Carefully enameled to suggest a nocturnal scene through the black ground and swirling clouds, this pair of vases is a rare example of black-ground enameled wares that depict the auspicious motif of bats and peaches. A vase of similar form and decoration but against a white ground, from the collection of Mr and Mrs Alfred Clark, was included in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1935, cat. no. 2194.
Although seldom used, the black-ground color scheme was first employed during the Kangxi period, concurrently with the development of the motif of bats and peaches, and gained popularity under the Yongzheng emperor’s reign, when the black was probably used in imitation of black lacquerware. Its use was gradually abandoned during under the Qianlong emperor, suggesting that this pair of vases may have been made in the early years of his reign, when the personal taste of the Yongzheng emperor still prevailed.
Compare a Qianlong mark and period tripod censer, similarly decorated in famille-rose enamels against a black ground, from the collection of Stephen Junkunc III, sold at Christie’s New York, 28th March 1996, lot 141. See also a small Kangxi mark and period box in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Enamel Ware in the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties, Taipei, 1999, pl. 78, together with a Yongzheng mark and period ‘inro’ box, pl. 106.
The charming pattern of a fruiting peach tree and bats extending around the sides of these vases was one of the best-loved designs in the Qianlong period, and was reproduced in all possible media. Multiple popular and Daoist stories have developed over the centuries linking peaches to endless bliss; from Tao Qian’s (365-427) story of the paradisiacal world of the Peach Blossom Spring, to their association with Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West. When depicted with bats (fu), which is homophonous with the word for blessings (fu), they create the auspicious wish fushou shuangquan (‘may you possess both blessings and longevity’). For the prototype of this design, compare a painted enamel vase with Kangxi mark and of the period, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum. Enamels, vol. 5, Painted Enamels in the Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2011, pl. 7.
The technique used for enameling on metal-bodied ware was introduced in Guangzhou by Jesuit missionaries around 1684, when the ban on overseas trade was lifted. Guangzhou artists had been most immediately exposed to wares from Europe and had mastered the technical skills of enamel painting earlier than those working the in the Palace Workshop in Beijing. In the 58th year of the Kangxi reign (1719), the French missionary and enamel specialist Jean-Baptiste Gravereau, also known as Chen Zhongxin, was sent to Beijing by the Viceroy of Guangdong to teach enameling technique to craftsmen working in the Palace Workshops (see the catalogue to the exhibition Treasures from Guangdong to the Qing Court, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1987, p. 54). Guangzhou artists continued to be recruited in large numbers during the reign of the Qianlong emperor, who appears to have taken a keen interest this art form. According to Palace records, the Emperor would test the skills of recruits by requesting each of them to produce a painted enamel snuff bottle, which he would later examine. If the product was deemed suitable the artist would be accepted to work in the Palace Workshops (see Yang Boda,’ The Palace Workshops and Imperial Kilns. Snuff Bottles of Emperor Qianlong’, Arts of Asia, vol. 26 no. 5, 1996, p. 66).