The Levy Collection is one of the most comprehensive private collections encompassing important specimens of late Qing imperial porcelains. This collection is even more intriguing because it is a woman collector’s endeavor of assembling works commissioned by another woman, a womanly bond between the late Barbara Levy (1938-2021) and Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908). Cixi was the most powerful woman and controversial political figure in recent Chinese history. Her regency stretched over four decades, and she was the foremost patroness of late Qing court art, including porcelains. These porcelains’ dazzling colors, delicate decorations, and ambitious scales are the materialization of this formidable woman’s persona. Cixi’s sensibility in fashion, beauty, and refinement did not go unnoticed. It was appreciated by Levy a century after Cixi’s passing. This article will provide an overview of late Qing imperial porcelain and the highlights of the Levy Collection.
Late Qing Imperial Porcelains
When it comes to the imperial porcelains of the Qing dynasty, scholars and collectors celebrate eighteenth-century accomplishments, such as the development of overglazed enamel wares, commonly known as falangcai or yangcai (depending on whether produced in the court workshops or the imperial kiln in Jingdezhen), the cultivation of antiquarianism, and the invention of unique new specimens such as the famous rotating vase that first appeared during the Qianlong period (1736-1795). Contrary to such fervent interest, the nineteenth century is a curious void because of a general decline in quality and quantity, which is often connected with the waning production of the imperial kiln after the Qianlong period and the institution’s destruction during the decade-long Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). While this impression of inferiority is undeniable, recent scholarship has unveiled several groups of highly sophisticated late Qing imperial wares comparable to their exquisite eighteenth-century predecessors, the majority of which were commissioned by the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1820-1850) and Empress Dowager Cixi.
Qing imperial porcelains are roughly divided into regular production and special order. The former is vast in quantity and standard in design since they were for the use of the entire imperial household. As a result, the same designs based on the pattern books and descriptions in the Qing documents, such as The Illustrations of Imperial Ritual Paraphernalia (Huangchao liqi tushi) and History of the Qing Palace (Guochao gongshi), would be repeatedly produced. If the regular production’s purpose was to demonstrate the Qing Empire’s prosperity and the stability of the state, the other type of commission allowed room for the patron to assert their specific agenda. Special commissions were often placed for events such as imperial birthdays and weddings. Some were made just for the patron’s pleasure or used in specific spaces, most notably porcelains inscribed with the title of palaces in the Forbidden City and other imperial precincts. Consequently, these one-time, personal commissions bear unique characteristics in style or decoration related to the patron’s preference.
Porcelains for imperial consorts were provided according to their ranks. Guochao Gongshi clearly records what utensils they would receive. In terms of porcelains, the empress would be supplied with two hundred and twenty yellow-glazed plates, eighty plates of various colors, forty yellow dishes, fifty dishes of various colors, one hundred yellow bowls, three hundred yellow teacups, seventy teacups of various colors, and four spittoons. The number becomes much smaller for the secondranked imperial noble consort. She could use white plates with yellow glaze on the exterior, which included four plates, four dishes, four bowls, and two teacups. Other porcelains of various colors included fifteen plates, fifty bowls, and twenty teacups.
Although the production of imperial porcelains was significantly scaled back by the Daoguang Emperor, whose reign unveiled the late Qing period, the rigid principles and protocols for the imperial kiln were largely intact. Daoguang was enthusiastic about commissioning porcelains for his palaces in small numbers. Zhao Congyue’s study of the imperial porcelains in the collection of the Palace Museum identifies roughly seven hundred porcelains inscribed with more than seventy different names of palaces or halls made during the Daoguang period. They are mainly tableware, and the standing vessels are usually smaller. Their stylistic features also highlight the characteristics of late Qing imperial ware. Overglazed enamel wares outnumber blue-and-white and monochrome porcelains, auspicious animals, flora, fruits, and Daoist immortals are popular decorative motifs. Among them, the wares of the highest quality belonged to two palaces in the Yuanmingyuan (Gardens of Perfect Brightness): the Shendetang and the Zhanjingzhai palaces.
