Lot 3065
  • 3065


2,500,000 - 3,000,000 HKD
bidding is closed


naturalistically modeled as a standing deer with a porcelain body and removable organic antlers, the animal gracefully standing four square with its right foreleg lifted above ground, its head raised in an alert expression, with a gentle face, wide open turquoise eyes and flared nostrils, finely enamelled with a white-spotted fur of warm ochre-yellow colour, picked out with meticulously drawn hairs and further detailed with white down on the breast and on the spiralled spine, the exposed flesh inside ears, under the short tail and on the rear painted in pink and the hooves enamelled in black, on a fitted European wood stand set with gilt commemorative medallions pertaining to French Royalty, depicting the 18th century King Louis XVI and the Queen Marie-Antoinette, together with provenance labels related to the Baron Alphonse de Rothschild collection


Collection of Alphonse de Rothschild (1827-1905).


Due to the difficulty in making the porcelain deer and its dynamic form, potting and firing flaws as well as restoration to extremities are expected. The right ear and the tail of the deer have been restored with the original piece-off and retouched with overpaint. The nostrils have also been retouched, possibly restored. There are two fine firing cracks on the luting line along the spine and to the underside. There are also minor flakes, scratches and shrinkage to the enamel, some of which have been retouched or stabilised. The undersides of the head and body of the deer have some original irregularly-potted patches, probably where the deer was supported during firing. There are two old chips to the front hooves, measuring 1 and 2.5 cm; the latter one has been slightly polished down. The hooves have some enamel wear and have been retouched with overpaint. Both of the organic antlers have some tiny chips to the tips and have been restored (re-glued with original pieces).
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Porcelain Deer for the Qianlong Emperor: An Imperial Commission from Tang Ying
Regina Krahl1

The Qianlong Emperor is renowned for his eccentric commissions of Chinese porcelain, but is not well known to have ordered porcelain figures of animals and birds from the imperial workshops. None seem to be preserved in the Palace Museums in Beijing and Taipei from the Qing court collection; yet their production is duly recorded in the Zaobanchu Archives of the Qing Imperial Household Department.

According to these records Bai Shixiu, Supervisor of the Imperial Storerooms, announced in 1742 (second day of the fifth month in the seventh year of Qianlong) an imperial decree, transmitted by Eunuch Gao Yu, for Tang Ying to produce ceramic cranes and deer, the cranes facing each other, the deer directly facing forward.

It would take three years for a successful production of such figures to be recorded: in 1745 (tenth day of the fifth month in the tenth year of Qianlong) Bai Shixiu, Supervisor of the Imperial Storerooms, handed over to Eunuch Hu Shijie the stupendous quantity of 5,289 beakers, vases, jars, bowls, cups and dishes of the first quality, in addition to 76 yangcai sgraffito-decorated beakers, vases, bowls, cranes and deer of the first quality, all made by Tang Ying in Jiangxi.

Their production apparently stretched even the sheer limitless abilities of Tang Ying, as for once he was exceedingly proud of his success. In his work Taoren xinyu [Words from the Heart of a Potter] (Addendum, vol. 5) he states, that he was so pleased to have achieved the porcelain deer that he composed four poems to celebrate the occasion. It may well be a high failure rate that led the Emperor to declare upon receiving them that from then on no more cranes and deer were to be made.

The Yichun Garden, for which these porcelain deer were intended, forms part of the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing. In his eulogy of this achievement, Tang Ying celebrates the deer with the term toujiao, literally ‘heads with horns’, an expression that stands for ‘Outstanding Brilliance’:

          In the lofty Yichun Garden
          A bronze plaque is engraved with a name.
          An honourable guest has recorded in a poem:
          Tao Cheng has created Outstanding Brilliance.

          Tao Cheng has created Outstanding Brilliance.
          In the spring it travelled to Jade Island [was sent to the palace].
          Its embroidered robe following the jade palanquin.
          Its cry already an omen of the autumn breeze.

