'Icy Heart in a Jade Pot': A Flawless Imperial Teapot and Cover

'Icy Heart in a Jade Pot': A Flawless Imperial Teapot and Cover


An Exceptional and Large Imperial White Jade Teapot and Cover

Superbly articulated from pristine white stone of the most superlative quality, with elegant rounded form and exquisite polish, this truly exceptional teapot and cover is undoubtedly the most flawless of any jade teapot or ewer in private hands.


A small number of other examples of comparable quality, created in the latter years of the Qianlong reign after the conquest of Xinjiang, has emerged on the international market over the years, but all demonstrate evidence of russet enhancements to the surface, deliberately created in the Imperial Palace Workshops to cover deficiencies in the stone. This is the only example that is intrinsically perfect, with no interruption to the flawless quality of the stone.

It is a masterpiece of creation, embodying the highest standards achieved in the Imperial workshops in a golden age of Chinese civilisation at the height of its power and prosperity.

The teapot is also endowed with a truly prestigious history, collected by the Scottish aristocrat Hinton Daniell Stewart, the 6th Laird of Strathgarry in the 1860s and included in the International Exhibition of 1871.

By the Qing dynasty, classical Chinese jade art had developed to a high degree of sophistication in mining, material selection, and carving. It reached an unprecedented peak during the reign of the jade-obsessed Qianlong Emperor. This period produced an abundance of jade masterpieces, especially those intended for use in the imperial court. The majority of these works is vessels, such as incense burners, vases, boxes, ewers, bowls, washers and parfumiers, which served practical purposes but more importantly decorated interior spaces. Among these vessels, jade teapots and ewers were among the demanding in craft and in quality of the raw jade, and Qing examples are thus rare.

The current ewer is made from high-quality Khotan white jade with a warm and fine texture. The sensual circular body is intricately worked with steep rounded sides springing from a splayed foot to a high angled shoulder, one side elegantly set with an elegant curved spout. The finial of the cover is superbly articulated in the form of a stylised individual chrysanthemum flower.

White jade gourd-shaped and ram-head teapot, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period
Qing court collection
© Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing

Teapots of Comparable Form, Quality

The precision of the carving, texture of the polish and other key features including the closely related form of the finial on the current teapot are matched by three famous white jade ewers clearly created in the same period, all melon-shaped in form with a ram-head spout. One is in the Palace Museum, Beijing, from the Qing court collection, illustrated in Jadeware (III) V. The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 1995, pl. 216 (fig. 1); another from the collection of Sir John Woolf is illustrated in The Woolf Collection of Chinese Jades, Sotheby’s, London, 2013, cat. no. 59; and a third, originally in the collection of Millicent Rogers (1902-1953), the American socialite and close friend of Madame Soong Mei-ling, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong on 28 April 1996, lot 2, and again in these rooms on 3 October 2017, lot 3613 (fig. 2), for HK$75.5 million, a world-record price for a jade vessel. Unlike the current teapot, these ewers are all characterised by russet enhancements to the surface, deliberately created in the Imperial Palace Workshops to cover deficiencies in the stone.

White jade and cloisonné enamel ram-head teapot and cover, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 3rd October 2017, lot 3613

The other jade teapot most closely related in form and quality to the current example is one sold in these rooms, 31st October 2004, lot 233 (fig. 3), for what was then an unprecedented sum of HK$6.8m. It shares the same precision of form and quality of the finish, but differs in several features from the current teapot, which has more of a curve to the spout, the scrollwork of the upper tip of the handle facing downwards, with a straighter foot and surmounted by a single tiered chrysanthemum finial. Other examples sold at auction include another white jade teapot of more angular form, sold in these rooms on 16 November 1989, lot 612.

'Icy Heart in a Jade Pot'

Jade ewers have an eminent history in China, as demonstrated by the great Tang dynasty poet Wang Changling's widely known words "“An icy heart in a jade pot". Jade ewers were a theme in Tang-dynasty poetry, an image that has come to stand for moral purity and loftiness.

Fig. 3
White jade teapot and cover, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 31st October 2004, lot 233

In ancient China, hu referred mainly to two types of vessels. The first type was the wide-bodied pot with a tapered mouth, which was the first type to appear in China. Kun Wu, the legendary inventor of ceramics who lived during the time of the Yellow Emperor, created the hu. This is why Shoos jiezi defines hu as “the round vessel of Kun Wu.” Hu is an ideographic character that suggests a circular or a square form, but without a spout or handle. The bronze hu of the Shang and Zhou dynasties were mostly wine and ritual vessels. These hu appeared before the time of written history and persisted until the Ming and Qing periods. The Shang and Zhou-period bronze hu became the classical form of the vessel and the source of subsequent hu vessel designs.

During the Wei-Jin period, the wide-bodied hu with a tapered mouth acquired a spout and a handle; this is known as the zhihu (handled ewer) and gradually became more popular from the Sui-Tang through the Ming-Qing periods. This form became especially common in ceramics after the Wei-Jin period.

No extant jade hu predate the Sui-Tang period, whether with or without spouts. This may be because the hu form requires a large amount of raw jade; in particular the wide-bodied form with a tapered mouth is much more difficult to create in jade than an incense burner, bowl, washer, cup, or dish. Moreover, unlike bronze or clay, jade as a material cannot be reworked incessantly or experimented with. It is no surprise, therefore, that the jade ewers were scarce compared to other vessels even during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Palace Museum collection contains only 240 examples (including 110 with spouts and handles), roughly divided equally between Ming and Qing periods.

