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of cylindrical form, the exterior finely painted in precise detail with a continuous scene depicting Europeans at leisure, featuring a horse-drawn phaeton carrying two ladies and a child, with one man leading the horse by the reins towards a tree, and another goading it with a staff, with a group of men, young boys and a dog behind, overseeing the proceedings under the shade of a paulownia tree, amid rockwork and other shrubs and grasses, all above a waisted band of scrolling gilt chrysanthemum on an iron-red ground between gilt lines, the base and interior glazed turquoise, the base with the six-character seal mark in blue enamel within a double square
This masterful brushpot painted with an unusual narrative scene of European figures belongs to an exclusive group of wares painted in the Enamel Workshop in the Imperial Palace. The soft colouring and exceptional attention to detail is reminiscent of European water-colour paintings and demonstrates the Chinese artist's understanding of the subject-matter.
The six-character Da Qing Qianlong nianzhi blue enamel mark on a turquoise-ground on the base is extremely unusual and only a handful of pieces are known with a similar mark, all depicting figure scenes. Two such pieces, a vase in Taipei and another in the Palace Museum Beijing display the same type of mark and are decorated around the sides with scenes of boys at play, illustrated respectively in the Special Exhibition of Ch'ing Dynasty Enamelled Porcelains of the Imperial Ateliers, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1992, cat.no. 146 (fig. 1) and in Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration - The Complete Treasures of the palace Museum Vol. 39, Hong Kong, 1999, cat.no. 27. Another piece, an ovoid vase in the National Palace Museum Taipei, illustrated in ibid, cat. no. 141 (fig. 2), has a four-character Qianlong nianzhi mark of the same type as the present brushpot, and is decorated with a related scene of Western tribute bearers. It may well have been painted by the same enamellers who decorated the present brushpot. The similarity of hand is apparent everywhere, whether in the way the rocks have been coloured, the foreground with shrubs and grass, the trees, and mostly the Western figures with their individual expressions and garb.
The style of the calligraphy on the mark is consistent on the three pieces and characteristic of the early years of the Qianlong period. Likewise, the exceedingly high quality of the painting and of the enamels is in keeping with the late Yongzheng and early Qianlong period often associated with the finest enamelling.
It is extremely rare to find foreign figures painted on porcelain and indeed foreigners were more frequently depicted on metal, especially during Qianlong's reign when enamelling on metal had reached its peak. This reflected the emperor's extravagant taste for showy and unusual pieces. The appearance of Western subject-matter on Imperial pieces, such as the mother and child on a small vase sold in these rooms, 30th October 2002, lot 205, and the shepherdess and her sheep painted on a handled cup also sold in the same sale, are characteristic examples of Qianlong's lavish taste.
Another unusual aspect of this piece is to find a Western subject matter painted on a typically Chinese object, a brushpot. The figures are superbly placed allowing the eye to wonder from one figure to the other, as if opening a scroll painting. The ultimate visual effect achieved is that of a fascinating scroll painting on porcelain.
The present piece represents a harmonious blend of Chinese and Western tastes. Qianlong was known for his penchant for pieces that were either technically innovative or unconventional in their design and aesthetics, and this brushpot would have been one of his 'curios' in his ceramic collection.
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