PROPERTY OF AN IMPORTANT ASIAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
This dish represents one of the finest examples from the period when lacquer carving in China experienced its absolute peak. The sensitive, naturalistic rendering of the flowers, the complexity and yet harmony of the luxuriant interwoven flower design, the impeccable craftsmanship of the carving, and of course the monumental dimensions of this piece are hard to surpass. The century or so from the late Yuan (1279-1368) to the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644) witnessed the evolution of the art of carved lacquer ware in south China from a decorative craft to a branch of imperially produced artefacts of the highest order, in parallel to a similar development of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. The escalation of skills at the respective workshops allowed the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1424) to exploit both porcelain and lacquer ware as a means of diplomatic exchange. Lacquer ware of this period is, however, infinitely rarer than contemporary porcelain, because its laborious manufacturing process does not lend itself to series production, but is dependent on the ability of individual craftsmen. We therefore know the names of some lacquer carvers from that period, even though it remains difficult to attribute works to their hands.
Like with porcelain, it was in the Yuan dynasty that dishes of such massive size began to be created, and they continued to be produced to imperial order until the Xuande reign (1426-1435), but thereafter monumental works of this kind were practically abandoned. Equally, the superb thick lacquer layer assembled for this dish from numerous individual coatings was only rarely recreated in later periods. The soft, well-polished finish and the smooth, rounded outlines of the various motifs are also characteristic of the wares created at that time; the exuberance and complexity of the present design, however, are exceptional. About a dozen different plants with carefully matched blooms and leaves are most intricately interlaced, with stems passing under and over leaves, sometimes with three elements superimposed upon one another, the whole carefully laid out and neatly filling all available space while still revealing yellow ground throughout – all contributing to evoke a lush garden in bloom.
On the base, the present dish bears the needle-engraved signature Zhang Cheng zao (‘made by Zhang Cheng’). Zhang Cheng is known from the Gegu yaolun [The Essential Criteria of Antiquities] by Cao Zhao of 1388, where he and Yang Mao, both of Xitang in Jiaxing district, Zhejiang province, southwest of modern Shanghai, are mentioned as carvers of red lacquer who became famous at end of the Yuan dynasty (Sir Percival David 1971, p.146 and p. 303, fig. 42a). While a number of fine pieces with their respective signatures are preserved, Yang Mao, according to Wang Shixiang “does not seem to measure up to Zhang in craftsmanship” (Wang 1987, p. 18). Unfortunately, even the Gegu yaolun already talks of imitations, and Zhang Cheng inscriptions were certainly also added to later works; therefore scholars so far have been reluctant to attribute any pieces directly to his hand or even to try to identify his style.
One of the few lacquer pieces repeatedly published as being carved by Zhang Cheng is a small dish with gardenia design from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Hong Kong, 2006, pl. 3; and a box and cover with Zhang Cheng signature and a further inscription in pagspa, the Yuan official script, and thus firmly attributed to the Yuan dynasty, was included in the exhibition Two Thousand Years of Chinese Lacquer, The Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong and the Art Gallery, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1993, cat. no. 34.
Although Zhang Cheng is generally regarded as a Yuan dynasty craftsman, he most likely lived well into the Hongwu (1368-1398) and perhaps even the early Yongle period. The local gazetteer of Jiaxing of 1685 states that when the Yongle Emperor heard of his work, he summoned him to the court, but by that time Zhang Cheng was already dead. His son Zhang Degang, who had followed him in business, thus answered the call to the capital in place of his father, in order to take up the post himself. He was made Vice Director of the Yingshansuo, an office that formed part of the Ministry of Works [Gongbu], and according to Jessica Harrison-Hall, the Guoyuanchang [Orchard Factory], the imperial lacquer factory that began production after the move of the capital to Beijing, was established with Zhang Degang as its head; it is this factory that among other masterpieces produced the famous Xuande-marked lacquer table preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Clunas and Harrison-Hall 2014, p. 107).
