This outstanding pair of vases, formerly in the collection of Alfred Morrison at Fonthill House, is an exquisite example of 'soldier' vases produced during the early Qianlong period (r. 1736-95). The monumental size of 'soldier' vases required great technical skill during the potting, firing, and enameling. Consequently, vases of this type, which were normally made in pairs or in quadruples, were very difficult and costly to produce. The present vases represent the highest quality of the type. Decorated in the highly developed famille-rose palette with a rare design of pheasants among branches of auspicious flowers between equally extravagant bands, their superiority is evidenced in the masterful enameling that is embellished with generous use of gilding on the peony blooms, and in their perfectly proportioned form and design.
The luxurious and exotic style of these vases captures the height of the popularity of chinoiserie that was sweeping through Europe in the 18th century. In response to the current European taste, elements of the Baroque and Rococo aesthetic infiltrated the Chinese craftsman’s repertoire. Traditional Chinese motifs were synthesized with Western styles, as indicated by the elaborate lambrequin borders on the neck and shoulder, which combine richly-patterned grounds, leafy tendrils, and C-scrolls with shaped panels containing various auspicious Chinese motifs. This fanciful Europeanized Chinese design is also seen in the extensive gilding and asymmetrical composition.
While 'soldier' vases were frequently enameled with phoenixes and flowers, it is particularly unusual to find examples depicting pheasants. The craftsman has cleverly captured the exoticism of phoenixes by rendering the pheasants with vibrant, long-flowing feathers.
'Soldier' vase examples exist in blue and white, iron-red and gilt, Imari, and famille-rose palettes. Most of these are now found in the West and it is generally assumed that they were made for the export market, however a rare subset of 'soldier' vases bearing figural motifs might suggest the presence of a concurrent domestic market for these vessels. Among this group are a pair of vases illustrating Xiwangmu (Queen Mother of the West) riding on a phoenix and greeted by elegant ladies and auspicious animals, sold in our London rooms, 4th November 1969, lot 182, and again in these rooms, 29th March 2011, lot 2; and a pair depicting ladies on a terrace playing a game of go, that pair was also formerly in the collection of Alfred Morrison at Fonthill House, and was sold at Christie's, London, 18th October, 1971, lot 30, and then in our Paris rooms, 27th June, 2001, lot 316.
Comparable vases of this size with elaborately decorated borders, but painted with phoenixes amongst flowers, include a pair in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, illustrated in Maria Antonia Pinto de Matos, Porcelana Chinesa/Chinese Porcelain, Lisbon, 2003, pl. 58; a pair, from the collection of Edmund de Rothschild, Esq. T.D., sold twice at Christie’s London, 28th July 1975, lot 181, and again, 10th June 1996, lot 135; and a single vase, from the collection of the Hon. Mrs. Ronal Greville, published in G.C. Williamson, The Book of Famille Rose, London, 1927, pl. LVII (left).
The terms ‘soldier’ or ‘dragoon’ are frequently applied to vases of this massive size after an event in 1717, when Augustus the Strong (1670-1733), King of Poland and Elector of Saxony and inveterate porcelain collector, traded a regiment of 600 soldiers for a group of porcelain including several blue and white Kangxi period vases of this monumental size. Those vases came from the collection of Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia and had been housed within his own porcelain collection at Schloss Oranienburg.
This pair of 'soldier' vases was formerly in the collection of Alfred Morrison (1821-1897) and was displayed at Fonthill House in Wiltshire, England. After inheriting Fonthill House in 1857, Morrison commissioned the internationally renowned architect, Owen Jones (1809-1874), to design a room in an opulent cinquecento (16th century) style to house his collection of Chinese ceramics, one of the most significant western collections of Chinese ceramics in modern history. Photographs of the interior of Fonthill, taken in June 1988, show a number of large 'soldier' vases, including one of the present pair, along with other Chinese ceramics from his collection adorning the grand drawing room (fig.1).
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