Encompassing China’s Past
How to pay homage to as many classic Chinese art styles as possible while creating a symphonic work of art in contemporary taste? If it sounds like squaring the circle, this is what Jingdezhen’s craftsmen achieved with this piece. To any connoisseur versed in the history of Chinese art – which the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) unquestionably was – this porcelain masterpiece must appear like a culmination of centuries of ingenuity in Chinese crafts. Its multiple associations spell ‘Glorious Past’ on so many different levels, that even for the expert viewer it takes a while to unravel them all. Like a stroll through the imperial collection, this vase takes us from archaic bronzes and jades via Longquan celadon and imperial blue-and-white to Rococo flower design. What is perhaps most admirable about it – even more than its technical sophistication – is its stylistic coherence, which fuses nostalgic nods to antiquity with fashionable takes on international trends of the day.
Its technical mastery is of course unquestioned. The extremely small group of pierced, double-walled vases that were produced for the Qianlong Emperor provided probably the greatest technical challenge ever for the potters at the imperial kilns. The complexity of the production process can hardly be overstated and the perfection of the execution is next to miraculous. Works like these could have been developed by the imperial kilns only under the leadership of Tang Ying (1682-1756), who combined superior understanding of the properties of the ceramic medium, vast experience with the intricacies of the production process and an unerring sense of aesthetics, with exceptional ambition. These vases, however, appear to have provided cause for concern even to him. After having presented nine single vases, respectively designed with openwork or interlocking sections, Tang reported to the Emperor that he had not dared to create larger numbers or pairs, since they are so expensive (for which read: prone to endless failures) and would do so only if the Emperor accepted them. The Emperor replied that he ought indeed to keep numbers low and restrict their production to special occasions, but nevertheless ordered pairs to be created for the singles (Liao Pao Show, Huali cai ci: Qianlong yangcai/Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch’ien-lung Reign, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2008, pp. 27f.). Many reticulated vases, however, do not have pairs today and may never have had pairs, as no such delivery from Jingdezhen is expressly recorded in the archives.
References in the court archives to reticulated vases date from the seventh and eighth year of the Qianlong period, 1742 and 1743. A record for the twelfth day in the eighth month, seventh year of Qianlong (1742) states (Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu dang’an zonghui [General collection of archival records from the Qing imperial household department workshop], Beijing, 2005, vol. 11, p. 6; fig. 1):
Eunuch Gao Yu, as proposed by Treasurer Bai Shixiu and Deputy Foreman Dazi, presented two yangcai zun vases with lingzhi, exotic flowers and cicada, a yangcai red-ground sgraffiato winter-green reticulated flower vase with a Xuande-style inner body [… and thirty-four other vessels]… Praised as top-quality (toudeng) objects by his Majesty, these vessels should be stored within tailor-made fitted boxes at Qianqinggong.
This reference fits perfectly to the present piece. Qianqinggong, the Palace of Celestial Purity, is the largest hall of the Inner Court, where the Emperor held audiences and banquets, a highly prestigious location.
Two other references to related vases are preserved from the following year, 1743 (op.cit., p. 311 and pp. 807-8). On the eighth day, leap fourth month of the eighth year of Qianlong:
Canton wood workshops … Eunuch Gao Yu, as proposed by Treasurer Bai Shixiu and Deputy Foreman Dazi, presented … a large yangcai red-ground sgraffiato ‘gall-bladder’ vase with a Xuande-style inner body [and several other vessels] …. By imperial decree, fitting stands should be made for these vessels.
And on the following day, ninth day of the leap fourth month of 1743:
Qianqinggong … Eunuch Gao Yu, as proposed by Treasurer Bai Shixiu and Deputy Foreman Dazi, presented … a pair of yangcai red-ground sgraffiato winter-green reticulated ‘gall-bladder’ vases with Xuande-style inner bodies …. By imperial decree, these vessels should be stored within tailor-made fitted boxes among other enamelled wares at Qianqinggong.
The National Palace Museum, Taipei, holds three related reticulated vases, very similarly pierced and enamelled in the same basic colour scheme as the present piece, but of pear shape, without handles and rim collar. The 1743 quotes most likely refer to these three vases (Liao, op.cit., cat. no. 68, p. 271, figs 49 and 51, and p. 281, fig. 131)(fig. 2). Liao Pao Show states that the pair was once displayed in the Duanningdian, the Hall of Solemnity, a side hall in the Inner Court, where the Emperor’s robes were stored, and the single vase in the Yangxindian, the Hall of Mental Cultivation, the Emperor’s personal living quarters. She has interpreted the quote of 1742 as referring to the third vase in the Taipei collection (Liao, op.cit., p. 198 and p. 281), but since this passage uses a different name for the shape, calling it a ‘flower vase’ rather than referring specifically to a ‘gall-bladder’, i.e. pear-shaped vase, the quote of 1742 is more likely to refer to the present piece. This seems to be one of the earliest references – if not the earliest – to a reticulated vase.
