the tightly grained, dark gold-flecked zitan wood carved in the form of a long rectangular table supported on four legs of square section terminating in hoof feet, the plain tabletop contrasting with the intricately carved frame depicting intertwining gnarled prunus branches laden with flowering blooms and opening buds, the carving of the frame skilfully utilising varying levels of relief to create a monumental and sumptuous floral scene
Yamanaka Shokai, Osaka, 1911 -1920, (purchased from Palace eunuchs in Beijing).
Sold in 1982.
Sotheby's 1st June 1994, lot 615.
While Chinese furniture is generally appreciated for its elegant simplicity and clean silhouette, the present table calls for an aesthetic evaluation that is above the customary – it is one associated with furnishing made for Imperial use. In its form it upholds all the qualities that are sacred to the furniture craftsman who has strictly adhered to traditional principles and methods. However, he is not merely copying antique pieces but has created a bold and original design with a superb effect. The opulence of the piece is achieved through the carved decoration that is not only of the highest skill in technique and execution but is rich in symbolism, beautiful to the eye and silk-like to the touch. Tables of this long rectangular form, called changzhuo, were made with the four legs crafted at the corners or set in. Changzhou was used in a number of ways, however, they were most common in bedrooms placed next to the large canopied bed providing a platform to lean on or as writing and painting surfaces in studios. They were also placed in private chambers where they were used for casual meals when no guests were present.
A woodblock print from the Ming novel Jin ping mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase) by Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng, illustrated in Craig Clunas, 'The novel Jin Ping Mei as a source for the study of Ming Furniture', Orientations, January, 1992, p. 61, fig. 4, depicts a man slumped over a table placed in front if his bed. Clunas notes that 'this type of arrangement is very commonly seen in representations of Ming bedroom chambers belonging to both sexes.' However, the feminine nature of the prunus blossom design suggest that the present table was possibly made for furnishing one of the East side palaces of the Forbidden City, where the court ladies resided.
Furthermore, the fineness and the skill of the carving suggest an early 18th century attribution, either to the reign of the Kangxi (r.1662-1722) or his son, the Yongzheng emperor (r.1723-1735). Unlike most of Qing furniture designs, the carving is not constrained in a rigidly patterned design, but is extremely realistic. Gnarled flowering prunus branches cling to the multi-leveled surface in a style much closer to cravings found on small intimate objects intended for the emperor's personal use or the scholar's table. Blossoming flowers are most auspicious, symbolising the imminent arrival of spring that represents a new beginning. Prunus blossom is also emblematic of perseverance and purity.
Tables were often made in two and four, allowing for a symmetrical placement within a large hall, a formal arrangement particularly fashionable during the Qing dynasty.
A table of the same form and size, carved in a closely related manner but with a different pattern is in the collection of the Institute of Chicago (fig.1), illustrated in Lark E. Mason Jr., 'Examples of Ming Furniture in American Collections Formed Prior to 1980', Orientations, January, 1992, fig. 9. The table was donated to the museum by Russell Tyson, a resident of Shanghai and heir to the Shanghai firm of Russell and Co., upon his death in 1964. Lark ibid., p. 78, notes that the Tyson table is of superb quality and unusual provenance. He mentions the table having a 'pair' which was once owned by Robert Ellsworth who traced it back to the Japanese dealers of Chinese art, Yamanaka and Co. in Osaka, where it had been sold sometime between 1911 and 1920. Both tables were reputedly purchased from palace eunuchs by Yamanaka with other imperial furnishings around 1911. The two tables remained together until Yamanaka's Kyoto and Osaka offices split up in the 1930s. One table went to Kyoto which was then sold to Mrs. Marshall Field and subsequently acquired by Tyson from her. The Tyson table is carved with the 'three friends' motif of bamboo, prunus and pine, and while it would not be unexpected to find a single table incorporating the prunus pattern, the existence of the Tyson table suggests that the two tables may have been a set.
The present table is also significant for its material, zitan wood, which is one of the most expensive and highly esteemed timber available to the master craftsmen working in the Muzuo (Wood Workshop) belonging to the Zaobanchu (Imperial Palace Workshop). With its jade-like silky texture, extremely fine and dense grain, subtle and deep lustre, zitan was the favoured timber of the Ming and Qing Courts. Its long growth period combined with its limited availability, growing mainly in the southern regions, such as Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, made it especially valuable. By the Qing dynasty, excessive felling of zitan led to the exhaustion of its supply in China and large quantities had to be imported from islands in the South Pacific. During Kangxi's reign demand for zitan was so great that even young trees were cut, resulting in the complete extinction of the species. By Qianlong's reign, special measures were taken by the Court to protect any existing stores of zitan which were kept in the warehouses of the Imperial Workshop. The Archives of the Imperial Workshop at Yangxin Hall (Yangxin dian zaoban chu ge zuocheng huoji qing dang) confirm that the use of zitan was scrupulously monitored and restricted to the Palace Workshops.
For examples of related zitan tables, see one carved with a lingzhi pattern illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 100; and another attributed to a slightly later date but of similar high quality carving and workmanship published in The Two-hundred Objects You Should Know: Pieces Red Sandalwood Furniture, Beijing, 2008, pl. 89.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale