Double lotus for the Kangxi Emperor
Falangcai of the Kangxi reign – porcelains from Jingdezhen painted in the Imperial workshops of the Forbidden City in Beijing with ‘foreign enamels’ – are among the rarest and most dazzling ceramic wares of the Qing dynasty. Unlike most other wares of that period they were individually produced, subject to close scrutiny by the Emperor, and each piece is unique.
The Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722) was one of China’s greatest rulers, who anchored the foreign Qing dynasty firmly in the Empire’s long, continuous history. It was a prosperous period, when China was a powerful magnet for embassies from the West. The Emperor was an intelligent and highly educated ruler, who unquestioningly embraced classical Chinese learning as a central foundation of Chinese culture, but at the same time openly welcomed modern progress, even if it came from outside. Although the arts and crafts as such were clearly not on the top of his agenda, he became a particularly engaged patron due to his interest in technical development.
To this end he had workshops for a wide variety of scientific instruments and other practical and decorative objects set up in the Forbidden City, very close to his personal living quarters, where he could follow, encourage and criticise any progress made in their production. During his reign these workshops resembled sophisticated experimental laboratories where court artists, artisans and technicians explored new scientific discoveries, manufacturing methods and substances. For the same reasons he welcomed foreigners to the court, mainly from Europe, to provide information on international standards of scientific and technical knowledge and to supply skills and materials unknown in China.
European Jesuit priests had, among many other things, brought European enamel wares as gifts to the court, with the ulterior motif to gain access to the Emperor through foreign novelties. As the Emperor was keen to have them reproduced by the Imperial palace workshops, European enamelling specialists as well as the enamels themselves were sent from Europe. The new colours were first used on copper vessels where, like in Europe, they were applied overall to completely hide the metal body underneath, their floral designs contrasting with brightly coloured backgrounds (see, for example, a bowl in the British Museum, London, in Hugh Moss, By Imperial Command. An Introduction to Ch’ing Imperial Painted Enamels, Hong Kong, 1976, pl. 10; our fig. 1).
The first ceramics enamelled in Beijing closely followed these enamelled metal wares in style and colouration. The same enamels as used for decorating copper were applied to brown Yixing stonewares and white Jingdezhen porcelains. Although at Jingdezhen enamels had long been applied onto fully glazed and fired porcelain vessels, these Chinese predecessors do not seem to have been taken as models. The first enamellers in Beijing – perhaps Westerners – may have considered the shiny porcelain glaze an unsuitable surface for the enamels to adhere, so that porcelains partly or fully unglazed and left in the biscuit were specially created at Jingdezhen and supplied to the court for this new imperial adventure. A unique vase in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and a tripod incense burner in the Au Bakling collection, both with a similar puce background, were provided as blank biscuit vessels, without any glaze (the former illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong. Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 98, pl. 81; the latter on the cover of Chinese Ceramics. Selected Articles from Orientations 1983-2003, Hong Kong, 2004; our fig. 2). For bowls and dishes peculiar orders must have gone out to Jingdezhen to provide specimens with a glazed interior and base, and an unglazed exterior. The unglazed parts were then fully covered with enamel, just like on a copper vessel. Background colours may also have been deemed desirable to create smooth surfaces rather than designs raised in slight relief, since even some Yixing wares are covered in dark brown enamel, of the same tone as the original stoneware, applied as background colour around the design.
This work did not start until 1711, leaving only a dozen years for the technique to be perfected during the Kangxi reign. The enamels used in that period were still imported pigments, which must have contributed to the rarity of completed items. By far the most special among the new foreign enamels was the ruby- or rose-red enamel tone, not only since it was dramatically different from all locally created colours, but also because it was derived from gold. The Imperial workshops had apparently not yet mastered it even in the 6th year of Yongzheng when, under guidance of Prince Yunxiang, brother of the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-35), eighteen new enamel colours were reported to have been successfully produced there.
