The present facetted vase is a fabulous example of blue and white porcelain from the Xuande period, and may have been cherished by the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-1735) as well. This form does strike the experienced eye as familiar, due to the existence of Yongzheng mark and period versions. However, Xuande originals are extremely rare. Made in the era of the global voyages (1405-1433) lead by the Muslim Admiral, General Zheng He, its complex geometric form, which does not come naturally to a potter, was clearly influenced by Middle Eastern prototypes in metal, where facetted shapes are not uncommon. Furthermore, it was painted with cobalt pigment mined in Persia and brought to China by diplomatic missions. Basil Gray in “The Influence of Near Eastern Metalwork on Chinese Ceramics”, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 18, 1940-41, pls 6c and d, compares a porcelain vase of this form to an earlier Persian bronze rose-water sprinkler in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, also illustrated in Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, Islamic Metalwork from the Iranian World. 8th – 18th Centuries, London, 1982, pl. 5. See also Ma Wenkuan, “A study of Islamic elements in Ming Dynasty Porcelain”, Li Baoping, Bruce Doar and Susan Dewar eds., Porcelain and Society, China Archaeology and Art Digest, vol. 3, no. 4, June 2000, pp. 7-38, figs. 15-16.
The complex form of the vase meant it had to be made in sections. The two animal mask handles were made from a specially-carved mould, and their striking appearance and fine details demonstrate the outstanding skills of the potter. Similarly, the core body, consisting of an upper and a lower section, was made from a mould and luted together, while the neck and the high foot were made separately. Such a complicated form is not only very difficult to construct, but also much easier to become deformed during firing than round vessel shapes, so that the success rate for such facetted vases must have been very low. Also noteworthy is the very beautiful, intense rich blue of the painting, which derives from the use of imported cobalt of higher quality. Its high iron content causes separation during firing and gives rise to the famous ‘heaping and piling’ effect of Xuande porcelain, which appears darker blue in some areas.
Because of the superb manufacturing and firing techniques required, vases of this type are extremely rare. Only three other Xuande mark and period examples of similar size and painted with the same design of morning glory, a flower that had been popular in China for a few centuries but was not used as the primary decorative motif on other porcelains, appear to have been published: the first in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Geng Baochang ed., Early Ming Blue and White Porcelain of the Palace Museum, Beijing, 2002, cat. nos. 83 (Fig. 1); the second from the Sir Percival David Collection and now in the British Museum, London, is published in the Illustrated Catalogue of Underglaze Blue and Copper Red Decorated Porcelains in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, 2004, pl. A 633, together with a very similar Qing copy with a spurious Xuande mark, pl. 609; and the third in the Tianjin Art Museum, Tianjin, is illustrated in Porcelains in the Collection of Tianjin Art Museum, Beijing, 1993, pl. 86. Two more Xuande vases of this type but without reign marks, are known: one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum’s Special Exhibition of Selected Hsuan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 15; and the other in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, published in He Li, Chinese Ceramics. A New Standard Guide, London, 1996, pl. 408, also in Clarence F. Shangraw, “Fifteenth-Century Blue-and-White Porcelain in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco”, Orientations, May 1985, pp 34-46.
Xuande facetted vases appear to have been a particular favourite of the Yongzheng Emperor. Two extant handscrolls of the Yongzheng period, dated in accordance with 1728 and 1729 respectively, depict works of art from the Imperial collection including four such vases, all shown on different wooden stands; see Regina Krahl, “Art in the Yongzheng Period: Legacy of an Eccentric Art Lover”, Orientations, November/December 2005, pl. 2. A veritable 'portrait' of yet another such vase holding an auspicious branch of peony with twin blooms was executed by the court painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), illustrated in Wang Yaoting, Xin guan jie. Lang Shining yu Qing gong xiyang feng [New visions at the Ch'ing Court. Giuseppe Castiglione and Western-style trends], Taipei, 2007, pl. 16 (Fig. 2). Although the painting is not dated, its subject matter and message are very close to another painting by Castiglione of a vase with auspicious plants, which the artist presented to the Yongzheng Emperor upon his accession to the throne in 1723. Considering the extremely small number of Xuande facetted vases known to date, which perhaps were all once in the Qing imperial collection, the present vase may be one of the vases depicted in these court paintings.
Vases of this form and design were reproduced at the Imperial kilns in Jingdezhen during the Yongzheng period, although only in very small numbers. Of this type, close to the original and with morning glory covering the neck, are examples in the Nanjing Museum and in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, respectively included in the exhibitions The Official Kiln Porcelain of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2003, p. 135; and the Special Exhibition of Hsuan-te Period Porcelain, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1980, cat. no. 5. Similar copies were also made in the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795); see an example in the Shanghai Museum illustrated in Lu Minghua, Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections: Ming Imperial Porcelain, Shanghai, 2007, pl. 5-20.
A variation of the original design is found on facetted vases painted with a band of key-fret and pendant trefoils below the rim, and lappets around the neck and the splayed foot. This type usually bears the Yongzheng reign mark and is slightly larger in size. An example from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Geng Baochang, op. cit., Beijing, 2002, vol. 2, pl. 186; another in Geng Baochang, ed., Porcelains from the Qing Dynasty Imperial Kilns in the Palace Museum Collection, Beijing, 2005, vol. 1, part 2, pl. 25. See also a similar vase, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1713, and sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 27th April 1993, lot 145, at Christie's Hong Kong, 30th April 2000, lot 590, and again in our Hong Kong rooms, 5th October 2011, lot 30 (Fig. 3); and another sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 31st October 2004, lot 181.
Yongzheng vases painted in underglaze blue may be further fired with overglaze yellow enamel to serve as background for the morning glory motif; see a Yongzheng mark and period example illustrated in John Ayers, Chinese Ceramics in the Baur Collection, Geneva, 1999, vol. 2, pl. 212; another from the Sir Percival David collection and now in the British Museum, included in the Illustrated Catalogue of Ming and Ming Style Polychrome Wares in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, 2006, no. 781; and a third in the Musée Guimet, Paris, published in Oriental Ceramics. The World's Great Collections, vol. 7, Tokyo, 1981, pl. 55.
Yongzheng mark and period vases of this form but slightly larger size, are also known covered in various monochrome glazes, such as a vase with Ge-type crackled glaze in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum’s exhibition Harmony and Integrity: The Yongzheng Emperor and His Times, Taipei, 2009, cat. no. II-30; and another with guan-type glaze published in Geng Baochang, op. cit., Beijing, 2005, vol. 1, part 2, pl. 14.
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