It therefore seems that Zhang Cheng’s activity as one of China’s foremost lacquer craftsmen extended well beyond the late Yuan dynasty, and that his son continued his style well into the Yongle or even the Xuande period. Such continuity would explain the unbroken stylistic development of carved lacquer ware from the late Yuan to the early Ming dynasty, as well as our difficulties in dating these fine lacquer wares with greater precision. It this context, it may be significant that Zhang Cheng inscriptions and imperial reign marks of the Yongle (1403-1424) and Xuande (1426-1435) periods can be found on similar or identical pieces – as is the case with the present design: An even larger dish carved with the same pattern and in the same style as the present piece, but inscribed with both these reign marks, is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (fig. 1, see below).
Whereas the Yongle carved lacquer style seems more firmly identified through pieces with reign marks, little is known about lacquer workshops in the Hongwu period, and a Hongwu attribution of lacquer wares is still extremely rare, even though the Gegu yaolun, which was composed in the Hongwu reign, devotes a complete section to this medium. The existence of a high-class production of imperial quality already at this period is suggested by an important Ming document recording gifts from the court of the Yongle Emperor to the Ashikaga Shogun of Japan, starting right in the first year of the Yongle reign and continuing at least until 1407. It records a total of 203 pieces of carved red lacquer to have been presented to the Japanese ruler, of which the most important gift of fifty-eight pieces in 1403 was described well enough to allow for identification of some types.
Given the time-consuming process of building up a thick enough layer of lacquer by adding and preparing multiple thin coatings, each of which needs to dry before it can be polished and the next one applied, and finally carving the design into it – a process that can stretch over years – it is considered improbable that those pieces could have been completed within the first year of the reign. It equally seems unlikely that such work could have been done in the unruly times of the short Jianwen period (1399-1402), particularly as the Emperor is known to have ordered all work that was not vital to be stopped. The types of lacquer included in the first list of gifts to Japan in 1403, which can be identified, thus ought to be of Hongwu date.
In line with these considerations, Lee King-tsi and Hu Shih-chang have proposed some distinguishing features between Hongwu and Yongle carved lacquers and have tried to identify Hongwu pieces (Lee & Hu 2001 and 2005-6). They have also studied the various lacquer pieces inscribed with a finely carved and gilded Xuande reign mark over a partly effaced, thinly scratched Yongle mark. They have identified over thirty such pieces, and have ascribed nine pieces with Yongle and/or Xuande reign marks to the Hongwu period, including the Ashmolean dish (fig. 1) and even the V&A lacquer table. They suggest, for example, that flower-decorated pieces of the Hongwu reign characteristically show mixed seasonal flowers, while those of the Yongle period tend to show only a single flower. Dishes with a combination of flowers such as seen here are in fact extremely rare.
Lee and Hu propose that on lacquer, Yongle marks were not added at the workshops, but later in the reign, after the pieces had been moved from Nanjing to the new capital, Beijing. This would explain why pieces from the Hongwu reign could also bear a Yongle reign mark, why the calligraphy is less accomplished than one would expect from an imperial workshop, and why the thin needle engraving follows that of the Zhang Cheng marks. The exact reason why some Yongle-marked items are also inscribed with a Xuande reign mark is still unresolved. It is possible that new lacquer pieces could simply not be provided quickly enough, when the new emperor ascended the throne, so that existing ones were re-attributed.
While Yuan wares generally feature a bolder, somewhat rougher style, and dishes usually have a grooved rim and a guri (tixi) design around the outside, Yongle pieces tend to display the more quiet, homogeneous perfection demanded of imperial wares, whether for use at court or as diplomatic gifts to foreign rulers. The present dish displays a more controlled and assured manner of execution than most Yuan pieces, yet evokes a more lively sense of movement in the arrangement of its flowers than typical Yongle carvings. It would therefore seem to fit best in between, and may also have to be placed into the Hongwu reign. Although it can of course not be proven that the present dish was made by Zhang Cheng, its exceptional quality, its general style, and the way the signature is inscribed certainly give no reason to dispute such an attribution.
Only one companion piece, of the same design and similar size as the present dish, but perhaps uninscribed, appears to be recorded, probably in a Japanese private collection and included in the exhibition Tōyō no shikkōgei/Oriental Lacquer Arts, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 1977, cat. no. 513; the only other dish of this design that appears to be preserved, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from the Beurdeley collection, of even larger size and inscribed with a Xuande superimposed over a Yongle reign mark, was offered in these rooms 15th July 1980, lot 211, and included in the exhibition Ming. Fifty Years that Changed China, The British Museum, London, 2014, catalogue fig. 87 (fig. 1), where a Hongwu date was put forward as the most probable.
