Imperial works of art completely conceived and created inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, to the direct order of the Emperor himself, are among China’s greatest treasures. The present bottle, with a ‘Peking glass’ body made by imperial artisans in the Glass House, and falangcai decoration applied by imperial painters in the Enamelling Workshops, is one of the most important examples preserved. It is a masterpiece in virtually every respect, in terms of model, design, execution and size. The flask is unique, with only one companion piece of different design, but the same form and color scheme, that was clearly made at the same time.
The importance of these two vessels for the history both of Chinese glass and of falangcai enamelling can hardly be stressed enough. A workshop for enamelling was first set up in the Forbidden City by the Kangxi Emperor in 1693 and a glass workshop followed in 1696, and we know that at least by 1705 enamelled glass items had been successfully completed and sent to the Emperor. The Beijing Enamelling Workshops supplied large numbers of exquisitely painted falangcai wares to the court from the late Kangxi to the mid-Qianlong period. These works were typically copper-bodied or porcelain-bodied, while the glass counterparts were more unusual. Of the falangcai glass pieces produced, snuff bottles made up the largest proportion by far, followed by miniature vases, miniature brush pots and other small vessels for the desk. The present bottle and its companion in the Hong Kong Museum of Art, may be the only large pieces in existence and the only ones of such complex shape.
PART OF A PAIR, BUT ONE OF A KIND
No comparable pieces have been preserved in the Palace Museums, either in Taipei or Beijing. A recent exhibition of Chinese glass in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included 45 falangcai enamelled pieces, including snuff bottles, a pendant, a miniature spittoon and small vases, with only two slightly larger, at 13.1 cm and 16.3 cm.
The rarity of falangcai glass is of course largely explained by the complexity of the production process. “Each color of enamel is applied separately and fired successively at the temperatures required for each color, with a view to bond the enamel décor to the glass body,” Zhang Xiangwen writes in the National Palace Museum exhibition catalogue. “Because the melting point of glass is close to that of enamel, the glass vessel-body can easily melt and deform if firing temperature is too high, while enamel cannot take on the desired color if firing temperature is too low.”
The companion bottle, now in the Hong Kong Museum of Art, is decorated with twelve dragons diving through dense composite floral scrolls. At first glance both pieces would seem to be complementary – enamelled in matching colours on a lemon-yellow ground onto white glass blanks, both with the reign mark inscribed on one of the flowers. Yet there are clues that suggest the two vessels were not necessarily meant as a pair. The companion bottle is painted with chi dragons rather than the long generally paired with the phoenix. The mark and the design are also divergent, and the two bottles certainly seem to have been painted by different hands.
‘WRAPPING UP GOOD LUCK’
To create a vessel, which evokes a bottle of oval section wrapped in a cloth pouch tied with a ribbon, was a complicated task to undertake in glass. The trompe-l’oeil effect was superbly achieved, as it realistically renders the different qualities of the silk fabrics it tries to evoke: the supple folds in the gathered brocade pouch as well as the soft fluffiness of the knotted gauze ribbon.
The wrapping of vessels in cloth pouches and squares is today best known from the Japanese use of the furoshiki wrapping cloth, but valuable objects were of course similarly wrapped in China. The illusion of an object wrapped in cloth was frequently evoked in Japanese lacquer, of which the Yongzheng Emperor appears to have been particularly fond. Among the many lacquer objects in his collection were several pieces modelled in relief with the folds of gathered or knotted cloths, sometimes tied with a cord, or even shaped in form of pouches tied with ribbons. Imperial workshops were engaged in recreating this trompe-l’oeil wrapping effect in various media, for example, in lacquer, sandalwood, copper and porcelain. However, on none of these vessels is the trompe-l’œil effect as evocative as on the present glass vessel and its companion, which have the knotted sashes painted flat onto the surface, rather than modelled in three-dimensional relief.
The strikingly conceived and executed design of the present bottle is a pure product of the artistic climate of the ateliers inside the Forbidden City, where artists and artisans proficient in many different media worked side by side and influenced each other. The design is not only ravishingly beautiful, but also highly auspicious, both on account of its shape and its decoration. The term baofu (‘wrapping cloth’) is wordplay on ‘wrapping up good luck.’ Phoenixes and peonies are revered as general harbingers of blessings and prosperity, and rainbow-coloured clouds are particularly lucky omens on account of their rarity.
Having been created for the Qianlong Emperor, this bottle and its companion piece apparently remained in the Imperial House, ending up with Yixin, the first Prince Gong (1833-1898), sixth son of the Daoguang Emperor. At the end of the Qing dynasty, the merchant Abel William Bahr was able to acquire many works of art from members of the extended imperial family. In 1922, the American Art Galleries in New York held a large sale of antiques in his collection, another sale was organized in 1926 by Anderson Galleries of New York, and further sales followed in later years. Paul Bernat, born in 1902, was an American textile manufacturer who assembled an outstanding collection of Qing imperial porcelains. He and his wife, Helen, donated many pieces to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and after his death, a large part of his collection, including this vase and its counterpart, was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. The companion bottle, now in the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which apparently shares the same provenance from Prince Gong Yixin over A.W. Bahr to Paul and Helen Bernat, was sold in these rooms on 15 November 1988.
For a closer look or to read more about the fascinating provenance of this piece, the full version of this article is available.