The Shendetang palace was Daoguang’s residence; thus, commissioning porcelains for this palace was in line with Qing convention. The Zhanjingzhai porcelains are unique because the Zhanjingzhai palace was constructed for Daoguang’s beloved fourth and last empress, Xiaoquancheng (1808-1840). She gave birth to their son, the future Xianfeng emperor (r. 1850-1861), three months after the palace was completed in 1831. This group of porcelain that contains bright yellow and lemon-color glazes and decorated with incised dragons was no other than Daoguang’s gift to Xiaoquancheng. Interestingly, the commission of some of the Zhanjingzhai porcelains was paired with the Shendetang porcelains. Daoguang ordered several kinds of porcelains in 1833 and specifically demanded that these porcelains be inscribed Shendetang and Zhanjingzhai. Most noteworthy is that when the commission was placed, the occupant of Zhanjingzhai was still the second-rank imperial noble consort Quan, whose utensils should not have included yellow-glazed porcelains. The yellow-glazed bowl with an incised dragon pattern on the Zhanjingzhai porcelains violates the principles documented in Guochao gongshi, which testifies to Daoguang’s special affection for this woman. Such unusual favor Daoguang showered on Xiaoquan had an unexpected afterlife that enabled a revolutionary expression of female agency.
Destruction and Revival of the Late Qing Imperial Kiln
The Daoguang Emperor would not have foreseen the impact of his special favor for Empress Xiaoquan, which paved the way for the next powerful supporter of Qing court art. It was Empress Dowager Cixi, the consort of their son Xianfeng, who bore his only male heir, that took the baton from Daoguang and became the most important patroness of late Qing court art. Cixi was promoted to junior empress dowager along with Xianfeng’s empress Ci’an in 1865. The two women began their joint regency, but Cixi was the mastermind behind all political acts. Her regency would last until she died in 1908, making her the most powerful woman parallel to the British Empire’s Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901). Cixi’s entrance into the inner court in 1852 was concurrent with the downfall of the Qing Empire. The empire was still recovering from the humiliating defeat of the First Opium War a decade prior when the largest civil uprising, the Taiping Rebellion, broke out in southern China in 1850 and rapidly evolved into a civil war that profoundly damaged China’s most prosperous South. The war lasted throughout the entire Xianfeng reign and into the Tongzhi period. The last branch was quelled in 1869.
The imperial kiln, located in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, was destroyed by the Taiping rebels early during the civil war. Gone were not only facilities but also skillful potters; all regular productions were put on hold. When the Qing government regained control of southern China and demanded the local officials of Jiangxi to make porcelains for Xianfeng’s funeral in 1866, the magistrate could only assemble existing local potters to complete the imperial commission and delayed the shipment. The delay made Cixi aware of the urgency of restoring the imperial kiln. She appointed Li Hongzhang (1823-1901), who would later become the renowned Qing politician and diplomat, to complete the mission in 1868. However, the most important reason why Cixi rushed to restore the imperial kiln was to begin the wedding preparation for the young Tongzhi Emperor (r. 1861-1875), one of the most important events for the Qing imperial family. Cixi’s direct engagement with the imperial kiln restoration, together with the preceding example of Zhanjingzhai ware, resulted in the abundance of her special porcelain orders throughout her regency. There are eight types of wares whose inscriptions are associated with Cixi’s palaces and decennial birthday celebrations, and she was also in charge of the planning of the weddings of her son and nephew, the Tongzhi and Guangxu emperors, respectively.
The distinction between regular production and the special commission is critical for the connoisseurship of late Qing imperial porcelains. As mentioned above, although the former was large in quantity, their shape, size, and decorative motifs rarely changed, for example seen in a Guangxu mark and period yellow-glazed bowl from the Levy Collection. This design was regularly produced throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While the shape and pattern might have minor changes, the most obvious clue for dating is the reign mark on the bottom. A yellow-glazed fu ritual vessel and cover stands for another type of regular production that did not allow for any casual change. Ritual objects of the Qing dynasty had to adhere to rigorous forms, all documented in the Huangchao liqi tushi. The yellow-glazed vessels were for the rites held at the Temple of Earth (ditan), and the shape, decoration, and size of all the vessels are described and illustrated, including the fu vessel in question. These sacred wares must be loyal to the illustration to ensure the authenticity of the rite.
By contrast, special commissions were all about change and variation since they were for the patron’s personal use. However, we can still observe general trends despite differences in the inscription, shape, and production technique. The first and foremost characteristic of late Qing imperial porcelain is the prevalence of bold colors. While it was built on the foundation of the Qianlong period, new colors such as bright blue and dark bluish purple emerged, as seen on a pair of bold blue-ground narcissus trays or a purple-ground ‘peony’ bowl, a development that is possibly related to the introduction of new foreign enamel recipes. New specimens, such as black paint against yellow background, also appeared during this time. Another area of novelty lies in new motifs such as hydrangea, orchid, and butterfly, which had been background motifs prior and now occupy the most prominent place on the porcelain surface. The colorful butterflies on a three-tiered box and a doublelozenge narcissus tray, as well as the large orchid blossoms on a yellowground bowl and cover are examples of this stylistic change.
