The current yangcai decorated yellow-ground bottle vase is representative of the advanced technical innovation in porcelain manufacture during the reign of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1735-96). Yangcai painted pieces were amongst the most prized types of porcelain in the Qing court, as well as being the type most treasured and admired by the emperor himself. Their special position in his collection is demonstrated by how he had them placed in his largest private quarters, the Qianqinggong (‘Palace of Heavenly Purity’), located in the Inner Court of the Forbidden City, with a few placed in the European-style palaces of the Yuanmingyuan, another of his personal favoured settings.1
In form and decoration this vase is amongst the most imaginative styles produced in the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, during the early years of his reign. Its execution and design is particularly successful, making it an unusual creation accomplished in the technique of sgraffiato with painted floral motif in the special yangcai palette. The method of sgraffiato, where a formal design is incised into a solid background colour, was a new style developed by the court artist Tang Ying (1682-1756) in the Palace Workshops in the Forbidden City. It was a technique first applied to painted falangcai porcelains fired during the Kangxi reign in the Palace Workshops, and subsequently introduced to the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, where the majority of such wares came to be designed and manufactured after the initial presentation to and approval from the emperor.
The vase is the only extant example, although we know from palace records that at the time of manufacture a pair was made and delivered to the court. The porcelain inventory of the Qing imperial court archives, dated to the eighth day of the second month of the sixteenth year of Qianlong’s reign (corresponding to 1751), registers the delivery of a pair of “yangcai ‘flowers on brocade’ yuhuchun vases (yangcai ‘jin shang hua’ yuhuchun ping)” (fig. 1).2 For porcelains produced for the court, this is the only mention of the delivery of pear-shaped vases, or yuhuchunping, decorated in the yangcai or ‘foreign enamels’. The present vase appears to be the only known example that fits the description of the Court inventory mentioned above, hence is most likely to be one of the pair that entered the Qing court collection in 1751.
The vase is a successful synthesis of classical Chinese taste and Western decorative technique and palette. Firstly, its shape, while slightly altered in its proportions from bottle vases characteristic of this period, is one of the most revered classical types known from as early as the Song dynasty (960-1279). Early Qianlong period wares are products of much experimentation, especially in their shape, and the present vase is no exception. In addition to using new decorative techniques and colour palette, it was also expected that in form there would be a variance from the norm. The broader foot and slightly more rounded body, with a marginally wider mouth rim than expected from wares of this form, are suggestive of the potter’s intension to create a bottle vase with a difference yet still keeping the classical model in mind. See Geng Baochang, Ming Qing ciqi jianding [Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain], Hong Kong, 1993, p. 259, pl. 442, for an outline drawing of the typical bottle vase recorded from the Qing court collection.3
Another classical reference may be found in the origins of the striking ‘flowers on brocade’ design. The idiom jin shang tian hua, which literally translates as ‘adding flower to brocade’ was first mentioned by the Song dynasty poet and calligrapher Huang Tingjian (1045-1105) in his poem titled An Ode to the Liaoliao Buddhist Monastery (Liaoliao an song).4 Huang was one of the most influential literati of his time, contemporary of Su Shi (1037-1101), and especially known for his work on preserving and reviving the works of the Tang poet, Du Fu. The Qianlong Emperor, himself a keen calligrapher, poet and artist, had great admiration for Huang, and thereby it is not a coincidence that the idiom ‘jin shang tian hua’ would have had a special meaning for him. In the poem Huang compares the beauty of the newly constructed monastery to a piece of silk brocade, and how his own presence, in the form of a flower, placed in this special building makes it even more attractive. This famous idiom has come to represent the meaning of ‘making what is good even better’ and carries the auspicious connotation of ‘being blessed with a double portion of good fortune’.
