Guan yao, the fabled ‘official ware’ specially created for the imperial court of the Southern Song (1127-1279) in Hangzhou in south China, is perhaps the most desirable and certainly one of the rarest types of Chinese ceramics. Its serenity and seeming simplicity could only be achieved through utmost sophistication. It showcases Chinese potters at the height of their ingenuity, technical know-how and aesthetic vision. Like great artists and artisans anywhere, they captured – perhaps inadvertently – the zeitgeist of the period in their creations. The works of art they conceived embodied the leitmotifs of China’s highly educated scholar-officials, the non-aristocratic ruling elite of the Song (960-1279).
The Song dynasty was marked by two contrasting Confucian concepts of thought, one conservative, personified in particular by Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072), who advocated a revaluation of ancient tradition as a source for moral principles and a guideline for righteous behavior; the other reformist, propagated by Wang Anshi (1021-1086), who proposed idealistic reforms to achieve an ideal social order and himself practiced an exemplary simple, frugal lifestyle.
In this climate, the baroque voluptuousness that had characterized the aesthetic landscape in the Tang dynasty (618-907) was no longer acceptable even at court and gave way to a more modest, stream-lined functionality. Luxury goods had to be sophisticated rather than just precious.
For the literati-scholars of the day the interaction with the past was not only romantic fascination but compelling necessity. In the words of James T.C. Liu "It was during the Sung [Song] that the ancient Confucian heritage evolved into the new pattern that was to permeate Chinese society for the next thousand years." The rituals of Antiquity, in which bronze vessels had played a central part, "expressed the society’s consciousness of its own identity and regulated, in an all-pervasive way, every need, every detail, indeed everything in human life, in accordance with a meaningful, aesthetic, harmonious, and satisfying moral and philosophical order."1
This attachment to a golden Chinese past only intensified after the foreign Jin (1115-1234) had conquered the Song capital and forced the court to move south to a city – modern Hangzhou – the emperor never fully identified with but merely considered the ‘temporary capital’. When the Palace Maintenance Office endeavoured to commission a new official ware for the Southern Song court, the modernity embodied by the sparse but exquisite Ru ware was taken as model, with its emphasis on tonal variation and patterns of crazing reminiscent of those provoked naturally in precious stones. New commissions of such ceramics suggested cultured patronage rather than wasteful consumption and at the same time conveyed an unbroken continuation of imperial taste and style from Northern (960-1127) to Southern Song. For shapes, the form of archaic ritual bronzes or jades provided the most important inspiration. Archaic bronzes and jades had begun to be excavated, researched and collected as symbols and witnesses of a blessed era of Chinese history, due to their central function in important state rituals in antiquity. The five most important examples of this ware in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, are in the form of a bronze zun, a massive bronze hu with tubular handles and a smaller one of similar form, a fang hu with tubular handles, and a jade cong.2
The present octagonal bottle form is not directly copied, but clearly based on late Bronze Age prototypes. This would have signalled at court a direct connection with the past and imbued the vessel with a significance a newly invented form could not have provided. An unusual type of circular bottle, hu, dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC - AD 220), might have provided inspiration, of related form with low body and tall neck, with engraved designs intersected by horizontal bands around neck and shoulder; an example is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession no. 2007.133 (fig. 1); another in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C., accession no. RLS 1997.48.831. Raised ribs appear, for example, around the neck of tall-necked bottles with a ‘garlic-head’ mouth, mostly of Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) date (see Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, accession no. RLS 1997.48.592, or an example sold in our London rooms, 20th June 2001, lot 182). The angularity was certainly modelled on bronze prototypes, where it appears in many forms, although perhaps not in this hu shape. Since Chinese ceramics are largely fashioned on the wheel rather than in moulds, a multi-facetted shape such as this did not come naturally to the potters, but required awkward treatment, since the circular vessel that was assembled from individually thrown horizontal sections, then had to be carefully cut into shape once it was leather-hard, prior to firing.
The exquisite, unctuous glaze of the present vase with its smooth pleasing texture, milky-blue tint and subtle gloss was achieved through gradual application of multiple layers and presumably successive firings. The thick coating thus formed softly envelopes the angular shape, rounding off all sharp angles to create an object that invites being held. The distinct web of veins of the large-scale crackle, probably provoked by a well-controlled cooling process after the last firing and subsequent staining, acts like a design formed by nature, giving the whole piece an aspect as if carved out of one large boulder of a fine jade-like stone.
The dark blackish-brown body visible at the foot and vaguely perceptible through the glaze at raised edges, which is characteristic of Southern Song guan ware, adds depth to the glaze and gravitas to the whole object, as it subtly accentuates the shape. In the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), when guan ware was much copied by the Jingdezhen kilns of Jiangxi province, this dark stoneware body was generally imitated by coating Jingdezhen’s white porcelain with a blackish-brown slip before glazing.