Cixi's Porcelains in the Levy Collection
The Levy Collection is one of the rare collections encompassing most kinds of porcelains Cixi commissioned. In other words, this pioneering personal collection demonstrates an unusual womanly bond between a woman collector and a female ruler. The Levy Collection contains four groups of Cixi’s porcelains. They are introduced below in the order of the commission period. The first group of porcelains belongs to the vast number of wedding wares for the Tongzhi Emperor. The twentynine designs can be further divided into porcelains for the ceremony and banquet, bequeathed porcelains for the future empress, and daily utensils for the empress and the first consort. The preparation for the wedding, including porcelains, began in 1867, but the quality of the first shipment was well below Cixi’s standard. The disappointed empress dowager demanded the imperial kiln to make the porcelains again and even ordered the local magistrate to pay for the cost as his punishment. It was not until 1872 did the imperial kiln submit satisfactory final works.
The large ‘magpie and prunus’ dish (lot 546) exemplifies the potters’ efforts to attain the past glory of the imperial kiln. Like other specimens of the Tongzhi wedding ware, this design was made into different shapes and large numbers. The making of each of them, however, required many steps that allowed no room for mistake. The decorative patterns were incised first; then the magpie and prunus patterns were painted and baked. The last step was to apply the yellow ground. The skillful potter carefully avoided the edges of these intricate patterns and made sure that the glaze did not overflow during baking. This complicated process was called tianhuang, or filling yellow, and it was described in detail in the local official’s report to Cixi. The report stated that while this technique had been common in earlier times, it was largely lost after the destruction of the imperial kiln.
The large coral-ground famille-rose service (lot 543) includes porcelains all painted with the same design. Against the coral-color ground are auspicious double xi (happiness) characters. Some are inscribed “yanxi tonghe,” a phrase that combines the palace names for Tongzhi’s empress and consort in the Forbidden City. It can also be interpreted as a prayer for the couple’s harmonious marriage. The exterior of the larger bowls and the spittoons also each have a roundel within which a pair of dragon and phoenix hover around another xi character. Their inscriptions read “changcun tongqing,” or, “jointly celebrating the eternal spring.” But since “changcun” can also refer to the two empress dowagers’ residence in the Changchungong Palace in the Forbidden City, scholars tie this group of wares to a small number of porcelains made for a wedding banquet held there. Happiness is indeed the keyword to the wedding. It appears in many designs of the Tongzhi wedding ware. A yellow-ground, iron-red and famille-rose dish (lot 564) decorated with flying bats and shou medallions is a typical example incorporating textual and pictorial motifs to maximize the auspiciousness: the pronunciation of bat in Chinese, fu, is the same as the character for good fortune.
The second group of Cixi’s porcelain is the most famous and highquality ware. They bear the four-character “yongqing changchun” (celebrating the eternal spring) inscription in overglazed red enamel on the bottom, as reflected in a purple-ground famille-rose ‘peony’ bowl (lot 561). The large-sized works are inscribed with “dayazhai” characters horizontally, coupled with an oval seal that reads “tiandi yijiachun,” such as on a pair of famille-rose ‘parrot and peach’ jardinières (lot 551). Both red enamel inscriptions refer to Cixi’s personal space in the inner court. The former originated from a tablet Xianfeng ordered and hung in 1855. It is how this group of porcelains is conventionally named. The latter is the name of the palace for Cixi in the Garden of Myriad Springs, an imperial precinct nearby the Garden of Perfect Brightness that Qing emperors dedicated to retired consorts of the deceased emperors. Its construction was a part of the Tongzhi Emperor’s Garden of Perfect Brightness reconstruction project in 1863, but it was canceled the next year amid bribery and corruption scandals. Cixi gave the design of her Tiandi yijiachun palace full attention because its construction coincided with her fortieth birthday. It was against this backdrop that she ordered the Dayazhai ware for her future residence.
The cheerful, bright colors and the auspicious decorative motifs of the Dayazhai ware radiate the joy of its patroness. After all, Tongzhi had begun personal rule and established his inner court at the time of this commission. Cixi’s focus thus turned to her post-retirement life, and the first and foremost preparation was to decorate her new palace. Her instructions were as meticulous as ever. Each design of the Dayazhai ware is based on a drawing. For example, the purple-ground ‘Dayazhai’ porcelains in the Levy Collection are faithful renditions of the original drawing. The boneless technique the painter used distinguishes the design of Dayazhai ware from other late Qing imperial porcelains, whose design drawings are missing the painterly quality. The yellow labels on the drawing list the shape and number of wares that should be made into this design, thus the examples from the Levy Collection.