          Its cry already an omen of the autumn breeze.
          Soft antlers sprouting on green hills,
          New strange horned creatures among steep cliffs:
          Spotted dragons reared in the orchard of [mythical Emperor] Yao.

          Spotted dragons reared in the orchard of Yao,
          When they all are dancing in harmony
          Those who join them outside White Cloud Spring,
          Must themselves admire the shaping of the clay.

The production of porcelain deer was resumed in the last year of the Tongzhi period, according to a reference of 1874 (15th day of the fourth month in the 13th year of Tongzhi) stating that Eunuch Meng Zhongji handed over to Shen Baojing, Supervisor of Jiujiangguan, the region that included Jingdezhen, three drawings of cranes and three of deer and forwarded the imperial order to make 20 pairs of cranes according to the former drawings, and 20 pairs of deer following the latter, to clearly distinguish males and females, and both to be mounted on rocks. Drawings for these orders are preserved in the Palace Museum and are illustrated in Geng Baochang, Ming Qing ciqi jianding [Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain], Hong Kong, 1993, col. pls. 144 and 145 (fig. 1).

The master craftsmen, having studied the list of orders, concluded that they could do everything except for a few very large fish basins, the cranes and the deer. The supervisor insisted that they try, so they made several trial firings but the figures came out distorted. They were then ordered to produce the figures in pieces that could be assembled, but it proved impossible to hide the joints. Consequently, the craftsmen begged to be allowed to try once more in the following year’s production season. The court, however, abandoned the order and asked for the drawings back. So in 1876 (2nd year of Guangxu) the supervisor sent them back to the Embroidery Office of the imperial workshops. The Empress Dowager Cixi (1986-1908), who de facto dominated China’s politics since the reign of her son, the Tongzhi Emperor, once more ordered their production, again according to imperial drawings, but after several unsuccessful attempts, this project, too, was shelved.

Since the rare extant examples of Chinese porcelain figures all seem to be preserved in Western collections, they have previously been considered as pieces specifically made for the export market. Figurative models from China indeed proved so popular in the West that they were much copied by European porcelain factories, such as Meissen in Germany. They also seemed closely connected to the well-known soup tureens in the form of boar’s heads, carp, etc. that were ordered from China by wealthy European families, often bearing their coats of arms.

Porcelain figures of deer and cranes, however, were intended for imperial palaces, or perhaps even their gardens. Fragments of discarded porcelain figures of deer still unpainted, have been found at the Qing imperial kiln sites at Jingdezhen, see Wang Guangyao, ‘Cong Gugong cang Qingdai zhi ci guanyang kan Zhongguo gudai guanyang zhidu. Qingdai yuyaochang yanjiu zhi er’, Gugong Bowuyuan yuankan/Palace Museum Journal, no. 6, 2006, p. 19, fig. 15 (fig. 2); and a fragment of a porcelain deer (unpublished) has reputedly also been discovered at the site of the Yuanmingyuan summer palace in Beijing.

Due to the recurring difficulties in creating porcelain animals that are standing on four thin legs, deer were also modelled in seated or recumbent positions, or placed on a plinth and supported underneath with a porcelain rock. Only five comparable free-standing porcelain figures of deer appear to be preserved, all in Western collections. Two figures from the collection of Pamela Cunningham Copeland in the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass., are illustrated in William R. Sargent, The Copeland Collection. Chinese and Japanese Ceramic Figures, Salem, Mass., 1991, cat. nos. 72 and 104, the former from the collection of The Honourable Mrs. Basil Ionides, sold in our London rooms, 2nd July 1963, lot 56; the latter from the collection of HRH The Duke of Gloucester, sold at Christie’s London, 20th May 1954, lot 15; a third standing figure of a stag, similar to the Ionides example, was sold in our Monte Carlo rooms, 23rd June 1986, lot 1040; a much larger standing deer was sold at Christie’s London, 28th April 1999, lot 200; and a much smaller figure was sold in our London rooms, 6th May 1986, lot 154A. The present deer comes from the collection of Baron Alphonse de Rothschild (1827-1905).

1 This essay is based on research undertaken by Dr. Liang Lian, Paris.