John Sparks & Co Ltd.
The Duke of Kent.
Panels of this powerful colouration and bold painting are extremely rare although a closely related screen, acquired by Alan Priest in Beijing in 1919 and later in the collection of Robert Ellsworth, and included in the exhibition The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of the Ch'ing Dynasty 1644-1912, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1980, was sold in our New York rooms, 30th March 2006, lot 251.
The subject of bird-and-flower painting was much favoured by the literati from as early as the Song dynasty, when under the patronage of the Northern Song emperor Huizong (r. 1101-1125) the Imperial Academy was established where artists were encouraged to create and experiment with their painting style. Northern Song painter Cui Bo (active circa 1060-1085) is often credited for changing the direction of bird-and-flower paintings within the Academy, making them more animated and freer in style; for example see his work titled Magpies and Hare in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Wen Fong and James Watt, Possessing the Past, New York, 1996, pl. 71.
The subject matter of myriad birds including the sacred bird - phoenix - in a natural landscape setting filled with lush greens and flowers of all sorts allowed the artist to display his skills and also functioned as a metaphor for society. The colourful birds represented the higher echelons of society while the smaller birds the common people. The phoenix, usually featured prominently in the centre, symbolises the emperor or the empress and as such, all the other birds are depicted paying their homage to it. For an example of a twelve panel coromandel lacquer screen decorated with phoenixes see one illustrated in W. de Kesel and G. Dhont, Coromandel Lacquer Screens, Gent, 2002, pl. 40, attributed to the 18th century; and one from the collection of C.T. Loo, Paris, is published in Michel Beurdeley, Chinese Furniture, New York, 1979, pl. 184, attributed to the 17th century. Screens of this type were used as important furnishing of halls and palaces and would have been placed in a prominent position dividing the space or used as a background setting.
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