In Praise of the Camellia – A Magnificent Blue-Ground Famille-Rose Decorated Imperial Vase
Finely potted and exquisitely decorated porcelain vases bearing elegant verses, combined with traditional flower decoration, were marvels of the Qianlong period. They tested the artist, who possibly worked under the guidance of China’s most celebrated Superintendent Tang Ying (1682-1756), in many ways. Inspired by scroll paintings, this type of decoration provided the challenge of transferring a two dimensional painting onto a three-dimensional ceramic piece. Much skill and planning went into the placing of the design, the execution of the calligraphy and the completion of the painted decoration in the famille-rose palette, creating a masterpiece designed to give great pleasure to the emperor.
The present piece belongs to a special group of wares created in the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, where the most highly skilled potters were employed to produce wares for the Qing court. The poems are written in the clerical style of calligraphy known as lishu, with the sepia ink characters neatly and spaciously placed, creating an overall impression of formal serenity. The emperor must have especially favoured the poem titled Yong shancha ('Song for the Camellia'), as it also appears on a famille-rose hexahedral brushpot with a design of flowers with the poem in sepia ink on a panel, from the Qing court collection and now in the Nanjing Museum, illustrated in The Official Kiln Porcelain of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, Shanghai, 2003, p.316; and on a closely comparable octagonal vase decorated with two floral panels and two poems, one of which is the same as that seen here but written in the regular or kaishu script, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Special Exhibition of K’ang-his, Yung-cheng and Ch’ien-lung Porcelain Ware from the Ch’ing Dynasty in the National Palace Museum, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1986, cat. no. 80. The two poems may be translated as follows:
Twelfth month finished in reed ashes,
Spring’s return announced in hourglass drum.
The camellia begins to bloom in the snow,
Ice stamens about to trip lightly on the breeze.
Scent cold, fragrance reaches out to remote distances,
Amidst remains of frost, colours transform and melt.
No need to slight its small stature,
For, once seen, it’s hard to paint well.
A quiet and gentle effect, makeup stops at that,
Fluttering in the breeze its dance comes to an end.
For gorgeousness we know it yields to pear and peach,
But in character it’s ranked with bamboo and pine.
Leaves dyed duck’s head green,
Blossoms more than crane’s crest red,
Who could’ve known that after Old Man Zhao
We’d now again see Old Gentleman Qiu!
Seals: Bide ('compared to virtue') and Langrun ('bright and lustrous')
When the immortal of Mount Guye
pays a visit to Nine Fluorescence Palace
Drawn by paired phoenixes he starts out early
in his Five Clouds Carriage,
But who knows how thin and flimsy
that Jasper Terrace Highway is,
For it’s just a stretch of rosy red cloud
on the far side of clear sky.
A spring rain has just past through
cleansing midday fragrant blossoms,
Here at the Mysterious Metropolis Abbey,
reminding me of Young Man Liu.
Now I’ll order this scene
be sketched on fine silk,
So wandering bees won’t be allowed
slyly to steal their fragrance.
With each advent of the east wind,
she’s a year more sweet and charming,
In thin crepes and light silks
eager to display her beauty.
It may be the fragrant glory of a thousand trees
half way through third month,
Yet on this day at the end of spring
loneliness fills her curtains.
Seals: Qianlong chen han ('Emperor Qianlong’s Own mark') and Weijing weiyi ('Be Precise, Be Undivided')
The poems celebrate the arrival of spring, a season associated with change and renewal for both nature and mankind. One of the poems praise the beauty of the camellia, a winter and spring flower that brings a vivid splash of colour when little else is in bloom. He often ordered poems to be inscribed on decorative objects. It is not clear whether the Qianlong Emperor actually wrote these poems himself or simply chose to use verses composed by someone else.
The paintings of camellias and peach blossoms against a white ground, decorating this vase, are attractively framed by the stylized gilt painted scroll motif against a dark blue ground, as if the beauty of nature is revealed through a window. The sharp contrast between the scholarly decoration of the flowers and calligraphy against the luxurious gilt decoration is attractive and visibly reflects Qianlong’s taste in art, his fondness for the traditional and the opulent. This vase represents his personal taste, which gravitated towards porcelain designs that were artistically complex pieces and showed his appreciation for scholarship expressed in his writings and poems.
For examples of vessels decorated in a related fashion, bearing an imperial poem and floral designs in panels on a gilt-decorated blue-ground, see a wall vase included in the exhibition The Life of Emperor Qianlong, the Macao Museum of Art, Macao, 2002, cat. no. 63.7; and a globular vase, the main body of the vessel treated as an illustrated album with a panel of poetry followed by a panel of illustration, the neck and foot decorated with floral scroll design in gold against a blue-ground, published in Chuimei Ho and Bennet Bronson, Splendors of China’s Forbidden City. The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, Chicago, 2004, pl. 294.