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) and ‘purple gold’ (zi jin), probably a copper-gold alloy treated to acquire a purple patina, was held in the highest esteem throughout the country’s mediaeval past.1 ‘Artificial gold’, created through alchemical practices and often containing small amounts of gold, was considered propitious and beneficial and therefore superior to genuine gold, and there was no shortage of chemical experiments to create it. The secret of a purple colour achievable through gold remained in China, however, in the realm of philosophers, alchemists and natural scientists, and did not reach artists and artisans.
In the West, gold had been used at least since late Roman times to colour red glass. The colouration is achieved through ‘colloidal gold’, that is, the suspension of nanoparticles of gold in fluids where, depending on their size and shape, they take on different tones of purplish red. The process of creating this so-called ‘purple of Cassius’, was first described by Andreas Cassius the elder (died 1673), published in 1684, but employed and made known to a wider audience only somewhat later, through a publication by the German glass maker and alchemist Johann Kunckel (1630s-1703), which appeared in print in 1716. This was a period, when alchemists in Italy, Germany and France worked actively both on the transmutation of metals and on the production of ‘gold-ruby glass’; and this was also the time, when Western Jesuits were trying to impress the Kangxi Emperor with new scientific methods and materials.
The Kangxi Emperor’s establishment of workshops inside the Forbidden City, close to his own living quarters, where he could observe and comment scientific experiments and technical procedures first-hand, was a remarkably courageous undertaking. Not only were the noise, odours and dirt, which such factories necessarily produced, hazardous, and the fire-risk they posed, dangerous; but the presence of foreigners intent on proselytizing at the very seat of the empire’s power also represented a not inconsiderable, if less tangible, peril.
French enamel wares had come to China with the first embassies exchanged between Louis XIV of France (r. 1643-1715) and the Kangxi Emperor in the 1680s, and the Emperor soon asked specifically to be sent European artisans able to make glass and enamels. Already in 1693, when fourteen new workshops were established in the Forbidden City, they included one falang workshop (‘falang’ denominating the ‘foreign’ enamelling technique), and a glass factory was built in 1696.2 According to a letter written in 1716 by the Italian Jesuit painter Matteo Ripa (1682-1746), with the help of European know-how and the recruitment of European painters, enamelling work was well under way by then, but still in its early stages.3 When in 1719 a specialist enameller arrived at the court, the French missionary Jean-Baptiste Gravereau (1690-1762), his skills disappointed the Emperor.
Copper, glass and porcelain were enamelled side by side in the enamelling workshops, and although the porcelain painters of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province had long mastered the technique of enamel painting on porcelain, the Beijing workshops went a different route. The first enamellers there – probably Westerners who had never worked with porcelain, which had only just begun to be made in Europe – apparently considered the shiny porcelain glaze an unsuitable surface for the enamels to adhere. Besides experimenting with Yixing stonewares, they ordered custom-made porcelains partly or fully unglazed and left in the biscuit to be made in Jingdezhen and sent to Beijing for this new imperial adventure. For bowls like the present example, very specific orders must have gone out, to provide specimens with a glazed interior, rim, base and inside of the foot, and an unglazed exterior and outside of the foot.
Enamels sent from Europe or custom-made at the imperial glass factory in Beijing provided a range of enamels very different from the wucai or famille verte palette in use at the same time at Jingdezhen. The main innovations were the European introduction of gold-ruby enamel, a transparent, deep purplish-red colour derived from colloidal gold; and the impasto use of a white enamel derived from lead-arsenate, that had been made in the glass workshops for some time, for use on cloisonné enamel wares, but only now was found to be highly effective on porcelains where, mixed with other enamels, it added a whole new range of opaque, pastel tones.
Among the earliest porcelains successfully decorated in Beijing using a gold-based ruby colour may be a vase in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and a tripod incense burner in the Au Bakling collection, both supplied by Jingdezhen as fully unglazed biscuit vessels, the former with an engraved reign mark, the latter a blue enamel mark on the unglazed base; the vase is illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong. Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 98, pl. 81; the censer was sold in our London rooms, 6th July 1976, lot 170 and is illustrated on the cover of Chinese Ceramics. Selected Articles from Orientations 1983-2003, Hong Kong, 2004.
The Kangxi falangcai production lasted only for a few years and, being located inside the Forbidden City, remained a very small undertaking, with pieces individually designed and painted, and enamels specially mixed in small quantities. In spite of this individuality, it did not take long for a recurring style to appear, with large-scale formal designs of fanciful flowers on a yellow, blue or gold-ruby ground. Any other ground colours or designs are exceedingly rare.