Archaistic motifs drawn from the Bronze Age were highly popular in the Qianlong period. Interlaced dragon designs appeared in bronze casting in the early Eastern Zhou period (770-256 BC), when ritual bronzes became more and more ornate and the technique of lost-wax casting was introduced, although simpler versions were also created with piece-moulds. Openwork designs of dragon or serpent-like creatures are found particularly on vessel covers and handles, but also as fanciful vessel ornament (e.g. Jenny F. So, Eastern Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, New York, 1995, fig. 91). In the sixth century BC, such motives appeared also on two-layered bronze vessels with a closed inner and a pierced outer wall (So, op.cit., figs 22-24) (fig. 3).
While the interlacing of highly stylised dragon figures was probably inspired by such bronze vessels, the rendering of the dragons themselves on this and related porcelains is more closely related to jade carvings. A typical feature of Eastern Zhou jade dragons are the almond-shaped eyes with outlines protruding at both ends, which we also see here. With their bent horns and split tails, the dragon handles in any case seem to take jade pendants as models; compare, for example, a small dragon pendant in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (accession no. 2008.285) (fig. 4). Although we often see dragon handles on archaic bronzes, they are generally conceived fully in the round (see various examples in So, op.cit., pp. 22-41 passim) rather than as two-dimensional silhouettes, like the handles on this vase. The term linglong itself, which is used for reticulated porcelains, refers basically to something that is exquisite and elegant, like fine jade pendants.
Ceramic vessels with pierced walls, which are serviceable due to a second, closed inner hull were already made by the official (guan) kilns of Laohudong in the Song dynasty (960-1279), but probably in small numbers (Du Zhengxian, ed., Hangzhou Laohudong yaozhi ciqi jingxuan [Selection of porcelains from the Laohudong kiln sites in Hangzhou], Beijing, 2002, pls 24 and 25). At the Qianlong court, they were associated with celadon models, probably of slightly later date, from the Longquan kilns in Zhejiang, of which the Jingdezhen potters also made exact replicas, just of finer material (Sotheby’s New York, 18th January 2019, lot 469 and Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8th April 2009, lot 1603) (figs 5 and 6). Even though the celadon-glazed reticulated band on the present vase and its companions no longer immediately recall Longquan models, they are still sometimes referred to as ‘Longquan’ in Qing documents, otherwise as ‘winter-green’.
Tang Ying’s reticulated vases obviously were meant to draw all the registers of the potters’ craft, therefore the inner walls had to hold yet another surprise. The fact that they are painted at all is astonishing in itself. An underglaze design was an obvious choice for the inside, since it could be fired in the first high-temperature firing together with the celadon glaze and the neutral glaze that covers the remainder of the vase, and thus was ready and done when the enamels were applied on the outside and further firings followed. Yet the design is not easy to make out, since it is largely hidden by the intricately carved ‘window’ in the wall around it.
Was Tang Ying here striving to engage the Emperor’s attention? Did he want to ensure that the vase would not just be placed on a stand and end up forgotten as yet another piece of palace decoration, but continue to arouse interest and amuse? He must have made the Emperor come up close in order to glance inside, and to strain his eyes in order to discover the vase’s secret. Once he had connected the small sections of the pattern that are visible through the narrow openings, the Emperor could only have been pleased. Recognizing an unmistakeable Ming (1368-1644) design from the time of the finest blue-and-white porcelains, the Xuande period (1426-1435), he had experienced a glimpse into the past. The various references to earlier periods in this vase all insinuate the natural continuation and patronage of Chinese culture by the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644-1911), but this physical incorporation of a ‘Ming vase’ into a Qing vessel symbolised even more explicitly that this ruling house encompassed China’s eminent past.
