An Old European Collection (by repute).
The Imperial 'Dragon and Phoenix' Six-Post Canopy Bed
The exceptional skills of furniture makers and wood carvers employed by the Muzuo (Wood Workshop) of the Zaobanchu (Imperial Palace Workshops) located in the Forbidden City is displayed in this magnificent and extremely rare example of a six-post canopy zitan bed known as liuzhu chuang in Chinese. Furniture exquisitely carved and made in the highly prized zitan wood belongs to a special group of supreme Imperial furnishing. No other similar example appears to be recorded and only one six-post canopy bed, decorated with the 'dragon and cloud' pattern, from the Qing Court collection and illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 1, may be compared to the present piece in its exceptional workmanship and finish. However, while the Palace Museum bed exhumes a sense of masculinity with its busy carving of ferocious scaly dragons, a sign of imperial strength and splendour, the decoration of dragons and phoenixes as seen on this bed gives it a more subtle and feminine quality suggesting that it was a furnishing used in one of the twelve private compounds for the imperial ladies in the Imperial Palace. Canopy beds were often part of the dowry and were generally expected to be found in the women's quarters.
Canopy beds had a dual function: during the day they served as a comfortable seat on which one could relax and where the court ladies entertained each other. For daytime foot stools were placed in front of the bed; see two examples illustrated in Wang Shixiang, Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture, vol. 2, Hong Kong, 1990, pls. C20 and C21, of different forms and sizes. At night bed curtains were drawn to create a private sleeping space equipped with mattress, pillows and sumptuous silk quilts. Chinese furniture expert and connoisseur, Wang Shixiang, in his paper titled Chinese Conventional Furniture, Beijing, 1981, p. 37, notes that from paintings it is evident that canopy beds with a front rail generally had curtains hanging in the frame to show the decoration on the bedrails. He discusses the use of fabric, often in a contrasting light colouration to that of the frame, to help enhance the charm and beauty of the furniture. Curtains also functioned as screens creating a room within a room, making the bed not only functional but part of the interior architecture. Placement of furniture in China was more formal than in the West, with most of the pieces placed against the wall and never left in the middle of the room. Hence canopy beds were positioned within the inner recesses of a room to avoid blocking the light and were seldom moved. A woodblock illustration of a bed chamber in the late-Ming novel Jing ping mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase) is included in Robert Ellsworth, Chinese Furniture, New York, 1970, p. 25, pl. 1, where the author discusses the different types of furnishing found in such private quarters. A court lady is depicted seated on a six-post canopy bed that appears to be also made in zitan wood in one of the twelve screen paintings titled Twelve Beauties at Leisure Painted for Prince Yinzheng, the Future Yongzheng Emperor, from the collection of the Palace Museum included in the exhibition China. The Three Emperors, the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2006, pl. 173 (fig. 1). A woodblock illustration to Min Qiji's 1640 edition of the Xixiang ji (Tale of the Western Chamber) also shows a lady standing by a canopy bed. Sarah Handler in her work 'The Chinese Bed', Orientations. Chinese Furniture 1984-1999, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 11, fig. 7, describes how the bed might have looked when used for sleeping.
The elaborate and fine detailing of the carved decoration is significant for what it represents. The dragon and phoenix, two of the most auspicious mythical animals in Chinese tradition, denote a happy omen. It is a typical wedding motif associated with the emperor and empress wishing the couple good fortune and blessings. Phoenix are featured predominantly in the interior of this bed, with the central panel highlighted by a pair of these beautiful and gracious creatures enveloping a large blossom that represents an auspicious scene. The overall design re-conveys the message of a harmonious marriage. The same motif can be found carved on a red sandalwood women's closet, from the Qing court collection, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), op.cit., pl. 205, perhaps part of the same group of furnishing as the present piece.
The existence of canopy beds are known from as early as the first century BC. A wood bed (chuang) that most probably had a canopy frame was excavated in 1956 at Xinyang in Henan province from the tomb thought to be that of the late ruler of the southern kingdom of Chu dated to 113 BC. However, the earliest extant complete canopy bed is a 16th century six-post example made of huang huali wood with red pine canopy panels, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, illustrated in Sarah Handler, op.cit., p. 10, fig. 6. Another Ming six-post canopy bed is included in Wang Shixiang, Classic Chinese Furniture – Ming and Early Qing Dynasties, London, 1986, pl. 126, which is considered by Wang as an example of a more elaborately decorated type of bed with a much simpler version illustrated in the Wanli edition of Lu Ban's Jing jiangjia jing (A Mirror for Craftsmen). For a Qing six-post canopy bed, compare one made in jumu wood sold in our New York rooms, 11/12th April 1990, lot 639; and an imperial huanghuali bed decorated with dragons, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 3rd December 2008, lot 2532.
Another significant aspect of the present bed is the use of the extremely rare zitan wood. With its smooth and silk-like texture, fine and dense grain and strikingly deep lustre, zitan wood has long been the most prized wood for furniture makers in China. Its natural lustre, called baojiangliang in Chinese, develops with use. It is a characteristic that is impossible to reproduce artificially. The extreme slow growth of zitan and its limited supply in China made it one of the most treasured materials in the country. The Qing court had to take measures to protect zitan, restricting and regulating its use. Existing stores of zitan were kept in the Imperial Storehouse for the Palace Workshops and only a small amount was ever allowed outside the Palace. It is evident that the majority of zitan furniture, including the present canopy bed, was made for the imperial family and for the furnishing of the palace halls.
For zitan furnishing made in the Muzuo of comparable workmanship and Imperial taste see the magnificent 'dragon' throne sold in these rooms, 8th October 2009, lot 1645; and a square stand with high reticulated waist and deeply carved floral motif, from the Qing Court collection and preserved in the Summer Palace, Beijing, published in Tian Jiaqing, Notable Features of Main Schools of Ming and Qing Furniture, Hong Kong, 2001, pl. 1, pp. 98-99.
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