Inspired by the form of Islamic metalwares from Central Asia, vases of tianqiuping form, often painted in underglaze blue with ferocious dragons, were produced during the Yongle and Xuande periods of the Ming dynasty, and revived in the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods of the Qing. Delicately potted to recall the majestic shape of a tianqiuping, yet of a much smaller size and with a gently elongated neck, the present vase is a pleasure both to see and to touch. The present vase further bears the quintessential imperial symbol of a five-clawed dragon with a pair of horns extending backwards. Whether in cobalt blue or copper red, the majority of dragons painted on tianqiuping vases from the Yongle, Xuande, Yongzheng and Qianlong periods have their heads turned to the left; a right-facing dragon as seen on the current vase is highly unusual. The juxtaposition of the brilliant purplish blue and the bright vermillion red creates a particularly pleasing aesthetic contrast. Brought alive by the confident brushstrokes, the proud dragon is splendidly highlighted against the spiralling clouds, precisely recalling the ethereal dragon as the supreme symbol of imperial power.
The combination of iron-red and cobalt-blue decoration on porcelains, which probably first appeared in the Xuande period, was revived in the late Ming dynasty and again in the Qing. This colour scheme was rarely used, however, possibly due to the difficulty of the firing process. The blue decoration, seen on the scrolling clouds on this vase, was painted in underglaze cobalt blue first and then fired to a high temperature. Following this, the potter applied a further motif to complete the design – the leaping dragon on this vase – in iron-red enamel over the glaze, and re-fired the vessel for the second time at a lower temperature. The second firing, known as ‘muffle firing’ or petit feu, unavoidably increased the cost and risk of failure. No other example of the same shape and iron-red decorated motif as the present vase appears to have been recorded.
Red dragons on Yongzheng and Qianlong vases of the classical tianqiuping form are more commonly painted in underglaze copper red than overglaze iron-red enamel. See for instance two tianqiuping vases executed in underglaze blue and red – a Yongzheng example painted with a dragon among waves and a Qianlong-marked one decorated with a dragon among clouds and waves – published together in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (III), Shanghai, 2000, pls. 197 and 210. See also a similar Yongzheng-marked tianqiuping, sold three times in these rooms, 2nd May 1995, lot 118, 7th May 2002, lot 580, and 31st October 2004, lot 25, and included in Sotheby’s Thirty Years in Hong Kong: 1973-2003, Hong Kong, 2003, pl. 283. See yet another Qianlong-marked tianqiuping, sold three times in these rooms, 29th October 1991, lot 192, 27th April 2003, lot 48, 31st October 2004, lot 22, published in Sotheby's Hong Kong, Twenty Years: 1973-1992, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 198, in The Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1991, pl. 96 and yet again in The Tsui Museum of Art. Chinese Ceramics IV: Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong, 1995, pl. 83 (fig. 1).
Iron-red dragons can also be found, although rarely, on Yongzheng and Qianlong vessels of other shapes. For instance, see a Qianlong-marked moonflask painted in iron red and underglaze blue with dragons, clouds and waves from the Shimentang collection, sold twice in these rooms, 27th/28th April 1993, lot 123, 7th October 2015, lot 3633, and exhibited in Qing Porcelain from a Private Collection, Eskenazi, London, 2012, lot 17 (fig. 2). Compare also a large dish from the Qing Court collection, preserved in Nanjing Museum and included in Qing Imperial Porcelain of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1995, cat. no. 81 and dust jacket; and another to be offered in this sale, lot 3305.
Although probably unique, the current vase is closely related to other Ming and Qing imperial porcelains. Compare for example a Qianlong-marked celadon-glazed tianqiuping carved in relief with dragons, clouds and waves, illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong. Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 462, pl. 144. For a blue and white tianqiuping painted with dragons and clouds from the Xuande period, see an example included in the exhibition Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. 1, pl. 79. See also a Xuande-marked tianqiuping, together with a mid-13th century bronze vessel of the same form, illustrated by Ma Wenkuan in ‘A Study of Islamic Elements in Ming Dynasty Porcelain’, in Kaogu xuebao / Journal of Archaeology, no. 4, 1999, figs. 13-14. An English translation of this article is published in 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.
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