While in shape the vase reveals classical Chinese taste, its floral decoration and the palette used for enamelling are attributable to Western influences. The yangcai palette owes its existence to the aesthetic taste of the Qianlong Emperor, and to the achievement of Tang Ying.5 In fact, it was Tang Ying who prompted the use of the combination of ‘flowers on brocade’ sgraffiato with yangcai colours that especially suited each other, resulting in a most pleasing arrangement.6
As the meaning of the term yangcai or ‘Western colours’ suggests, its origins may be found in Western painting. The vase displays Western shading techniques, represented by light spots and the use of white pigment on leaves and flower petals. The use of yangcai helped create the illusion of light and shadow and brought a degree of three-dimensionality to the overall composition. The colours are also noticeably more delicate and lighter in shade than the more conventional palette used at the time. The arrangement and generous placing of the floral design is also Western in style. Furthermore, the use of light-yellow for the ground is most unusual for porcelain, and better known from Beijing enamelled wares first produced by Jesuit missionary artists working in the Qing court. According to Liu Liang-Yu, yellow was a primary colour tone of decoration on Qing painted enamel wares on metal.7 The employment of gold for the rim and border design, as seen on this vase, further suggests the influence of Beijing enamel on its aesthetics. For comparison, see the palette scheme and the brushwork employed on a Qianlong mark and period Beijing enamel covered jarlet in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Enamel Ware in the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties, Taipei, 1999, pl. 109.
This type of vases required formidable skill and execution, and it is not surprising that they are exceedingly rare. In its workmanship it is comparable, though superior, to some of the early pieces from the Qing court collection, such as the mallet-shaped yangcai vase painted with the pattern of flower brocade on a light yellow ground which shows a related design but with a more fanciful execution, included in the exhibition Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch’ien-lung Reign, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2008, cat. no. 28 (fig. 2). See also a blue-ground vase (guanyinping) painted with a flower scroll in the yangcai palette, illustrated ibid., pl. 41. A further comparable example, especially in the superb quality of its enamelling, is the double-gourd vase from the collections of Lord Loch of Drylaw, Alfred Morrison, John Morrison, Lord Margadale of Islay and J.T. Tai, sold in these rooms, 7th October 2010, lot 2126.
The reign mark on the present vase is a rare example, however, as with shapes, there was much experimentation with reign marks on porcelain in the first two decades of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign. In fact, amongst the yangcai and falangcai decorated porcelains in the collection of the National Palace Museum and the Palace Museum we can count at least sixteen different types of Qianlong reign marks employed. At times the four-character Qianlong reign mark in underglaze-blue, blue enamel or iron-red, in either seal or regular script was used; and at times the six-character seal script format in cobalt-blue or iron-red was employed. Some marks were written within a double frame, some in a single frame and others with no frame. Although rare, there are yangcai decorated wares that bear a six-character Qianlong reign mark written in gold seal script, and there are vessels that have a six-character seal script mark delicately incised, rather than painted, on the base. However, a similar mark to that seen on this vase may be found on a pair of revolving brushpots decorated in yangcai and dated to 1743, included in the National Palace Museum exhibition, op.cit., cat. no. 65 (fig. 3).
The yangcai vase is truly magnificent, in a fine state of preservation, and the quality of its enamelling compares favourably with the finest examples from the Imperial Collection still preserved in Taipei and Beijing. That it has been possible to find its original entry in the Qing imperial court archives makes it a truly magnificent legacy of the Qianlong reign.
1 Liao Pao Show, ‘On Yang-ts’ai Porcelains of the Ch’ien-lung Reign’, Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch’ien-lung Reign, Taipei, 2008, p. 35.
2 See Qing gong ciqi dang'an quanji [The complete collection of Qing dynasty imperial palace records for porcelain], vol. 3, Beijing, 2008, pp. 387-8.
3 Geng Baochang, Ming Qing ciqi jianding [Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain], Hong Kong, 1993, p. 259, pl. 442.
4 Liu Lin, Li Yongxian and Wang Ronggui, eds., Huang Tingjian quanji [The complete colleciton of Huang Tingjian], Chengdu, 2001, vol. 2, p. 595.
5 See Liao, op.cit., pp. 32-41.
6 Ibid., p. 40.
7 Liu Liang-Yu, Chinese Enamel Ware: Its History, Authentication and Conservation, Taipei, 1978, pp. 68-9.
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