Stylistically related lacquer wares include, for example, two smaller dishes carved with layered designs of peonies and camellias, respectively, both attributed to the Yongle period, included in The Complete Collection of Treasures, op.cit., pls 20 and 21; carved lacquer pieces of comparable size include a box and cover attributed to the Yuan dynasty, a dish attributed to the Yongle period, another box of the Xuande reign, and a box cover attributed to the early Ming dynasty, ibid., pls 6, 17, 57 and 64, all from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing.
The present dish has now returned to Sotheby’s London for the fourth time in over half a century. It has a most illustrious history, having successively formed part of three important collections, including that of Sir Percival and Lady David. Sir Percival, whose uncanny eye for quality is impressively documented in his collection of Chinese ceramics, now in the British Museum, was in this case, too, ahead of his time. Having generally been drawn to pieces with inscriptions, he was probably intrigued by the signature on this clearly exceptional piece, although at the time early carved lacquer was still much of a mystery.
When the dish was included in the Oriental Ceramic Society’s Ming exhibition sixty years ago, Fritz Low-Beer, one of the greatest lacquer connoisseurs and collectors of the time, wrote in his review of the exhibition (Low-Beer, op.cit., p. 12), “We owe thanks to the organizers who collected fifty-five lacquer objects for the O.C.S. exhibition, The Arts of the Ming Dynasty. Never before has Ming lacquer been so prominently displayed in Britain. Interest in this branch of Chinese art began only a few years ago and our knowledge remains scanty. We do not possess any significant examples of Ming lacquer which we might attribute with absolute certainty even to the entire period, not to mention to any of its reigns.” In the exhibition, none of the lacquer pieces were dated in the catalogue entries, but the present dish formed part of the “1st group” of lacquers characterized as “Deeply carved in fourteenth-fifteenth century style” and “all attributed to this early period”, a daring proposition at the time. While illustrating the present dish in his review together with only three other pieces, Low-Beer nevertheless felt obliged to state “I have no definite opinion as to when and where this interesting dish was made.”
Percy D. Krolik had assembled an important collection of Chinese decorative arts, partly sold at Sotheby’s London in 1970, including a group of cloisonné wares that was described by Edgar Bluett in Oriental Art, Winter 1965, and some archaic jades, today in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Luben Alexandrov Basmadjieff, of Bulgarian origin, owned some important early Ming blue-and-white porcelains that were sold at Sotheby’s London in 1972.
Sir Percival David, Chinese Connoisseurship: The Ko Ku Yao Lun: The Essential Criteria of Antiquities, London, 1971.
Harry M. Garner, ‘The Export of Chinese Lacquer to Japan in the Yüan and Early Ming Dynasties’, Archives of Asian Art, vol. 25, 1971/2, pp. 6-28.
Wang Shixiang, Ancient Chinese Lacquerware, Beijing, 1987.
Lee King-tsi and Hu Shih-chang, ‘Inscriptions on Ming Lacquer’, Bulletin of the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong, no. 10, 1992-3, pp. 28-34; reprinted in Layered Beauty. The Baoyizhai Collection of Chinese Lacquer, Art Museum, Institute of Chinese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2010, pp. 191-200.
Li Jiufang, ‘Carved red lacquer ware and red ware by Shi Dabin, Ming Dynasty’, Palace Museum Journal, no. 4, 1997.
Lee King-tsi and Hu Shih-chang, ‘Carved Lacquer of the Hongwu Period’, Oriental Art, vol. XLVII, no. 1, 2001, pp. 10-20, reprinted in Layered Beauty, op.cit., 2010, pp. 171-82.
Lee King-tsi and Hu Shih-chang, ‘Further Observations on Carved Lacquer of the Hongwu Period’, Oriental Art, vol. LV, no. 3, 2005-6, pp. 41-7; reprinted in Layered Beauty, op.cit., pp. 183-90.
Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, eds, Ming. Fifty Years that Changed China, The British Museum, London, 2014.
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