Guan ware is mentioned and lauded already in contemporary texts of the Southern Song period. According to those texts, Xiuneisi, the Palace Maintenance Office, set up a kiln in the new capital, modern Hangzhou, to produce wares modelled on the official ware of the Northern Song. Somewhat later, another kiln at Hangzhou produced a similar but lesser ware. The basic message of these reports appears now supported by archaeological research, since two different kiln sites have been explored at Hangzhou, one at Wuguishan, south of the former Imperial city, the other at Laohudong on the site formerly occupied by the Imperial city.3 Because of their locations and the different qualities of the sherds recovered, the Wuguishan kiln has been interpreted as the (lesser) Jiaotanxia kiln, the Laohudong kiln as the exalted Xiuneisi manufactory.
It is difficult, however, to link the best examples of guan ware to either kiln site. In quality and beauty they seem to surpass not only the fragments found at the Jiaotanxia but also those from the supposed Xiuneisi kiln site at Laohudong. It is still too early to say whether such outstanding examples were made there, but have not turned up at the excavation site, since nothing reaching this quality would ever have been discarded; or else, whether they may have been made at yet another, superior and perhaps smaller kiln in Hangzhou as yet undiscovered, which may have been active for a shorter period. Compare a fragment of a related circular bottle excavated at the Laohudong kiln site, included in the exhibition Maboroshi no mei yō. Nan Sō Shūnaishi kan yō/Temporary Exhibition: Southern Song Xiuneisi Guan Ware. Archaeological Findings from the Kiln site at Laohudong, Hangzhou, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 2010, cat. no. 05 (fig. 2).
Song dynasty examples are exceedingly rare even in the Palace Museums of Taipei and Beijing, which contain the former imperial collection. Vessels of top-quality guan ware are today virtually all in museum collections. Most closely related is the famous octagonal bottle of similar form reputedly from the Chinese imperial collection, thereafter in the collections of F.C. Harrison, Sir A. Daniel Hall, Robert C. Bruce and Edward T. Chow, later in the collection of Ataka Eiichi and today in the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, sold twice in our London rooms, 1st July 1943, lot 70 and 12th May 1953, lot 60, and at Christie’s London, 12th October 1970, lot 77, frequently illustrated and exhibited, and included side by side with the present example in the OCS exhibition The Ceramic Art of China, London, 1971, cat. no. 103 (illustrated pl. 68) (fig. 3). That bottle is slightly smaller than the present piece and shows a much more faint crackle.
Only two other vessels representing Song guan ware at its best have ever appeared at auction: the fang hu with tubular handles from the collection of Mrs. Alfred Clark, sold in our London rooms, 25th March 1975, lot 101, published in Sekai tōji zenshū/Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 12, Tokyo, 1976, col.pl. 71; and the mallet-shaped Yujinyuan bottle sold in these rooms, 11th April 2008, lot 2601.
Crackled bluish-green glazed ceramics of guan type became one of China's most widely admired and most avidly imitated ceramic styles. Guan ware was copied already in its own time by the Longquan kilns in Zhejiang province, and ever since has inspired a vast production of crackled wares, which still continues today. Many Ming dynasty (1368-1644) writers have evoked the fame of Southern Song guan ware and important copies, but generally of small size, were made at the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen, both in the Xuande period (1426-35) and in the Chenghua reign (1465-87). In the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-35) sent originals from the imperial collection to Jingdezhen as models to copy, and a vase in the shape of the present example was probably among them.
The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-95), who was a particularly avid collector, received a large number of tribute pieces, which entered the imperial collection, were accepted as genuine Song guan wares and sometimes even provided with imperial inscriptions. These tributes to the Qing court and the Qianlong Emperor's inscriptions have for a long time blurred our vision of the true identity of Southern Song guan ware. Only recently, later copies among them have been identified as such. The National Palace Museum exhibition in 1989, for example, contained 143 items of so-called guan ware, including thirty vases, of which only four were considered to be genuine Southern Song guan wares.4
John Henry Levy, who died in 1976, was the son of the well known collectors of Chinese ceramics, the. Hon. Mrs. Nellie Ionides and her first husband Walter Henry Levy, but was an important collector in his own right. The present bottle was the highlight of the 1975 Sotheby's sale, which included a major part of his collection.
1 James T.C. Liu, Ou-yang Hsiu. An Eleventh-Century Neo-Confucianist, Stanford, 1967, p. vii, and p. 163.
2 See the Special Exhibition of Sung Dynasty Kuan Ware at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1989, cat. Nos. 2 and 8-10; and China at the Inception of the Second Millennium: Art and Culture of the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279, Taipei, 2000, cat. no. I-31.
3 Nan Song guan yao/Southern Song Governmental Porcelain Workshop, Beijing, 1996; Du Zhengxian, ed., Hangzhou Laohudong yaozhi ciqi jingxuan [Selection of porcelains from the Laohudong kiln sites in Hangzhou], Beijing, 2002; Zhang Zhenchang, ed., Nan Song guan yao wenji/A Collection of Essays on Southern Song Dynasty Guan Kiln, Beijing, 2004.
4 This view is expressed by Ts'ai Ho-pi in the catalogue, but in veiled terms, see Special Exhibition of Sung Dynasty Kuan Ware at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1989.
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