The luxuriance of the design and brilliance of the vivid enamels on this rare pair of square-form flasks, encapsulate the innovation of Tang Ying (1682-1756) in his role as Superintendent of the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen.

The rich design of the flowers of the four seasons is elegantly rendered in famille-rose enamels on the larger sides of each flask, the distinctive square form of which is derived from tea caddies. In style, the rendering of the scene closely follows the flower paintings of one of China’s most eminent artists, Yun Shouping (1633-1690). Yun, whose sobriquet was Nantian, one of the ‘Six Masters’ of the early Qing period, is generally associated with paintings of flowers in the meigu or ‘boneless’ style that emphasises washes of colour rather than lines. His novel and unique manner of painting allowed him to bring out the distinct and innate beauty of the flowers while making them appear vibrant. He reintroduced the use of strong, bold colours, such as reds, purples and bright greens, which helped revive this genre in China. Yun’s paintings were greatly admired by the Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors, and with the development of famille-rose enamels in the 1720s, porcelain designs inspired by Yun’s paintings were created, as seen on the current flasks.

Many of the flower paintings on Qing imperial porcelain appear to be influenced by another court artist Zou Yigui (1686-1772). See a related album painted by Zou in 1734, from the Qing court collection and now preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, depicting twelve types of flowers, including peach blossoms and poppies, each accompanied by a poem, included in Harmony and Integrity: The Yongzheng Emperor and His Times, Taipei, 2009, cat. no. II-108 (fig. 1).

Tang Ying is a central figure in the development of Chinese porcelain. No single person probably had a greater impact on the development of Chinese porcelain and has been more celebrated in this context than Tang Ying. Having entered the services of the Qing Court at a very young age and belonging to one of the Banners under direct imperial control, he personally served all three of the major emperors of the Qing dynasty, Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. He befriended the Yongzheng Emperor, his senior by only a few years, while the latter was still Prince, and upon his ascension to the throne, Tang became Vice-Director of the Imperial Household Department. Not long after, he was sent to Jingdezhen and soon oversaw the production of the Imperial kilns there; and although he later became Supervisor of Customs in nearby Jiujiang, he appears to have retained control over the production of Imperial porcelains until he retired, in the year he died.

fig. 1
Zou Yigui (1686-1772), Album of Flowers, Leaf 8: Poppies, Qing dynasty, 12th year of the Yongzheng period (1734), ink and colours on silk, Qing court collection
National Palace Museum, Taipei
雍正甲寅(1734年) 鄒一桂(1686-1772年)《花卉畫冊》第八開:虞美人草 絹本設色 清宮舊藏

Tang Ying was accomplished as a painter, poet and writer, calligrapher, seal carver, and designer, managed to learn the techniques of the porcelain making process, and was a fine connoisseur of antiques of all periods, which the Imperial collection in Beijing had given him ample opportunities to study. This combination of studying and practicing art clearly gave him an acute understanding of aesthetic styles and material qualities, degrees of excellence and pitfalls to avoid. It put him in a unique position to propel the standards of the porcelain-making industry beyond anything previously seen.

Both flasks are inscribed with elegant flowing calligraphy in caoshu (running script), as seen on a sepia-enamelled brushpot designed by Tang Ying, enamelled with dragons and clouds, formerly in the collection of J.M. Hu and now in the Art Museum, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, illustrated in Peter Lam, Elegant Vessels for the Lofty Pavilion, Hong Kong, 1993, cat. no. 14. Both of the present caddies bear the seals tao and shu (‘pottery making’) seals, one also bears the seal shan and mo seals, the other you chuang (‘picturesque window’).

The sides are enamelled with an exuberant mille-fleurs design of chrysanthemums, lotuses, peonies, flowers buds and various other plants. Although the Western terminology of mille-fleurs is widely used, the Chinese name for this type of dense design jiacai (mixed or mingled colours) appropriately describes the multitude of famille-rose shades used. The jiacai technique was perfected by the Qianlong reign as seen on a vase from the Grandidier collection in the Musée Guimet, Paris, illustrated in Michel Beurdeley and Guy Raindre, Qing Porcelain. Famille Verte and Famille Rose, London, 1987, pl. 165.

Rectangular tea caddies were commonly used in the palace by the Qianlong period, as suggested by a few contemporaneous court paintings, such as Court Version of ‘Spring Dawn in the Han Palace’, completed by Sun Hu, Zhou Kun and Ding Guanpeng in the 6th year of the Qianlong period (1741), included in the exhibition Empty Vessels, Replenished Minds: The Culture, Practice, and Art of Tea, Taipei, 2002, cat. no. 123 (fig. 2). A closely related tea caddy of this form, together with a circular one, can also be seen in the painting Hongli’s entertainments on a snowy day from the Qing court collection, now preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing.

Another rare porcelain vase of tea-caddy form, but covered in a marble-imitation glaze in the collection of the National Museums of Scotland, no. A.1929.81, attributed to Tang Ying and inscribed with a related seal Taojun is illustrated online. It is of the same distinct form as the current pair, and shares the same features of unglazed base and necks, suggesting that none of these originally had porcelain covers.

fig. 2
Sun Hu, Zhou Kun and Ding Guanpeng, Court Version of 'Spring Dawn in the Han Palace', Qing Dynasty, 6th year of the Qianlong period (1741), details, colours on silk
National Palace Museum, Taipei
乾隆六年(1741年)  孫祜、周鯤、丁觀鵬《院本漢宮春曉圖卷》局部 絹本設色 清宮舊藏