This message was undoubtedly welcome to the Emperor, yet his taste was not merely retrospective. Like his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722), he had invited Jesuit craftsmen to the court and engaged them side by side with Chinese artisans to modernise and invigorate the imperial workshops. The intense puce enamel colour, which is here superbly complemented with the high-firing celadon-green glaze, had been introduced to the porcelain colouring palette only some two decades earlier, in the Kangxi reign. A Qianlong contribution was the needle-fine sgraffiato engraving that gives the surface texture and makes for an even richer, more opulent aspect. The symmetrically arranged flower garlands, composed of imaginary, highly stylised blooms and fanciful, not species-specific foliage, were introduced from the West, where they had been popular in Rococo interiors. They were ideally suited to exhibit the wide range of enamel colours at the porcelain painters’ disposal, many of which were still fairly new at the time.
The present vase appears to be unique and may never have had a pair. It represents the quintessence of Qianlong style, but with the overhanging ruyi collar at the rim and dragon handles matching the openwork pattern, its design is particularly elaborate. Both features would have complicated the production process further and particularly the former, reminiscent of an embroidered cloth placed over the mouth, was rarely otherwise used (it appears similarly on a vase without openwork, also with a puce-ground neck but a landscape scene around the body and with different dragon handles, sold at Christie’s New York, 16th September 1999, lot 376).
Besides the pair of pear-shaped vases in the National Palace Museum mentioned above (fig. 2), the Museum also holds another related pair, of shouldered form, similarly pierced and painted, but with landscape panels reserved in the openwork band. These vases were formerly held in the Shouhuangdian, the Hall of Imperial Longevity, a palace complex outside the Forbidden City, at the foot of Coal Hill, and one of them was included in the Museum’s 2008 exhibition, see Liao, op.cit., no. 69 (fig. 7).
The Palace Museum, Beijing, also owns a related reticulated pear-shaped vase, but with a blue instead of the purple ground at the neck; see Gugong Bowuyuan cang wenwu zhenpin quanji. Falangcai, fencai/The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 161 (fig. 8).
The vase here offered has a notable history. It can be traced back to the 1950s, when it belonged to Sir Harry M. Garner (1891-1977; fig. 9), a distinguished English mathematician and scientist working in aerodynamics, and a major collector and historian of Chinese art, who for many years was Secretary and later President of the Oriental Ceramic Society (OCS), a celebrated society founded in London in 1921. He published ground-breaking standard works on blue-and-white porcelain, cloisonné and lacquer wares, which laid the foundations of Western research in these fields and are still highly influential today. He wrote many essays also on Qing porcelain and was Chairman of the Selection Committee for the important OCS exhibition The Arts of the Ch’ing Dynasty in London, 1965. He donated large parts of his collection to the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Bluett & Sons, founded by Alfred Ernest Bluett in London in 1884 and for over a century remaining with the Bluett family, was one of the major antiques businesses devoted to Chinese art in Europe. The brothers Leonard and Edgar, who ran the business from the 1900s to the 1960s were more than just dealers. They were actively involved also in the activities of the Oriental Ceramic Society and its exhibitions, even lent to the International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy in 1935/6, and there was hardly an important Western collector, who did not visit Bluett’s premises during this time. The collections the company helped to shape over this period are legend.
Jacob Stodel was an important Dutch antiques business dealing particularly in Dutch and Chinese works of art. Founded in 1859, it was run by several generations of the Stodel family in Amsterdam and London, under various names, and is still active today.
Henry M. Knight (1903-1970; fig. 10) was a highly discriminating Dutch collector of Chinese art as well as Western paintings and drawings. From 1930 practically until his death he assembled a major collection of Chinese ceramics and other works of art, focussing mainly on Ming and Qing dynasty porcelains, buying largely from Bluett & Sons, London.
To pick a vase such as this in the 1950s required some foresight. While for us today it seems obvious that such a piece counts among the most admirable and desirable Chinese porcelains, at the time Garner and Knight collected, its style was too ornate and probably ‘too Chinese’ for many Western collectors. In the same Sotheby’s sale in 1954, where this vase was last publicly sold, for example, the subsequent lot, two small monochrome yellow-glazed dishes of Jiajing mark and period (1522-1566), achieved a higher price. Roger Bluett wrote: “Henry Knight, who built up perhaps the best collection of eighteenth-century porcelains in Europe as well as magnificent early pieces, was fond of telling how it was my late father who told him to buy ‘Chinese taste’ porcelains. Their time would come, my father used to say, and how right he was.” (Roy Davids and Dominic Jellinek, Provenance. Collectors, Dealers and Scholars: Chinese Ceramics in Britain and America, Great Haseley, 2011, p. 276, quoting Arts of Asia, vol. 10, no. 6, 1980).
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