The kind of gold-pink seen on the present bowl stands out among the falangcai production of the Kangxi reign. Although our bowl is unique, it is particularly interesting that it has a ‘brother’ in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, with a close family likeness, yet very different individual traits. The bowl from the palace collection features in numerous publications, was already included in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-1936, cat. no. 2154, and more recently in the exhibition Shenbi danqing: Lang Shining lai hua sanbai nian tezhan/Portrayals from a Brush Divine: A Special Exhibition on the Tricentennial of Giuseppe Castiglione’s Arrival in China, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2015, cat. no. I-19 (fig. 1).
The two bowls share the same basic layout and extraordinary colours: As colloidal gold produces a translucent ruby, puce or purple colour, the opaque, delicate rose-pink of these bowls required admixture of the opaque white lead arsenate. The two enamels were combined more frequently in variegated shades to depict rose-pink flowers or other design details, but are known in this even, monochrome version, suitable as a ground colour, only from one other piece (listed below). Equally exceptional is the bright turquoise enamel that fills the lobed panels. The likeness between the two bowls, however, ends here: while they would seem to have been painted side by side, in the same workshop, using the same batch of specially mixed enamels, they were almost certainly painted by two different artists.
The National Palace Museum bowl exhibits in the four roundels the classic Chinese rendition of flowers of the four seasons – peony, lotus, chrysanthemum, and prunus with camellia – painted in a traditional style, clearly by a Chinese hand, and the prunus-shaped panels evoke Chinese shaped windows or doors opening onto garden vistas. Unusual, and clearly revealing a Western presence nearby, are only the sheaves of tobacco leaves separating the four panels.
The H.M. Knight bowl, on the other hand, deviates in many respects from the classic Chinese painting manner and is pervaded by a Western flair. The flowers – daffodils with roses; hibiscus perhaps with buttercups; Turk’s cap lilies with poppies; and another rose and rose buds with gardenias – cannot easily be put in a seasonal order, nor do the combinations lend themselves for interpretation as auspicious puns. The depiction of flowers against bright blue sky is not known in Chinese painting; the pendent green foliage with tips of blue buds, and the pink-and-orange rosettes do not derive from a Chinese decorative repertoire.
Most extraordinary of all design elements on our bowl, however, are the small blue asters in the pendentives between the windows, depicted dramatically foreshortened, like the ‘prunus’ windows themselves, as if the painter wanted to prompt us to pick up the bowl and turn it, so as to better appreciate the full design. This depiction of perspective, brought to China by European scientists and painters, was never really adopted by their Chinese counterparts. Similar blue asters, seen from various different angles, feature frequently in paintings by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who was employed as a court painter; see, for example, the blue asters in the foreground of his painting Endless Longevity and Everlasting Spring, illustrated in Shenbi danqing, op.cit., cat. no. I-06 (fig. 2); or in Golden Pheasants in Spring, ibid., cat. no. V-02. Together with Ripa, Castiglione had at one point even been ordered by the Kangxi Emperor to paint in the enamelling workshop, and was also involved in preparing designs for Western enamellers.4 Similar blue asters appear also on some of the early Yixing pieces enamelled in the imperial workshops, see Qing gongzhong falangcai ci tezhan/Special Exhibition of Ch’ing Dynasty Enamelled Porcelains of the Imperial Ateliers, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1992, cat. nos 10 and 11.
The rendering of the decoratively paired flowers in the four windows may have been influenced by the styles of contemporary florilegia, exactingly painted flower books made popular by the German natural scientist and painter Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), which were widely distributed in Europe for their educational benefit as well as their aesthetic appeal, were much copied, and greatly influenced the decorative arts of the time.
The present bowl and its companion in the National Palace Museum belong to the most remarkable and rarest pieces from that period. With their Western stylistic components, their original manner of decoration, and their pink reign marks, they most likely belong to the early porcelains painted in the Kangxi workshops, conceived before a certain degree of standardization set in, and before all marks were inscribed in blue; yet they are executed to perfection, painted and fired to satisfy the highest standards, and thus represent a distinct step ahead of the more obviously experimental pieces of that period.