There are thirty-three designs for the Dayazhai ware. The Levy Collection assembles at least thirteen of them. They are mostly decorated with flora motifs carrying auspicious symbolisms, and some are new decorations characteristic of the late Qing period. For example, the morning glory on a famille-rose oval narcissus tray (lot 573) is chosen for the rapid growth of the plant and, by extension, the family. A yellow-ground double-lobed narcissus bowl (lot 570) is decorated with elegant purple wisteria, a new motif that rose to prominence not only on porcelain but also in late Qing court fashion. Similarly, the hydrangea, a flower that used to be a minor motif on porcelain, became one of the most popular decorations on Cixi’s porcelains and attire. The ‘lotus and egret’ box (lot 558), on the other hand, represents a pleasant summer scenery and a pictorial pun—a pair of egrets resting in a blooming lotus pond. The Chinese pronunciations of egret and lotus, lu and lian respectively, form the phrase lulu lianke, which means one’s smooth promotion in state examination or career. A comparable example is in the Palace Museum’s collection. For a retired empress dowager, this decoration seems very unnecessary, but looking at it from a mother’s perspective might well indicate Cixi’s expectation for her son’s thriving rulership. Also noteworthy is the patroness’s attention to flower vessels. Almost all the designs of the Dayazhai ware contain one or two types of flower vases or planters, which is also a unique characteristic of late Qing imperial porcelains.
Ironically, the joyful Dayazhai ware commission was marred by a tragic ending. The Tongzhi Emperor died of smallpox soon after the Yuanmingyuan reconstruction project was terminated. Cixi was doubly struck by her son’s passing and the cancellation of her post-retirement palace. She erected Tongzhi’s cousin to be the succeeding Guangxu Emperor (r.1871-1908) and resumed regency in 1874 until the end of her life in 1908, three days after Guangxu died in 1908. The last two groups of Cixi’s porcelains in the Levy Collection were both commissioned during the Guangxu period. Although they are similar to the Dayazhai ware in technique, their context of commission and the design demarcate the patroness’s much-changed mentality from ordering for family’s sake to making porcelains solely for herself.
The third group, the Tihedian ware, was commissioned in 1885. The shipment was delivered to Beijing in the next year. This palace building is a part of Cixi’s residence, Chuxiugong Palace, in the Forbidden City, and it was renovated into a dining space in 1885 as a part of Cixi’s fiftieth birthday celebration. Unlike the Dayazhai ware, which amounted to nearly five thousand pieces, the Tihedian ware is much more sophisticated in type and smaller in number. They include various boxes and flower vessels totaling fewer than five hundred pieces, thus rarer than the Dayazhai ware. Similar to the Dayazhai ware, larger vessels such as fish tanks bear the horizontal red “tihedian zhi” inscription as is shown on a pair of large yellow-ground grisaille-painted ‘peony’ fishbowls (lot 559), but the characters are in seal script rather than the standard script for the Dayazhai ware. The decorations are also somewhat limited. There are only four colors: overglazed enamel on yellow ground, black enamel on yellow ground,blue and white, and incised patterns on a yellow ground. The prevalence of yellow, the color of monarchy, is a visual demonstration of Cixi’s unchallengeable status in the court.
The decoration in this group of porcelains also serves a special function of praying for longevity, unlike the diverse symbolisms involving wishes for the patroness and her family. In other words, the Tihedian ware is a projection of Cixi’s mentality at this time. After losing her spouse and only child, this female ruler turned focus to maintaining her own power and health. Notably, the potters continued to use the tianhuang technique that they successfully revived two decades prior. A pale yellow-ground and blue ‘bats and peaches’ planter (lot 554), comparable to one in the collection of Palace Museum, is an interesting example of the maturity of this technique during this time. At the first glance, the planter looks like the typical blue and white porcelain against yellow ground, a typical specimen popular in the Ming dynasty. However, by adopting the tianhuang technique, the potters ensured the layering of blue and the vivid coloration of blue and yellow enamels, which overcame the unpredictable coloration of cobalt and plant-based glazes.
