The Qing Emperors’ quest to justify their right as a foreign dynasty to rule China inspired their deep reverence for antiquity and eagerness to manifest their power and benevolence through works of art. In their diligent study of the imperial art collection and renewed patronage of the arts, they heralded a resurgence of creativity that was inspired by antiquity. The present vase is an archetypal and exemplary product of imperially commissioned Qing art.
According to imperial records, the Qianlong Emperor urged craftsmen working in the imperial workshops to follow the styles and specifications recorded in ancient catalogues. The shape and design of the present vase provide an immediate reference to the great works of the Bronze Age of China, particularly that of the Zhou (c.1046-221 BC) period, for example see one attributed to the early Eastern Zhou period (early 8th century BC) in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., published in Eastern Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, vol. III, New York, 1995, pl. 37; and another in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, attributed to the Western Zhou dynasty (c.1046-771 BC), illustrated in Masterworks of Chinese Bronze in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1969, pl. 35.
The handles in the Sackler fanghu are described as ‘dragon heads’, a type that was characterised by their spiralling horns. First produced in the Zhou period, the use of handles in the form of mythical animals was crucial to the overall early Zhou style which placed a new emphasis on relief effects. Animal-head handles of these archaic bronzes experienced a renaissance under the Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors, flanking vases of related hu form and interlocking dragon designs in various materials. Qianlong examples of these vessels include a champlevé vase in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum. Enamels, vol. 3, Cloisonné in the Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2011, pl. 85; another sold at Bonhams London, 6th November 2006, lot 190, and again at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29th May 2013, lot 2068; a spinach-green jade vase, from the S. Bulgari Collection, sold in our London rooms, 2nd November 1984, lot 489, and again at Christie’s Hong Kong, 1st December 2010, lot 3158; and a blue and white vase decorated with flowerscrolls, published in S.T. Yeo and Jean Martin, Chinese Blue and White Ceramics, Singapore, 1978, col. pl. 20. For a Yongzheng mark and period example, see a celadon-glazed vase, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in Kangxi. Yongzheng. Qianlong. Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 276, pl. 105. While the handles of these vases retain some resemblance with the Zhou prototype through the almond-shaped eyes and spiralling horns, the two horns have been merged into one in the Qing versions. Interestingly, the handles on the present vase have been stylised to a mere silhouette to appear almost abstract, with geometric scrolls replacing the eyes and a much larger horn. For a Zhou dynasty vessel with a pair of double-horned mythical beast handles, see the line drawings published in Xiqing gujian [Catalogue of Chinese ritual bronzes in the collection of the Qianlong Emperor], juan 20, pl. 5 (fig. 1).
It is notable that even the S-shape of the front-facing dragon on the present vase has been inspired by the Zhou prototype, first adorning ceramics from the Ming dynasty and a favourite motif of Qianlong. Two line drawings of related bronze fanghu from the Zhou dynasty were published in the Xiqing gujian, juan. 19, pls 4 and 5. The twisting curves of the dragon’s body, from the neck that loops above the head to the broad bends of the body and tail, have been composed by combining the two bodies of the Zhou interlocking dragon into one. This design is a marvellous example of the ingenuity of Chinese craftsmen and their ability to reference archaic designs and render them in radically innovative designs suited to the taste of the Emperor. In doing so, they not only brought honour to China’s glorious past, but also to the emperors themselves.
Large vessels decorated with a comparable ferocious image of a dragon amongst clouds are well-known from the Qianlong period; see a pair of vases flanked with elephant-head handles, the dragons painted in pink enamel and in mirror image of each other, in the Idemitsu Museum, Tokyo, included in the Museum’s exhibition Ceramics that Fascinated Emperors – Treasures of the Chinese Jingdezhen Kiln, Tokyo, 2003, cat. no. 82. Compare also an impressive blue and white moonflask, in the Qing court collection and still in Beijing, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (III), Shanghai, 2000, pl. 132; and two further moonflasks sold in these rooms, 29th October 2001, lot 543, and 8th October 2009, lot 1701. Another Qianlong moonflask painted with a similar dragon, but the body twisting to the left, was sold in our London rooms, 7th November 2007, lot 407; and a doucai version, from the Palace Museum, Beijing, was included in the exhibition China. Three Emperors 1660-1795, The Royal Academy of Art, London, 2005, cat. no. 217. Qianlong moonflasks of large size can also be found with similarly rendered dragon and phoenix designs in a circular panel; see a pair, one of which sold in these rooms, 2nd May 2005, lot 510, and the other 23rd October 2005, lot 212.
The striking style in which the phoenix has been painted, remarkably rendered to capture the softness of the feathers, in direct contrast to the scaly dragons, resembles pink enamel versions set against underglaze blue scrolls; for example see a moonflask in the Matsuoka Art Museum, Tokyo, published in John Ayers and M. Sato, Sekai toji zenshu/Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 15, Tokyo, 1983, pls 92 and 93; and its pair sold in these rooms, 24th November 1987, lot 189, sold again at Christie’s Hong Kong, 1st December 2010, lot 2968, from the Shorenstein Collection. As the ‘king of birds’, the phoenixes add further grandeur and imperial associations to this vase while contributing to the lavish aesthetic that was so favoured by the Emperor.
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