Among those, a very unusual shallow bowl in the National Palace Museum should be mentioned, painted in a somewhat naïve, large-scale, ‘boneless’ Western style with red asters, similar to the blue ones on the present bowl, as well as roses, morning glories and pinks, all on a rare white enamel ground, also inscribed with a deep pink Kangxi yuzhi mark, illustrated, for example, in Shenbi danqing, op.cit., cat. no. I-14, where Yu Pei-chin writes “it reminds one of the possibility that Western missionary-artists took part in painting painted enamelware at the time.” Also worth comparing among the trial pieces is a bowl of similar shallow form with a purple ground that seems to be slightly misfired, illustrated in Shi Jingfei, Feng Mingzhu & Xie Zhenhong, Ri yue guanghua: Qing gong hua falang/Radiant Luminance: The Painted Enamelware of the Qing Imperial Court, Taipei, 2012, pl. 15, illustrated together with the white-ground bowl mentioned above, pl. 16, and together with an enamelled copper bowl with a flower design on an uneven purple ground, pl. 17.
Gold-ruby or gold-pink enamel were rarely used as a ground colour for enamelled copper or for glass; only one rare enamelled glass cup of Kangxi mark and period, formerly in the collection of Barbara Hutton, is enamelled with flower roundels on a gold-ruby ground; it is illustrated in Hugh Moss, By Imperial Command: An Introduction to Ch’ing Imperial Painted Enamels, Hong Kong, 1976, pl. 33, and was sold in our London rooms, 6th July 1971, lot 384, and in these rooms, 19th May 1982, lot 384, and again 15th November 1989, lot 557.
Only one other piece of porcelain enamelled with the same or a similar gold-pink ground appears to be recorded, but painted with a formal flower pattern and inscribed with a blue enamel Kangxi mark: the bowl from the collection of Sir Percival David, later in the British Rail Pension Fund and then in the Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, sold in our London rooms, 5th December 1961, lot 39, and 12th/13th May 1976, lot 363, and in these rooms, 16th May 1989, lot 85; and illustrated in Sotheby’s Hong Kong – Twenty Years, 1973-1993, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 214.
It is interesting that gold itself was rarely used as a ground colour of porcelains, although two falangcai bowls with a gold ground are preserved in the Baur Collection, Geneva, both painted with a formal flower design, see John Ayers, Chinese Ceramics in the Baur Collection, Geneva, 1999, vol. 2, pls 162 and 164.
In the West, Kangxi falangcai pieces had at least since the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition in London, 1935-1936, when the Chinese Government sent several examples, including the companion bowl now in Taipei, been recognised for what they are. In the 1960s and ‘70s, however, several scholars doubted them, since they seemed far too advanced to be accepted as dating from the Kangxi period. In 1976, for example, Margaret Medley wrote in The Chinese Potter (Oxford, 1976, p. 249) “Neither technically nor stylistically can these have appeared as early as the K’ang-hsi period, and it seems likely that the earliest date to which they can be assigned with any confidence is the very end of the eighteenth century.” It was publications by the National Palace Museum, Taipei, such as Ts’ai Ho-pi’s exhibition catalogue “Qing Kang, Yong, Qian ming ci/Catalog of the Special Exhibition of K’ang-hsi, Yung-cheng and Ch’ien-lung Porcelain Ware from the Ch’ing Dynasty in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1986, that dispelled all doubts once more and truly opened our eyes to the beauty and quality of Kangxi falangcai porcelains.
Henry M. Knight was a most discriminating collector who from 1930 practically until his death in 1971 assembled a major collection of Chinese ceramics and other works of art, focussing mainly on Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) porcelains, buying largely from Bluett & Sons, London. Roger Bluett wrote about him: “Henry Knight, who built up perhaps the best collection of eighteenth-century porcelains in Europe as well as magnificent early pieces, was fond of telling how it was my late father who told him to buy ‘Chinese taste’ porcelains. Their time would come, my father used to say, and how right he was.”5
1 Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5: Chemistry and Chemical Technology, part II: Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Magisteries of Gold and Immortality, Cambridge, 1974, p. 70 and p. 257-66.
2 Shih Ching-fei, ‘A Record of the Establishment of a New Art Form: The Unique Collection of “Painted Enamels” at the Qing Court’, Collections and Concepts, vol. 7, 2005, pp. 5-6.
3 George Loehr, ‘Missionary-Artists at the Manchu Court’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 34, 1962-63, p. 55.
4 Loehr, op.cit., p. 51.
5 Roy Davids and Dominic Jellinek, Provenance. Collectors, Dealers and Scholars: Chinese Ceramics in Britain and America, Great Haseley, 2011, p. 276, quoting Arts of Asia, vol. 10, no. 6, 1980.
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