Among the many simulations created by the imperial workshops for the Qianlong Emperor, those imitating archaic bronzes appear to have been the most popular. Qianlong is known to have studied and added to the vast imperial collection of ritual bronzes, particularly from the late Shang (c.1600-c. 1050 BC) and Western Zhou (c.1050-771 BC) periods. These were then used as the basis for trompe-l'oeil versions. Soame Jenyns in Later Chinese Porcelain, London, 1951, p. 60, mentions that a stone tablet was excavated at Jingdezhen in 1915 titled 'Orders and Memoranda on Porcelain' in which Tang Ying, Superintendent at the Imperial Kilns at Jingdezhen, discusses his efforts to simulate bronze vessels.
Bronzes were cleverly simulated through a variety of glazes, typically a brown of 'café-au-lait' or 'teadust' type heightened with gold, and this was often combined with a mottled turquoise or green enamel to evoke the blue-green patina of ancient metalwork. It is unusual, however, to find vases with an effect so close to the originals.
The robust pear-form is based on ancient hu ritual vases which the Qing craftsman has modified from a bottom-heavy form to that of a more rounded body and removed the small tubular handles. Furthermore, the angular scrolls of the ancient taotie mask are rendered in swirling curls, which accentuate the form of the vase, and the leiwen ground which originally surrounded the taotie has been moved as design bands in their own right. The resulting objects are firmly rooted in antiquity while maintaining a contemporary aesthetic.
No simulated bronze vase of this large shape and this type of decoration appears to be otherwise recorded, although a Qianlong mark and period café-au-lait covered hu-form vase with two bands of taotie masks against a leiwen ground between plain bands, flanked with monster mask handles, made to imitate later archaistic bronzes, was sold in our New York rooms, 5th November 1977, lot 223, and again in these rooms, 22nd May 1979, lot 232.
Although unique, the present vases are related to other simulation vases produced for the Qianlong Emperor; compare a massive vase in the Palace Museum, Beijing, echoing an archaic bronze zun with a narrow band of robin's-egg glaze reserved on an overall teadust surface, illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong. Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Beijing, 1989, p. 412, pl. 93, together with a gu and a bell simulating bronzes, pp. 414f, pls 95 and 96. See also a miniature vase of hu form with a much simpler decoration simulating inlaid bronze, with a band of coffee-coloured dragon motifs raised on a mottled turquoise glaze, included in the Min Chiu Society exhibition An Anthology of Chinese Ceramics, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1980, cat. no. 138, sold in these rooms, 14th November 1989, lot 340; a robin’s-egg and gilt-decorated vase, from the collections of Alfred Morrison and the Fonthill Heirlooms, sold at Christie’s London, 18th October 1971, lot 52, and again in these rooms, 9th October 2012, lot 3004, from the collection of J.T. Tai. A vase of lei form, modelled in the style of late Ming and early Qing bronzes and in turn inspired by archaic bronze originals of the Western Zhou period (c.1046-771 BC), illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994, vol. 2, pl. 953, sold at Christie’s London, 1st October 1991, lot 809, and again in these rooms, 5th October 2011, lot 19.
For an example of a hu with similar bands of taotie masks, see one attributed to the middle Anyang period of the Shang dynasty (13th-12th century BC), in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum’s exhibition Shang Ritual Bronzes in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 61.
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