Jade from the Western Kun is matchless
for its skilled craftsmanship.
Water mills grinding the jade as thin as paper,
making drinking vessels and bowls for the officials.
Differing in form from what craftsmen have recorded
in the Zhouli.
Half a bulging caltrop, turned-over lotus leaf,
a kind of gardenia supporting the base.
Or one could compare it to an opened oyster shell,
like a bright moon clearly reflected in the water.
The hands find no marks, the eye finds hints
of how it was conceived and executed.
The tools handled with clever contrivance and clear
I simply cannot keep myself from gazing at it again
From the final words of this poem it is clear that the Qianlong Emperor was full of admiration by the beauty of the cup and his affection for the piece as well as his appreciation of the craftsmanship had no bounds. At least twenty-five extant Mughal-style jades bear the emperor's poems, engraved in the palace workshops (For further historical details see the article by Teng Shu-ping in the Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Hindustan Jade in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1983, pp. 9-109).
Exquisitely fashioned from a fine white stone to form a stunningly delicate yet equally masculine vessel, this piece is rooted firmly in the tradition of Hindustan carving of the Mughal period. The ram’s head, modelled with carefully detailed facial features and combed beard, curves gracefully before flaring into a contrasting gourd-form cup. The exterior of the cup further complements the delicate scalloped form, which has been elegantly carved with acanthus leaves, and the foot modelled in the form of a fleshy lotus flower. The milky white jade heightens the sense of mystery and ethereality to undoubtedly cater to the Qianlong Emperor’s taste for the exotic.
Mughal-style ram's-head cups made during the Qianlong period follow two distinctive forms and styles: an asymmetric gourd shape that closely imitates the famous Shah Jahan cup, and a Chinese variation of the Mughal version that has a deeper cup that is of lobed form. The present piece follows the Shah Jahan cup closely, particularly in the thinly-carved walls, elegantly rendered head and curving neck of the ram, and highly floral decoration. The Shah Jahan cup, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (IS.12-1962), is one of the finest pieces of Mughal jade recorded. That cup, which is attributed to the 17th century (it also bears an inscription relating it to Shah Jahan and dating it to 1657), would appear to predate the present piece by about a century. It is recorded since 1868, when it was in the collection of Colonel Charles Seton Guthrie, late of the Bengal Engineers, who went to India in 1828, and it entered the Museum's collection in 1962. It is illustrated and discussed by Robert Skelton, The Indian Heritage, Court Life and Arts Under Mughal rule, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 1982, p.151, no.12, and by Susan Stronge, Made for Mughal Emperors – Royal Treasures from Hindustan, London, 2010, p. 215, pls. 177-8.
A cup of this type, but lacking the detailed curve of the ram’s neck and with a flat floral foot, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, was included in the Museum’s exhibition Exquisite Beauty – Islamic Jades, 2008, cat. no. 245, together with another with a flat oval foot and inlaid eyes, cat. no. 246; and a cup, but without a foot and the head placed vertically, published in James C.Y. Watt, Chinese Jades from the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, 1989, pl. 99; and a cup of this form, but with handle carved in the form of a goose head and inscribed with an imperial poem, from the Collection of Wilfred Fleisher and later sold at Christie’s London, 11th November 2003, lot 68.
Chinese artists were quick to assimilate certain elements of the foreign art form into their native tradition to form a new and characteristically Chinese style; see one in the National Palace Museum, included in the exhibition op. cit., cat. no. 266; another in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures in the Palace Museum. Jadeware (III), Hong Kong, 1995, pl. 161; and a cup from the collection of Dr and Mrs Marvin Gordon, published in Magic, Art and Order. Jade in Chinese Culture, Palm Springs Desert Museum, Palm Springs, 1990, p. 152, pl. 164. See also a cup, from the T.B. Kitson collection, sold in our London rooms, 21st February 1961, lot 291, included in the exhibitions Chinese Jade Throughout the Ages, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1975, cat. no. 439, and The Woolf Collection of Chinese Jade, Sotheby’s London, 2013, cat no. 60; and another from the Tournet collection, offered in these rooms, 11th April 2008, lot 2818.
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