Early Jade Ewers

The earliest extant jade ewer dates from the Tang dynasty and was excavated in Luoyang, Henan in 1956. It is of the first type, with a round body and a flat mouth, and without a handle, which was rare during the Tang and Song periods and became more common during the Yuan and especially during the Ming and Qing. Ewers of this type from the Qianlong period were mostly made in imitation of archaic bronzes. The second type is the jade ewer with a spout and a handle, which emerged as an imitation of a ceramic prototype before the appearance of the spoutless jade ewer. The earliest extant jade ewer with a spout and handle dates from the Song dynasty. The jade ewers mentioned in Tang poetry are actually of the first type.

During the Ming and Qing periods, jade ewers with handles suddenly increased drastically in number. During the Ming, tall and large jade ewers, often with handles located above the body, predominated, but small and short jade ewers with round and wide bodies and with lowered handles also began to appear. The latter’s form is close to that of a teapot, and was likely influenced by ceramic teapots. Moreover, these small and short jade ewers vary greatly. They come in shapes ranging from that of a lotus blossom and flower petals to square, round and hexagonal. Some of them are inscribed in embossed poetic lines or carved with niches featuring landscapes, figures, and floral subjects. However, Ming jade ewers are generally inferior in both material quality and craftsmanship to Qing ones. This is in part because Khotan jade mines during the Ming, much more active than before, still yielded raw jade of lesser quality and much smaller amounts of high-quality jade than during the Qing.

A Rich Array of Forms

During the Qing dynasty, jade ewers with handles developed into a very rich array of forms, and the quality of their materials improved markedly compared to any previous period. They come in white, green and emerald, but the former two colours predominated over others. Jades made for the court mostly used high-quality white jade.

According to the records of the workshops of the Qing imperial court, jade ewers were already produced in the first year of the Yongzheng reign, but this work was mostly limited to restoring ewers remaining from previous reigns. Between the second and eleventh years of the Yongzheng reign, few jade ewers were made or restored, and the entire Yongzheng period production of jade ewers numbered only 27. The majority of these were of the first type. Jade ewers with handles are documented only in the records of the first year of the Yongzheng reign.

“On the tenth day of the second month, Prince Yi submitted a jade apricot-leaf-shape ewer (with a zitan base)… a jade teapot, a jade garlic-mouth ewer, a jade ewer with a loop handle… the prince ordered that these be restored to new. So it was obeyed. On the sixteenth day of the ninth month, a jade ewer and a jade ewer with a handle were restored. Prince Yi submitted these to the court.”
From Records of the Workshops of the Qing Imperial Court

The workshop records of the Qianlong period indicated that the production of jade ewers increased dramatically compared to the Yongzheng period. These records also mention jade ewers with handles, but because they are vague on the identifying details, it is difficult to relate each record to an extant object.

Finding Good Raw Jade

A jade ewer required a large amount of high-quality raw jade. During the Kangxi and early Qianlong reigns, the jade-producing Khotan and Yarkent regions were occupied by the Dzungars, which limited the availability of raw jade. The court resorted to modify jades remaining from former dynasties or use raw jade sent as tribute or smuggled into the interior, resulting in limited production. In the tenth year of his reign, the Yongzheng Emperor ordered his ministers to “find some good raw jades” because the court lacked them. In the twenty-fourth year of the Qianlong reign, the Qing army defeated the Dzungar Khanate definitively and cemented its rule of what is now called Xinjiang, administering it through a regional government.

The Stewart family portrait, c. 1890

Beginning in the 25th year of the Qianlong reign, the four sub-Khanates of Xinjiang began to send raw jades to Beijing, which later developed into a formal system of biannual tribute of 4000 jin of raw jade, once in spring and once in autumn. In fact, at its height the system contributed some 300,000 jin of raw jades. In the 56th year of the Qianlong reign, one tribute consisted of 5585 blocks of raw jade. The sheer quality of the white jade stone on this impeccable teapot clearly points to it having been sourced from one of such tributes.

A Truly Prestigious History

The original owner of the teapot, Hinton Daniell Stewart (1835-1926), was the sixth Laird of Strathgarry, Perthshire, and founder of the cotton merchants Stewart Thompson and Sons. With links to China from an early age, he collected a number of exceptional Chinese works of art, of which the current example was exhibited at the International Exhibitions of 1871 and 1886.

Lot 6009 - Details

An Exceptional And Large Imperial White Jade Teapot and Cover
Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period

impeccably worked from an immaculate and white stone with a compressed globular body formed with thick sides and rising from a subtly splayed foot to a constricted straight rim, one side of the body with a curved spout elegantly tapering with rounded contours to a delicately flared opening, the other side with a prominent C-shaped handle sensitively articulated with echoing scrolling tips at the beginning and end, the cover meticulously carved with utmost precision to rest atop the vessel, the rounded sides with a gently flared lower edge and surmounted by a very fine raised medallion supporting the stylised chrysanthemum-form finial superbly rendered with sixteen even and well-defined lobes tapering to a delicate tip above a thin incised band
20.5 cm, 8 in.

Collection of D.J. Kay (label).
Collection of Hinton Daniell Stewart (1835-1926), 6th Laird of Strathgarry, Perthshire, founder of the cotton merchants Stewart Thompson and Sons. Stewart had links to China from an early age and collected a number of exceptional works of art on his return to the UK in the 1880s.
Thence by descent.
Woolley & Wallis, 18th May 2011, lot 471.

The International Exhibition, London, 1871, on loan from D.J. Kay (label).
The International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art, Edinburgh, 1886, on loan from D.J. Kay (label).

Chinese Works of Art

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