The present bowl is wonderful testimony to this collaboration between the potters in Jingdezhen and the painters in Beijing. The former threw and fired the plain porcelain bowl in Jiangxi province, south of the Yangzi River, the glaze carefully added to leave a clean, glazed rim and a neat, unglazed footring; the latter painted a highly complex design of naturalistically interlaced flowers in a wide variety of colours and shades, then applied a remarkably even rouge-red background, and fired the bowl again, to admirable perfection, within the Forbidden City. Although such Kangxi examples are among the earliest porcelains decorated in the new Western enamelling manner, the present bowl displays complete mastery of this sophisticated new method of decoration – a distinction not shared by all its contemporaries.
The new enamelling technique was introduced to and employed at Jingdezhen not much later, but the differences between contemporary wares created with similar materials in the two different manufactories are vast. What is special about these early pieces from the Beijing palace workshops is the remarkable variety in their range of enamels, which seems to vary from piece to piece, whereas for the yangcai or fencai/famille rose porcelains produced at Jingdezhen a standard palette was very soon developed and employed, which allowed for little flexibility.
The other all-important difference between Beijing and Jingdezhen manufactories is that the latter had always produced porcelains on a massive scale. Individual items were completed production-line style, with many different hands contributing to every single piece. The Beijing workshops on the other hand, located in a pavilion within the confines of the palace, were a completely different setup. Here individual artists would create individual works of art, and the whole complex was small in scale, not least for simple reasons of space and inconvenience to ordinary palace life. The present bowl is unique, like all falangcai bowls in the Kangxi period, even though they all share overall stylistic features, equally pointing to a small operation.
Inspiration for some of the decoration devised during this period probably came from the Westerners who mastered the enamelling technique, as many of the early falangcai porcelains are decorated with fanciful stylized blooms that are uncharacteristic of Chinese ornament. Other designs, such as the present one, however, derived more directly from Chinese flower painting, as court painters worked here side by side with enamellers and were at times recruited to do some enamelling work themselves. The stark contrast between the lush blooms and buds on the one hand, depicted either in the height of their glory or promising to arrive there soon, and the worm-eaten, partly withered, brown-edged leaves on the other, which provide a pertinent reminder of life’s transient nature, are a characteristic feature of literati painting.
Yet, the painting on this bowl is far from being simply naturalistic. It has been given an unmistakeable auspicious message by depicting double lotus flowers in pink, yellow and white, whose appearance was generally interpreted as nature’s indication and approval of a good ruler. This strong symbolism is otherwise rare in the Kangxi period, as the Emperor does not seem to have been particularly prone to superstitious beliefs. It is a well-known character trait, however, of the Yongzheng Emperor, son and successor of the Kangxi Emperor, who was already closely interested in the work of the palace workshops when still a Prince. It is this motif that the Italian court painter Giuseppe Castiglione took up for his masterpiece Assembled Auspiciousness, depicting a lotus bouquet with a double flower in a celadon vase, which was probably painted around the same time as the present bowl, as he gave it to the newly enthroned Yongzheng Emperor upon his accession (Lang Shining yu Qing gong xiyang feng/New Visions at the Ch’ing Court. Giuseppe Castiglione and Western-Style Trends, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2007, cat. no. 11; our fig. 3).
Only one other porcelain bowl decorated with naturalistic lotus flowers in a similar colour scheme appears to be recorded, of which unfortunately no illustration appears to exist, a bowl from the Wu Lai Hsi Collection, sold in our London rooms, 26th May 1937, lot 100. The Wu Lai Hsi bowl has the same size and is decorated on ‘a pink ground … with two yellow lotus, another in green and another in blue with buds and leaf sprays in shades of pink and green’, and is inscribed with a pink enamel Kangxi yuzhi mark.
There is also a shallower yellow-ground bowl with naturalistic lotus plants in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, with a pink enamel mark, but the lotus is combined with lesser water plants and pond weeds, see Good Fortune, Long Life, Health and Peace: A Special Exhibition of Porcelains with Auspicious Designs, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1995, cat. no. 82 (our fig. 4); and a similar cup, also with lotus and other water plants on a yellow ground and a pink enamel reign mark, from the Barbara Hutton collection, was sold in these rooms, 20th May 1981, lot 869, and at Christie’s Hong Kong, 3rd November 1998, lot 960, and is illustrated in Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Twenty Years, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 210; and again in Sotheby’s. Thirty Years in Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2003, pl. 311.