S otheby's carefully curated Chinese Art sales in London on 6 November bring together over 300 lots of important Chinese ceramics and works of art, led by a magnificent collection of imperial porcelain assembled by a discerning private collector over many decades.
Yongzheng Emperor was known for his integrity, commitment to justice and uncompromising dedication to excellence. His administration was efficient and exacting as well as effective, the result of which paved way for the prosperity during his successor Qianlong’s reign.
Outside of political activities, Yongzheng was also an accomplished scholar, excelling in all areas from calligraphy and painting to art appreciation, as well as being well-versed in all important Chinese classics as well as religious philosophies including Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.
Prior to his ascension to the throne, Yongzheng led a richly cultured lifestyle. Jiangren Fang (literally meaning “the artisan’s studio”) was a workshop housed within Yongzheng’s residence when he was still a prince that employed craftsmen personally selected by Yongzheng, and it was said that their artistry was of an even higher standard than those who served in the imperial workshop. When the latter struggled to come up with worthy outputs for the imperial court, Jiangren Fang would then offer support.
Yongzheng Emperor personally approved every aspect of the ceramics produced in the imperial workshop from decoration through to dimensions. Official records also included his comments such as “refine (to achieve) an elegant presence” and to “make thinner”. Ceramics made during Kangxi Emperor’s reign tended to be more rustic and minimal, paying homage to ancient Chinese traditions, whilst Yongzheng ceramics are handsome, delicate and refined. The fine potting, exquisite lightness, gentle and elegant forms all contribute to a refined subtlety that reflects the temperament of the emperor himself.
A diverse range of different wares was produced during this period including blue-and-white, falangcai, famille-rose, doucai, monochrome and archaistic wares, reaching a brilliant peak of ceramic production. Yongzheng period famille-rose featured mature techniques, a strong three-dimensional sense and a rich variety of colours. Floral decorations found on Yongzheng period famille-rose ware inherited the artistic style of early Qing painting master Yun Shouping, whose floral painting highlighted the refreshing and graceful beauty of different flowers.
Poppy was among Yongzheng’s most favoured designs, yet this flower appeared on his ceramics not because of its ravishing beauty, but rather in reference to the heroic spirit of famous King Xiang Yu during the Chu–Han Contention period between Qin and Han dynasties. According to official records, imperial kiln supervisor Tang Ying planted a large plot of poppies especially for court painters to observe in order to fully capture the beauty of this flower.
Monochromes in the Yongzheng period were hailed for their perfect combination of artistry and technological achievements. According to Taocheng Jishi Beiji (Commemorative stele on ceramic production) by Tang Ying, 57 different monochrome colours, either a new invention or a successful recreation of ancient classics, were made during the Yongzheng period.
These undecorated wares presented a perfect canvas for the appreciation of each piece’s fine potting and exceptional tactile quality.
A rich variety of different blue and white wares were produced during the Yongzheng period, and the artistic achievement was unrivaled in other periods in the Qing dynasty. Yongzheng Emperor had a deep respect for ancient Chinese art and enjoyed the study of classics.
His admiration for the ancient philosophy, art appreciation and way of life directly informed his own aesthetic approach. During his reign, ceramics inspired by the five Song kilns, and the three reigns of Yongle, Xuande and Chenghua in Ming dynasties were widely recreated, their spirit faithfully captured.
During Yongzheng’s reign, a huge amount of resources were devoted to the production in the imperial kiln, whose supervisors Nian Xiyao and Tangying recruited the best craftsmen in the country to create a wide variety of innovative wares that proved to form a triumphant chapter in the history of Chinese ceramics.