The Yongzheng (1722-35) and Qianlong (1735-96) imperial porcelains with peaches in famille rose undoubtedly rank among the most elegant ceramics ever made in Chinese history. Created at the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen at their peak of development and painted with auspicious motifs rooted in China’s antiquity, in a palette inspired by Jesuit technology, they are extremely rare and immensely elegant, representing a zenith of aesthetic and technological achievement of court art in China.
Peaches are perhaps China’s most auspicious fruit, having a long tradition as omens of longevity and harbingers of happiness, and flowering peach branches are believed to ward off evil. In the Shi Jing [Classic of Poetry], the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, edited by Confucius (551-479 BC), the peach is used as a metaphor for thriving marriage and family. The poet Tao Qian (365-427) tells of a fisherman who, when following the source of a stream in a peach orchard – 'Peach Blossom Spring' – through a crevice in a rock, discovered a paradisiacal world. A peach orchard is also the setting for the oath of brotherhood sworn by the three main protagonists of the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of whom, the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) general Guan Yu, was deified and worshipped as Emperor Guan or God of War for near two millennia. The ‘peaches of immortality’, which are said to grow in the garden of Xi Wangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, flower only once every three thousand years, take three thousand years to bear fruit and another three thousand years to ripen, and are then offered in a banquet to the immortals. Dongfang Shuo, a witty and clever Han dynasty scholar, who became the hero of many legends, is reported to have stolen peaches of immortality and thus to have become immortal. And the same feat is told of the mischievous Monkey King Sun Wukong, hero of the novel Journey to the West, who subsequently was recruited by Guanyin (Bodhisattva of Compassion) to accompany the Tang dynasty (618-907) monk Xuanzang on his trip to India to obtain Buddhist sutras.
The Yongzheng Emperor was clearly attached to these stories, as he had himself painted as the recipient of such good luck in an album leaf that shows him in possession of a peach of immortality, with a monkey hanging from a nearby tree (fig. 1), while in another leaf from the same album he is depicted gazing at a water fall with a red bat (fu, homophonous for happiness) flying overhead. The Yongzheng Emperor was a firm believer in portents of good fortune. Having ascended the throne under somewhat nebulous circumstances, the legality of his succession was persistently questioned, which made him more receptive than any other Qing (1644-1911) emperor for auspicious symbolism.
Peaches had been widely used to decorate imperial porcelain for preceding emperors, as exemplified in Kangxi dishes with a peach in wucai or ‘five-coloured’ palette inscribed in gold wanshou (‘Infinite Longevity’, a phrase reserved for the emperors), see Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong: Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 70, pl. 53 (fig. 2). However, the Yongzheng court saw many more peach designs, as the Emperor had peaches represented in all possible media, often in combination with bats. Peaches were so favoured by the Yongzheng Emperor that on some porcelain bowls the fruit was even used to encircle his reign mark, see Porcelain with Painted Enamels of Qing Yongzheng Period (1723-1735), National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2013, cat. no. 7.
It was only in the Yongzheng period that the porcelain painters could begin painting nature scenes in naturalistic – if idealised – colours. This was made possible by the new famille-rose palette (fencai or ‘powder colours’). It was inspired by enamels introduced to China by Jesuit missionaries who arrived at the imperial court during the late Kangxi period and adapted at Jingdezhen in the years preceding the Yongzheng reign. The soft colouration of fruiting and flowering peach branches made this design ideal to show off the newly developed fencai palette with its pastel shades of pink, yellow and green, as perfectly demonstrated by the peach bowl and the tianqiuping or ‘celestial globe’ vase.
Another feature favoured by the Yongzheng Emperor and new to his reign period, was the difficult and sophisticated technique of painting branches that flow over the rim of bowls and dishes, an artistic device referred to as changzhi (long branch), a homophone of the phrase ‘Eternal Peace’. Although this design may be ultimately sourced to a Kangxi pattern developed in the imperial enamelling workshops of the Forbidden City, Beijing (fig. 3), it was only in the Yongzheng period that peach branches started to be depicted as flowing over the rim of vessels. A particular request by the Yongzheng Emperor preserved in the records of the Zaobanchu, the workshops of the Imperial Household Department, reflects his interest in the ‘long branch’ design: “19th day, 4th month, Yongzheng 9th year (1731)…His Majesty ordered to take glazed and unglazed porcelain and paint on it the enamelled designs of Eternal Peace…” (Feng Xianming, Annotated Collection of Historical Documents on Ancient Chinese Ceramics, Taipei, 2000, p. 222).
Porcelain with famille-rose peaches continued to be highly favoured by the Qianlong Emperor. Both the Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors had bowls, dishes and tianqiuping made with peaches in famille rose, though the Qianlong Emperor had clearly more tianqiuping vases of massive size made than his father (see lot 3610). This is in tune with this emperor’s love of objects that give a magnificent, imposing and opulent look, which are famous among the Qianlong imperial porcelains.
Altogether the number of porcelains with famille-rose peaches made for the Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors is small. Although the peach design on the present lots represents one of the best-known porcelain patterns of the two reigns, this is due more to its endearing character than a profusion of extant examples. Comparable examples, although frequently illustrated, are surprisingly rare. For example, the famous Yongzheng vase from the collection of the Hon. Ogden R. Reid, sold in these rooms, 7th May 2002, lot 532 and donated in 2004 to the Shanghai Museum by Dr. Alice Cheng, seems to be the only ‘peach’ vase of ‘olive’ form known (fig. 4).