Even rarer and more symbolic of the ambition and achievement of the late Qing imperial kiln under Cixi’s leadership is the last group, the plates inscribed with “Chuxiugong zhi” in seal script. This unique commission was placed in 1889 for the Chuxiugong Palace, another palace in the Forbidden City’s inner court area where Cixi dwelled. The patroness demanded two hundred and fifty-six pieces, but their large sizes posed great challenges to the imperial kiln, forcing it to divide the commission into three shipments in two years. A large yellow-ground green- and aubergine-enameled ‘dragon’ charger (lot 557), as well as another blue-ground green-enameled example (lot 569) both measure 28 inches in diameter, and belong to the largest plates in the Chuxiugong ware. These plates all bear underglaze-blue “chuxiugong zhi” inscriptions in seal script on the bottom. The choice of this archaic script points to Cixi’s interest in the cultural paradigm. Indeed, the yellow-ground example is an enlarged reproduction of a popular design during the Kangxi period. The large famille-verte plate decorated with the flower and rock motif in the center (lot 607) is also copied from the porcelains of the Kangxi period.
Even more striking is the robust five-clawed dragons on the yellowground charger. While utensils for empress dowagers sometimes bear this motif, they were objects provided by the Department of Imperial Household. On the contrary, the Chuxiugong ware was exclusively made for Cixi. The empress dowager regent had no hesitation in approving its designs that included the dragon motif reserved for the emperor, and the large plates, one of the most difficult shapes to beautifully fire in the kiln, aimed at reclaiming the Qing regime’s eighteenth-century glory, a mission for the ruling monarch. These large plates were vessels for towers of apples that provided a natural aroma to Cixi’s space and also functioned as the visual pun for peace, ping in Chinese, which is homophonous with the character of apple. These large plates were installed in Cixi’s palace and for her photo shooting sessions.
In conclusion, the Levy Collection is a rare private collection of late Qing porcelains in breadth and depth. The large number of colorful Dayazhai porcelains suggests the late Barbara Levy’s awareness of these porcelains’ connection with Cixi. They were assembled not only for their aesthetic value but also for the rare womanly bond between the two women who lived a century apart. Their auction also demarcates a new tendency in the world of collecting, in which nineteenth-century imperial porcelains have an important role to play.
When Women Ruled China: Empress Cixi's Power in Porcelain
兩位非凡女性的藝術靈犀：LEVY 收藏慈禧太后御瓷 彭盈真
Levy收藏廣博而精深，收羅多件晚清宮廷瓷器珍品，其中更加引人入勝之處，是它代表著收藏家Barbara Levy（1938-2021 年）和慈禧太后（1835-1908年）——一位女性收藏家與一位女性藝術贊助人之間超越時空的聯繫。慈禧是中國近代史上最有權勢的女性，也是最具爭議性的政治人物。她掌權四十多年，同時也是晚清宮廷最重要的藝術推動者。本收藏的瓷器色彩絢麗、紋飾精緻、編制恢宏，讓人想起她的顯赫權威。慈禧對時尚、審美和藝術的敏銳觸覺並沒有被世人遺忘。慈禧逝世一個世紀後，她的御瓷成爲了Barbara Levy殷切收藏的對象。本文概述晚清宮廷瓷器及Levy珍藏的亮點。
道光皇帝也沒有預料到他對孝全成皇后的寵愛對後來的影響，更為下一位清宮藝術支持者埋下伏筆。咸豐皇帝是由道光與孝全所生的唯一皇子，咸豐的貴妃後來成爲慈禧太后，是晚清宮廷藝術最重要的女性推動者，在道光朝之後繼續支持宮廷藝術。1865年，慈禧與咸豐太后慈安封為太后。兩后開始聯合攝政，但慈禧是所有政治活動的策劃者。她自此掌握大權，直至 1908年去世爲止，令她成為與大英帝國維多利亞女王（1837-1901年在位）並列、最有權勢的女性。1852年慈禧入宮時，清朝正值衰敗，當時朝廷仍未從十年前第一次鴉片戰爭的慘敗中恢復元氣，再加上1850 年太平天國之亂，時局動蕩不安，令本來繁榮的南方受到嚴重破壞。太平天國的動亂貫穿咸豐一朝，直到同治年間、1869年太平天國最後一個支部被剿滅方休。
綜上所述，Levy 收藏雲集多件難得一見的晚清瓷器珍品，收藏廣度和深度同樣出衆，而收藏包括多件大雅齋瓷器，從中可推斷Barbara Levy熟知這些瓷器與慈禧的關聯。這個收藏的集成，不但反映藏家的美學視野，還出自一種女性之間的聯繫，匯聚了相隔一個世紀的兩位非凡女性的藝術靈犀。此外，這次拍賣也標誌著收藏界的新趨勢，展示出19世紀宮廷瓷器在收藏界中開始扮演更重要的角色，值得廣大藏家關注。