Grand in stature and magnificently decorated, the present moonflask represents the height of porcelain production at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province during the Qianlong reign. It illustrates the Emperor’s pursuit of innovative wares through highly original combinations of designs and forms inspired by historical masterpieces, which served as a reminder of the nation’s glorious past. The production of large vessels required the highest level of technical skill only to be found amongst potters working in the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, under the instructions of Tang Ying (1682-1756), the preeminent and most accomplished Superintendent at Jingdezhen during the early Qing period. Imperial records reveal that the Qianlong Emperor habitually asked Tang Ying to design special pieces for him, thus opening avenues for such fine wares to be created.
Tang Ying was employed by the Neiwufu [Imperial Household Department] in the Forbidden City at the age of sixteen where he was trained in the arts of enamelling and painting at the Enamelling Workshops located in the Yangxindian [Hall of Mental Cultivation], within the Imperial Palace grounds. He was exposed to the many beautiful artefacts from the Imperial collection that became his inspiration for new and innovative shapes and designs later in his career. In 1728, he was appointed commissioner (yuanwailang) by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and was transferred to supervise ceramics production at Jingdezhen. Under his direction, that lasted more than two decades, porcelain manufacture at Jingdezhen rose to unprecedented levels which had far reaching influence on ceramics manufacture both in China and in the West.
A popular form in the early fifteenth century, moonflasks experienced renewed favour with Tang Ying under the instruction of the Yongzheng Emperor (1723-35). The present moonflask combines two innovations of Yongle period (1403-24) ceramics; its flattened circular form with a raised medallion and the elegant design of a dense foliate lotus scroll. Four Yongle blue and white porcelain flasks from the Qing Court collection, and still in Beijing, are illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Blue and White with Underglaze Red (I), Hong Kong, 2000, pls 34-37. The Yongle prototype reveals the influence of Islamic artefacts of the time, such as metalwork or glass; for example there is a slightly larger Syrian brass canteen, dating to the mid-13th century, in the collection of the Freer Gallery, Washington, which is of similar form. Interestingly the brass canteen is decorated with Christian imagery as well as calligraphy, geometric designs and animal scrolls. The form of the Syrian canteen is, however, close to the Chinese porcelain example in that it is circular, with a flat back and domed front, and has a decorative roundel in the centre of the domed surface.
It is interesting to trace the development of this form and design from the Yongle period and in the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns. While Yongle moonflasks were potted without a foot and flattened and left unglazed on one side, the Qing craftsman has created an upright vessel that can be appreciated in the round. The ribbed cylindrical neck has been retained, but given more prominence through its larger proportions and decorative motifs, and is flanked by scroll handles instead of ringed loop handles, thus satisfying the contemporary taste for the ornate. Notably, the Yongzheng versions are more restrained and potted without the raised medallion while painted with elegant fruiting and flowering branches; see a underglaze-blue decorated moonflask sold in our New York rooms, 28th-30th November 1992, lot 340, and again at Christie’s New York, 16th/17th September 2010, lot 1427; and a copper-red painted version, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures in the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (III), Hong Kong, 2000, pl. 199. Monochrome versions were also produced, which were moulded with the eight trigrams (bagua) encircling a raised medallion, such as one covered in a Ge-type glaze, with a Yongzheng reign mark and of the period, sold twice in our Hong Kong rooms, 14th November 1989, lot 187, and 1st November 1999, lot 349.
It was only in the Qianlong reign that the moulded medallion with painted designs was combined, possibly in response to Qianlong’s preference for showy and luxurious pieces. The ingenuity of the craftsman of the present piece is highlighted in the perfectly balanced composition of lotus blooms and foliate scrolls, all meticulously executed in the finest cobalt blue. Such rich yet not overcrowded designs could only be achieved through a thorough understanding of the importance of spacing. Curling lines are offset by the bold geometric nature of the petal and leaf borders, all of which are hemmed in with a keyfret band lingzhi scroll around the mouth rim and foot respectively – cleverly selected as they mirror the curvilinear and geometric forms of the overall design. The reference to these early wares is further highlighted on the present piece in the deliberate ‘heaping and piling’ of the cobalt to imitate their predecessor’s mottled effect.
A closely related moonflask was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th October 2006, lot 1066; and another, but lacking the petal band encircling the central medallion, in the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, was included in the exhibition Chinese Ceramics from Chicago Collections, Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, Northwestern University, Illinois, 1982, cat. no. 67.
Moonflasks of this form and size are more commonly known decorated with petals enclosing the bajixiang radiating from a central double vajra and the lingzhi scroll repeated around the neck; see one published in the Illustrated Catalogue of Ch’ing Dynasty Porcelain in the National Palace Museum, vol. II, Tokyo, 1981, cat. no. 5; two from Japanese collections, published in Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, pls. 949 and 950, the latter unmarked; another from the Edward T. Chow Collection, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 19th May 1981, lot 544. More recently, another was sold in our Paris rooms, 16th December 2015, lot 78; and a pair was sold in these rooms, 15th May 2010, lot 222. Compare also a moonflask of this type, painted with a simpler lotus scroll and three bats encircling a shou character on the raised medallion, the neck with bats flying above crashing waves and the foot also with crashing waves, included in the exhibition Chinese Blue and White Porcelain, City Museum and Art Gallery, Hong Kong, 1975, cat. no. 111.
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