Both the peach bowl and the tianqiuping offered here formerly belonged to Edward T. Chow, one of the most influential figures of the 20th century in the field of Chinese art. The Edward T. Chow Collection that was sold in three parts 1980-81 in these rooms and in our London rooms and included Ming and Qing Porcelain and Works of Art as well as Early Chinese Ceramics and Ancient Bronzes, is acclaimed as one of the most important collections of Chinese ceramics ever sold at auction.
Like his father, the Qianlong Emperor clearly favoured the peach design. For the Emperor’s eightieth birthday in 1790, for example, court officials commissioned a peach-shaped box in coral and gold with a longevity character, see China. The Three Emperors, 1662-1795, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005-6, cat. no. 294 (fig. 5). The superb pattern of twin flowering and fruiting trees extending around the sides of this massive vase was one of the best-loved porcelain designs in the Qianlong period. The design of two trees with different blossoms and bark, whose interlaced branches together bear nine fruit – a propitious number – is sophisticated in its concept and reassuring in its eternal message conveying affluence and long life.
Tianqiuping or ‘celestial globe’ vases, named after their resemblance to a planet, were first created in the early Ming dynasty, in the era of the global voyages (1405-33) led by the Muslim Admiral, General Zheng He, with the form perhaps inspired by Islamic copper or glass prototypes of the Middle East; see Ma Wenkuan, ‘A study of Islamic elements in Ming Dynasty Porcelain’, Li Baoping et al, eds., Porcelain and Society, China Archaeology and Art Digest, vol. 3, no. 4, June 2000, p. 12, figs. 13-14. The form became particularly popular during the Qianlong period and was produced in a variety of glazes, decorative techniques and motifs. Tianqiuping with the design of famille-rose peaches like the present vase, however, are extremely rare and only a few examples are known. Compared with related examples, the present piece is unusual in the pale shading from yellow to pink of the peaches, which bear delicate spots, and the sparser distribution of the foliage, which leaves much of the gnarled tree trunk exposed.
Related examples include two vases in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong: Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 335, pl. 16, and in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Porcelains with Cloisonné Enamel Decoration and Famille-rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 86, the latter probably illustrated again in Geng Baochang, Ming Qing ciqi jianding [Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain], Hong Kong, 1993, fig. 443. Others include one in Taipei published in the Illustrated Catalogue of Ch'ing Dynasty Porcelain in the National Palace Museum, Republic of China: Ch'ien-lung Ware and Other Wares, Tokyo, 1981, pl.27; one preserved in one of the former imperial summer residences in Liaoning, illustrated in The Prime Cultural Relics Collected by Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum: The Chinaware Volume, Part I, Shenyang, 2008, p. 177, pl. 11; one in the National Museum of China, Beijing, see Studies on the Collections of the National Museum of China: Porcelain Section, Qing Dynasty, Shanghai, 2007, pl. 88; and one in the British Museum, London, published in Jessica Rawson, ed., The British Museum Book of Chinese Art, London, 1992, pl. 187.
Another famille-rose 'peach' Qianlong tianqiuping from the Meiyintang collection was sold in these rooms, 5th October 2011, lot 15. See also a Qianlong bottle from the T.Y. Chao collection, sold in these rooms, 18th November 1986, lot 134, illustrated in Sotheby's Hong Kong, Twenty Years: 1973-1993, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 277. The peach-and-bat design was also used for other vessel forms of the Qianlong period, although equally in only small numbers. A bowl of Qianlong mark and period is published, for example, in Soame Jenyns, Later Chinese Porcelain: The Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1912), London, 1951, pl. LVI, fig. 2.
For one of the rare Yongzheng prototypes of tianqiuping, with only eight peaches, see a piece in Geng Baochang, ed., Porcelains from the Qing Dynasty Imperial Kilns in the Palace Museum Collection, Beijing, 2005, vol. 1, part 2, pl. 76, also illustrated in Porcelains with Cloisonné Enamel Decoration and Famille-rose Decoration, op. cit., pl. 45 (fig. 6). Another from the Barbara Hutton collection, painted with nine peaches, was exhibited in The Barbara Hutton Collection of Chinese Porcelain, Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu, 1956-7, catalogue pl. XV, sold in our London rooms, 6th July 1971, lot 259, and later in these rooms, 30th April 1996, lot 498. A smaller Yongzheng vase with six peaches only, is illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong: Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, op. cit., p. 210, pl. 39.
The peach design was also used on related tianqiuping, see, for example, two vases with underglaze-blue peaches and other fruits, one sold in our New York and London rooms, 15th June 1983, lot 394, and 17th November 1999, lot 783; the other, with a yellow enamel ground, sold in these rooms 8th April 2014, lot 3008. Compare also a Ming dynasty prototype with underglaze-blue floral design, of Xuande mark and period (1426-35), illustrated in Geng Baochang ed., Early Ming Blue and White Porcelain of the Palace Museum, Beijing, 2002, vol. 1, cat. no. 78.
The present tianqiuping was once in the collection of J.M. Hu (1911-95) (fig. 7), a great connoisseur-collector and patron of the arts who made a large donation of ceramics to the Shanghai Museum, which today is exhibited there at the Zande Lou Gallery of Ceramics, and published in Wang Qingzheng and George Fan, Selected Ceramics from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. J.M. Hu, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1989. An exhibition of part of his ceramic collection was jointly organised in 2005 by the Art Museum of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Shanghai Museum and the Capital Museum in Beijing, see Qing Imperial Monochromes in the Zande Lou Collection, Hong Kong, 2005. Twelve of his Qing imperial monochromes were sold at a theme sale in these rooms, 9th October 2012.
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